Alliance Archives

About AllianceViews

This blog is a place for dialogue on issues and actions relating to Boston's unique built environment and the preservation and continuing evolution of historic resources within it. My goal, as the Executive Director of the Boston Preservation Alliance, is to post timely, relevant and thought-provoking intelligence, ideas, and insights that will engage conversations, inform our actions, and broaden perspectives on preservation.

We want to hear from you — so start a conversation, share a thought or comment, and let us know what you think.

Greg Galer, Executive Director, Boston Preservation Alliance

GREG GALER
Executive Director

AllianceViews Blog

2017 Preservation Achievement Award Winner: Paul Revere House

In anticipation of our 29th annual Preservation Achievement Awards ceremony on September 19, we are profiling each of this year's winning projects. Follow this series to get a special look at projects that honor and update the character of Boston.

August 9th, 2017  |  Posted by: Boston Preservation Alliance

5 and 6 Lathrop Place

So much has happened here

Unique in its ability to give visitors a glimpse into 17th and 18th  century life—and a hero’s life at that! —the Paul Revere House (1680) is the oldest building in downtown Boston and, as the only house on the Freedom Trail, a main attraction for visitors. Paul Revere bought the house in 1770. He and his family lived there off and on from 1770-1800, when Revere sold it.  Shortly after the Revere family moved, the house served as a sailor’s boarding house; in the second half of the 19th century the downstairs was also variously converted into a candy store, Italian bank, cigar factory, and vegetable and fruit business. Eventually, beginning with Paul Revere’s grandson purchasing the building in 1902, the house was turned into a historic house museum, saving it from demolition. Soon the house was not suited to accommodate all those who wanted to visit, which has been a challenge for many decades…until now!

In order to install necessary accommodations, ensure accessibility, and capitalize on its educational potential, the stewards of the site, the Paul Revere Memorial Association, purchased two adjacent row houses built in the 183os. The row houses at 5 and 6 Lathrop Place were originally built on land that was once owned by Paul Revere himself but over the years had deteriorated at the rear of the Paul Revere House complex. In addition to providing room to grow, these two structures stand as rare survivors of their era, serving as a model of the row house architectural style and as a representation of its use as a boarding house and then two-family home.

Restoration + Excavation

Restored twin 1835 fireplaces

The project wasn’t just about expansion, however. Over the years, the row houses had been incrementally renovated and enlarged, making the project not only a restoration but also somewhat of an archaeological excavation. The team meticulously discovered and retained significant characteristics of the home and adjacent courtyard area during the process of rehabilitation. In addition, the team sought to represent the choices that the different owners made to improve their half of the two-family home. On the exterior, designers highlighted the 19th century windows, exterior masonry walls showing evidence of the building’s evolution from a two-story to three-story structure, decorative roofline trim, and two generations of clapboards. On the interior, the floor plan and spatial relationships, twin 1835 fireplaces, and color palette were the inspiration of the respectful design. In addition, balusters, paneling, posts and railings (which were removed during a previous renovation and stored in the home), patiently awaited reinstallation. Each of these thoughtful decisions represents different periods and facets of the building’s history and use.

One of the primary considerations of the project was the dynamic relationship among the Paul Revere House, the renovated building, the private way, and the conjoining courtyard. The almost 175-year-old connection among the structures influences the character of the 19th century streetscape legacy as well as the views from the perspective of the central Paul Revere House. The project included an extensive renovation of the courtyard located between the Paul Revere House and the new education and visitor center placed within the row houses. The team was able to simultaneously and seamlessly redesign the courtyard as an open gathering space and create accessible entrances to the Revere House. The new space even exhibits part of a cobble path uncovered by archaeologists during construction.

