That is how long it took a band of defiant Colonists to hack 340 canvas-covered wooden crates of English-owned tea into pieces and throw them into Boston Harbor. A few short months later, a fledgling nation would be embroiled in an all-out war against a superpower.
But to reconstruct a permanent, floating museum dedicated to the Boston Tea Party, one of America’s foundational moments that has shaped our national identity?
“Twelve years,” said Shawn P. Ford, executive director of the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum, sitting in the facility’s pristine sunlit tea room Sunday morning.
“It’s the crown jewel of the redevelopment of Fort Point Channel. Because of that, those trials and tribulations, this project is better today. We have the right team together.”
After two fires and a global financial collapse that nearly scuttled the entire enterprise, the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum will celebrate its reopening Monday night with a free concert by the Boston Landmarks Orchestra on a barge in the channel. The museum opens to the public Tuesday.
Last-minute preparations continued throughout the weekend, as actors in pantaloons, buckle-shoes, and bonnets polished their lines, alongside work crews that furiously hammered, welded, and painted into the afternoon.
The museum’s long, tumultuous reincarnation is fitting for an institution dedicated to the spirit of American tenacity and independence.
Ford said permitting and planning alone took six years, only to have Boston’s building code change twice before construction began. Financing took equally as long. To bankers, Ford said, the project was seen as too risky, an asset that could literally be swept under water by the tide.
Then, when financing was finally close at hand, world credit markets sank into a tailspin.
“The banks went boink,” he said, laughing.
The museum’s backers were losing $65,000 a month, when Ford said he made two final appeals. The political will was strong, and with the support and enthusiasm of Mayor Thomas M. Menino and James Rooney, head of the state’s Convention Center Authority, Ford worked with the administration of Governor Deval Patrick to secure a $28 million state loan. The money for the loan was collected by the state in fees paid by tourists for hotel rooms, rental cars, and other visitor services.
Painted a rusty red and perched on wooden pylons astride the channel slung along the Congress Street bridge, the low structure is conspicuously anachronistic amid the gleaming skyscrapers nearby.
At the center of the museum’s experience are two ships, the Eleanor and the Beaver, each nearly 90 feet long with masts that stretch 70 feet in the air. The pair replicate the boats boarded by Colonists.
Built in Gloucester by master shipwright Leon Poindexter, 63, the vessels are historically accurate, including their construction methods.
Just as shipbuilders of yore would trek into the virgin New England wilderness for lumber, Poindexter went into forests in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire and hand-selected much of the timber.
“I go into the woods, I pick the trees,” Poindexter said. “It’s what I call stump-to-ship operations.”
Evidence of the craftsmanship is everywhere: Deck planks are hammered into place with wooden pegs and waterproofed with cotton, hemp, and tar; soda-can-thick rope line was twisted by Poindexter and his cohorts; the masts were hand-selected and hewn.
Once aboard, visitors will be able to tour the ships, go below deck, and even toss some tea into the water.
Construction of a third ship, the Dartmouth, is scheduled to begin this summer.
In addition to the ships, the museum’s 50-minute tour features a display of a surviving wooden half-chest that was tossed into the harbor in 1773; a fictitious conversation between a Patriot and a Loyalist, and an award-winning film that depicts the start of the Revolution.
Most stunning perhaps were the demure portraits of King George III and Samuel Adams, hung side by side, that suddenly come to life as if reanimated.
The viewer becomes abruptly aware that the “portraits” are actors on video.
For a few minutes, the two engage in a rousing debate, shaking their fists and rolling their eyes at one another before they return to their original poses as paintings.
Although the two men never met in real life, their dialogue was lifted from archived letters, lending each an authentic voice.
And in a nod to the preferences of the Colonial times, visitors may swill a cup of tea made with period-appropriate blends.
The offering is a vast improvement on the tea the Colonists drank in their day, said Bruce Richardson, the museum’s tea master, who lamented 18th-century shipping delays that led to stale merchandise.
“The tea thrown overboard was four years old,” Richardson said. “It deserved to be tossed.”
The Colonists would probably agree.