After: Renovated Courtyard

 

Project Details: 19 North Square, North End
Owner/Developer: Paul Revere Memorial Association
Architect: Mills Whitaker Architects
Project Team: Acentech Incorporated; Andre Frosch and Sons Painting; Atlantic Hardwoods; Available Light Inc.; Beacon Hill Lock & Key; C.D. Plastering; Critchfield and Company; Ebacher Plumbing & Heating, Inc.; Elcon, LLC; Feldman Land Surveyors; Forte Engineering; Garaventa USA, Inc.; Gilbert and Becker; H.W. Moore Associates Inc.; Home Co Remodeling LLC; Independent HVAC; Instant Signal and Alarm Company, Inc.; Internet & Telephone LLC; Johnson Engineering & Design, Inc.; Koetteritz Land Design Inc.; Mystic Scenic Studios; Pelch Marble and Tile; PJ O’Connell Mechanical; Richard Irosn Restoration Mason; RSI Metal Fabrication, LLC; Stone Surface; Structures North Consulting Engineers Inc.

Written and researched by Jessica Saunders.

2017 Preservation Achievement Award Winner: Four51 Marlborough

In anticipation of our 29th annual Preservation Achievement Awards ceremony on September 19, we are profiling each of the 2017 winning projects over the next several weeks. Follow this series to get a special look at projects that honor and update the character of Boston.

August 3rd, 2017  |  Posted by: Boston Preservation Alliance

 

Design Solutions

Infills can be tricky. Even more so in a historic district like Back Bay. Yet when faced with a choice to align with the eclectic seven-story Charlesgate building on one side or classic three-story brownstones on the other, the project team behind Four51 Marlborough playfully opted for neither. Instead they crafted a design that nodded to both sizes, deftly mediating the difference in heights and styles between its neighbors on either side.

This is not a simple building designed for quick construction or which let cost drive out subtlety and craft. The way in which the design team straddled these site challenges is especially noteworthy given the project’s location. This particular stretch of Marlborough is lined with four-story brownstones, brick sidewalks, wrought iron fences, and classic bay windows, all of which assert the history and iconic charm people associate with Boston. It is this diversity of texture that makes historic neighborhoods so enticing. While desirable, such an iconic streetscape also presents challenges for infill construction when the standard is, as it should be, not simply to mimic the past, but also not to ignore the context with a modern building that shouts, “Look at me! I’m new, bold, and my neighbors be damned!”

1967 educational building

Four Original Townhouses

 

 

 

 

 

 

Threading the Needle 

In 1967, four townhouses were demolished in this spot and replaced with a one-story school building that did not jibe with the historical charm of Marlborough’s collection of brownstones. In fact it took away from the historic block, adding a disruptive, nondescript brick mass. Reintroducing a contextual, yet thoroughly contemporary residential space into the tightly woven fabric of this neighborhood meant that builders would need to pivot between the two heights and also mediate its façade. Focused on detail, depth, and shadow to give the project a richness and dimension that could stand up to the 19th century context, Four51 incorporates dimensional granite details, custom metal, precast limestone, and black steel windows into the new construction. The gracious main entry is framed in cast stone and granite, and the street façade even displays Flemish-coursed roman brick patterns.

Reinforcing the character of the neighborhood 

The project team honors the building’s architectural context by focusing on quality and durability, and their thoughtful efforts permeate through the exterior into the building’s common spaces and residences. The wood paneled main entrance is enriched by both modern, clean lines and a mosaic mural inspired by the historic use of Amsterdam’s delft tile in the Back Bay. Each of the residences is outfitted in a rich palette of materials with custom millwork and marble accents. The interiors boast the same intricate balance of respectful reflection and contemporary detailing, extending the balanced design of Four51 throughout the project. “Four51 Marlborough shows that careful consideration of context and significant detailing can be respectful and appropriately referential to historic design while creating a thoroughly modern building,“ said Greg Galer, Executive Director of the Boston Preservation Alliance. “The building is fascinating to examine in the richness of its façade and how it plays off its surroundings.”

Project Details: 451 Marlborough Street, Back Bay
Owner/Developer: The Holland Companies
Architect: Hacin + Associates
Project Team: Allied Consulting Engineering Services, DeCelle-Burke and Associates, Solutions in Metal, Souza True & Partners, Tangram 3DS, Trent Bell Photography
Trickett Woodworks Co., William Bray Cabinetmaker

2017 Preservation Achievement Award Winner: Boston Public Library Philosophy Mural

In anticipation of our 29th annual Preservation Achievement Awards ceremony on September 19, we are profiling each of the 2017 winning projects over the next several weeks. Follow this series to get a special look at projects that honor and update the character of Boston.

July 27th, 2017  |  Posted by: Boston Preservation Alliance

The sense of grandeur the path of procession into the McKim building of the Boston Public Library’s Central Library conjures is the result of careful design upon its creation and at every step of its recent (emergency) restoration. Architect Charles Follen McKim believed that in order for citizens to become educated, they had to be inspired by both their studies and their surroundings. For this reason, he commissioned the great nineteenth century muralist, French painter Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824-1898), to adorn the grand staircase with eight murals emblematic of intellectual disciplines. His depictions of pastoral (Virgil), dramatic (Æschylus and the Oceanides), and epic poetry (Homer), history, astronomy, philosophy, chemistry, and physics represent the quests for knowledge that this space is meant to inspire. The murals became so integral to the space and were united with the architecture to such an extent that in an 1896 letter to John Singer Sargent about the entrance, McKim wrote, “The public have hailed it by common acclaim. He has made it his staircase rather than that of McKim, Meade & White and I am sure that it cannot fail to deeply impress you.”

 

Although the mural cycle appears to be painted directly on the walls, the series was actually created using oils on linen canvases in France and installed using the marouflage technique. Nearing the end of his life, Chavannes was reluctant to make the trip to Boston when the work was commissioned. Instead, models, dimensions of the space, and samples of the staircase’s yellow Sienna marble were sent to the artist so that he could consider the aesthetics and proportions of the far away site. The cycle remains the artist’s only work preserved outside of his home country. Although these fresco-like murals were constructed in an untraditional way, they were certainly never meant to be separated from their walls once they were installed.

In late 2014, it was determined that one of the murals had slowly been amassing water damage over the last decade from the elevator shaft behind it. The Philosophy Mural, one of the most acclaimed items in the collection, is a representation of conversation and debate within a setting that is reminiscent of the Ancient Greek Lyceum. About eighty percent of the mural had detached from its plaster backing, leaving the entire panel at risk of collapse. Boston Public Library’s team sprang into action and enlisted the help of the head of conservation at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Gianfranco Pocobene, who in turn enlisted his seasoned mentor, Ian Hodkinson. This conservation emergency was even more intimidating because the construction, scale, and fragility of the mural was unprecedented. In order for the restoration to begin, the mural had to be taken completely off of the plaster wall that it had been adhered to for over 120 years. The conservators built scale models to test their plans before attempting to apply the procedure to the actual mural. This process required extremely innovative thinking from the team. Even with their care and precision, there were unknown variables hidden behind the mural itself. The team had no way of knowing the condition of the brick and ironwork which lay beyond the damaged plaster. Fortunately, the brick and iron—which were exposed for the first time since the construction in 1896—were intact, and so the team began to gradually free the mural’s panel from its niche.

Pre restoration

Color indicates water damage

Post restoration

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The team successfully removed, restored, and reinstalled the mural with a new honeycomb backing to protect it, saving it from disintegration and returning it to its rightful place among the series. Even under the pressure of this emergency conservation predicament, the team’s work was poised, thoughtful, and exhibited groundbreaking technique. With the major renovation of the Johnson in full swing, this project was still afforded the immediate attention it deserved. That balance demonstrates the sincerity of the library’s devotion to its responsibility for protecting and sharing the treasures it possesses.

 

 

Project Details: 700 Boylston Street, Copley Square
Owner/Developer: Boston Public Library
Project Team: D. Fisher Construction LLC,  Fields of Vision, Gianfranco Pocobene Studio, Heritage Planning & Design, Ivan Myjer Building & Monument Conservation, Marr Scaffolding Company

Written and researched by Jessica Saunders.

2017 Preservation Achievement Award Winner: Terminal Storage Building

In anticipation of our 29th annual Preservation Achievement Awards ceremony on September 19, we are profiling each of the 2017 winning projects over the next several weeks. Follow this series to get a special look at projects that honor and update the character of Boston.

July 12th, 2017  |  Posted by: Boston Preservation Alliance

Built in 1912, the Terminal Storage Building is both one of the oldest and one of the few remaining structures from this industrial moment in Boston’s history. It represents the era during which railroads and ships served the city as predominantly as cars and the T do today. Situated amid the Mystic River, Boston Harbor, and the Boston & Lowell railyard, this building and a few like it attracted other industries to create a hub of productivity around them. Originally constructed as a wool warehouse, it soon became a distribution point for Boston during the era of railroad and ship transport.

Boston Public Library, Aero Scenic Airviews, 1929

By the 1940s, the area had begun to evolve, and a carnival toy manufacturer called Nancy Sales Company occupied the building. When Nancy Sales moved its production elsewhere in the early 1980s, the building begun an era of idleness that would last over thirty years. What was once a bustling, invigorating center of industry slowly diminished into a symbol of deterioration.

It took nineteen years, six lawsuits, and the tremendously admirable determination of the owner to assemble the permitting required to revive the building. The building itself had decayed to such an extent that a tremendous amount of preparatory work had to be done so that construction could ensue safely. Despite these setbacks, the work began and, in the end, 112 apartments and two commercial spaces emerged from the abandoned structure. The team was even able to recycle thousands of feet of original Heart Pine decking for flooring and paneling as a nod to the building’s past. As life was brought back into the Terminal Storage Building, it also infiltrated the surrounding area of Charlestown and once again sparked a trend of advancement in the neighborhood.

BEFORE: Terminal Building at 270 Medford Street

AFTER: Terminal Building at 270 Medford Street

As an additional outcome of this lengthy process, the area was designated as the Terminal Storage Warehouse Historic District and granted historical status by the National Park Service. As Longleaf Lumber, the team that expertly re-used the original decking, stated, “preserved as a testament to Charlestown’s historic working-class waterfront, the building’s imposing industrial character ties Boston’s techier generation of residents to the area’s tradition of heavy-duty American industry and culture.” Because of his exemplary dedication, the owner has represented that moment in Boston’s narrative within a modernized environment. Although the path to such a success was neither clear nor simple, the result exemplifies the value of persistence in the balancing act of restoration and evolution.

Project Details: 271 Medford Street, Charlestown
Owner/Developer: Suffolk Companies
Architect: bargmann hendrie + archetype
Project Team: Matrix Enterprises; People’s United Bank; Stateside Construction; Suffolk Companies; Tremont Preservation Services

Written and researched by Jessica Saunders.

A Russian, A Tower, and the 4th of July

July 4th, 2017  |  Posted by: Boston Preservation Alliance

Only in Boston

In every city, there is a sentiment that binds the bones of its history with the growth of its people and the development of its landscape. In Boston, it is our physical fabric—brimming with reminders of patriotic rebellion—that heightens the enduring pride we feel toward our city and our country on Independence Day. These buildings remind us of the delicate interplay between Boston’s history and continued growth.

Tonight, Boston’s skyline will stand tall in the background of the spectacular illumination, enveloped by the intrigue of Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture.” As we celebrate two hundred forty-one years since the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, we thought it fitting to take a look at the built environment that shapes this awe-inspiring show…

John Hancock Tower

When Boston Pops started the 1812 Overture tradition in 1974, the supreme John Hancock Tower was in the process of being built.

John Hancock Tower and Prudential Center (1976)

 

Citgo Sign

Mid-century pop art was already on the scene. The 1965 Citgo sign (originally a Cities Service sign, 1940-1965) welcomed visitors for miles.

Massachusetts State House

Charles Bulfinch, renowned architect and designer of the State House, watched the Battle of Bunker Hill from his boyhood home on Bowdoin Street. Today, the State House, Old North Church, and Custom Tower still catch the eye, ground the skyline, and contextualize the city’s history.

A patriot spy group devises a plan

Here, on April 18, 1775, two lanterns signaled how the British would reach Lexington and Concord, igniting the American Revolution.

 

Custom House Tower

Now a Boston Landmark, the 16-story tower would become Boston’s first skyscraper. Look for it at tonight’s firework display.

 

Photo credits: Ed Jenner (Hancock Tower); Steve Dunwell (Old North Church); Susan Cole Kelly (fireworks night)

 

 

2017 Preservation Achievement Award Winner: 101 Beacon Street

In anticipation of our 29th annual Preservation Achievement Awards ceremony on September 19, we are profiling each of the 2017 winning projects over the next several weeks. Follow this series to get a special look at projects that honor and update the character of Boston.

June 28th, 2017  |  Posted by: Boston Preservation Alliance

Until recently, when drivers exited Storrow Drive and approached the corner of Beacon and Arlington Streets, they were met by 101 Beacon Street’s 1959 remodeled façade, an entry point that failed to preview the grandeur of the Back Bay neighborhood. The new restoration represents a return to the elegance of the original 1862 home and a reversal of the insensitive previous renovation. Now 101 Beacon Street once again contributes to the character of the neighborhood and greets visitors with a welcome worthy of the Back Bay Architectural District.

Not long after the marshy Back Bay area had been filled and developed, 101 Beacon Street became an heirloom for a few fortunate families. The first residents of 101 Beacon Street were Rev. William and Elizabeth Mountford, who lived in the building for the first seventeen years of its life before they sold it to Percival Lowell Everett- a trade merchant, founder of the Third National Bank of Boston, widower, and father to three daughters. When his daughters were grown, Everett sold the home to Mary Edmondson Thorndike whose husband and son were an extremely successful attorney and doctor, respectively. Once Mary’s son married, he and his wife lived in 101 Beacon Street until 1898, when it was passed between a few owners before settling in the hands of Dr. Howard Augustus Lothrop. The home became the residence and offices of Dr. Lathrop, who would become a professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School and the surgeon-in-chief at Boston City Hospital. After Lathrop’s death, his son Oliver and his family kept possession of the home for another thirty years. In all, a lawyer, a banker, three young sisters, a grocery merchant, a clergyman, a widow, a tailor, a surgeon, and a pair of newlyweds are bound in history by their lives lived at 101 Beacon Street. The house then entered a new phase of its life and become home to a modern era of Bostonians.

In 1958, Benjamin Booker purchased the building from younger generations of the Lothrop family. Under his direction the following year, an extensive remodel converted the home into apartments, lowered the front entrance below street level, removed the elegant front staircase, painted the brownstone white, flattened the Mansard roof, and added a starkly incongruous floor to the top of the building. Its original elegance muffled, its details covered, the building was no longer in harmony with the historic character of the Back Bay.

AFTER-Entrance

BEFORE-Entrance

The project team tackled the challenges of reversing the damage of the previous renovation, honoring the original architecture where possible, and satisfying the expectations of modern luxury apartments. In many cases, the original craftsmanship was hidden beneath the 1959 additions, itching to be restored. The flat plaster of a new ceiling concealed elaborate ornamentation and moldings of the original ceilings. Like an archeological dig, the project team carefully uncovered the building’s history layer by layer, thoughtfully reassessing their plans whenever they found structural or ornamental elements beneath the layers.

The team was able to restore the ceiling details that remained and use molds to recreate the areas that had deteriorated. They also created a porch resonant of the original entrance using the original framing. Hidden by stark white paint, the framing also revealed the original brownstone of the façade, which the team used to expertly recreate the color. Despite the shift from a single family home to apartments, the elegant flow of the rounded entryway and staircase today mirror the procession of the original home. These resurrections restore the original grace of the building, but they do not attempt to reconstruct lost features. The sub-street level entrance remains below the liberated terrace and the top floor, with its new Mansard roof, echoes the earlier attic rather than the incompatible rectangle that occupied the space during the time between them.

The original ceiling ornamentation and molding was unveiled in the 2017 remodel.

There are examples throughout the city of insensitive renovations, speedy upgrades, and unfortunate demolitions. Too often, owners are not able to see the diamond in the rough resulting in partial or even complete loss of historic fabric. Thankfully, the devoted project team at 101 Beacon Street not only knew the treasure in their care, but they took the time to carefully polish this gem and restore its proud face as it welcomes us all to the iconic Back Bay.

101 Beacon, 1867

101 Beacon, 1959-2013

101 Beacon, 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Project Details: 101 Beacon Street, Back Bay
Owner/Developer: One-O-One Beacon LLC. Andrew Constantine
Architect: The Office of Michael J. Scanlon; Choo & Company
Project Team: Zade Associates LLC; The Law Offices of Jeffrey R. Drago; The Law Offices of Russo & Scolnick; Katz, Rudnick & Sullivan PC; Brookline Bank; William Young, former director of Boston Landmarks Commission; Boston Ornament Company, Inc.; Mott Iron Works

1867 photo courtesy of Boston Athenaeum. 2013 and 2017 exterior and historic information of past residents courtesy of BackBayHouses.org. Written and researched by Jessica Saunders.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Boston’s Belmont Square: A “Country in the City” Ideal

As we conclude Historic Preservation Month and anticipate summer, it seemed fitting to hear from you about something we all appreciate this time of year: Boston's green space. Thank you, Dan Bailey, for this guest post!

May 30th, 2017  |  Posted by: Boston Preservation Alliance

First Stop: London 

Brophy Park is a three-quarter-acre rectangle of green space at the top of a hill in the Jeffries Point section of East Boston. I’ve lived near it for the past five years, and for most of that time I assumed the space was just a small, neighborhood park. It wasn’t until I started looking into my neighborhood’s history that I discovered that Brophy Park isn’t really a park at all. It’s something much older, a sort of proto-park called a garden square. When Brophy Park was originally laid out over 180 years ago, it was called Belmont Square, and it was created not as a public park, but as a private amenity for homeowners in the surrounding area, a secluded green space where residents could sit or take a leisurely stroll. At the same time, the square’s landscaping was meant to provide scenic views from the surrounding houses.

Brophy Park, East Boston.

Garden squares originated in 17th and 18th century London, where they provided a way to replicate the ambience of an English country estate in an increasingly dense, urban environment (a concept known by the Latin phrase rus in urbe, or ‘country in the city’). London garden squares from this period share the same basic features—row houses surrounding a fenced, central garden made up of a lawn and shade trees. The gardens were usually privately owned and were only accessible to the residents of the surrounding houses, making them secluded oases in an otherwise gritty, industrializing city. London real estate developers created garden squares as a strategy to attract wealthy residents to fashionable, new residential districts.

The residential development at Franklin Place, shown here in 1856, included Boston’s first garden square. Courtesy of Boston Public Library.

Boston architect Charles Bulfinch imported the idea to Boston in his design for Franklin Place, a residential development completed in 1798 with a small fenced garden at its center. Franklin Place was demolished just 60 years after it was built to make way for encroaching commercial development, but like so much of Bulfinch’s work, it had an outsize impact on later development in Boston—it was not only the city’s first garden square, but also included Boston’s first row houses.

Louisburg Square, located near the Massachusetts State House on Beacon Hill, was Boston’s second garden square. It was designed in 1822 and houses were built on the surrounding lots between 1834 and 1844. Like Franklin Place and the London squares that inspired it, Louisburg Square was designed as a private residential retreat. Today it remains a Boston landmark, a picturesque tourist destination, and one of the city’s most exclusive addresses, home to some of Boston’s wealthiest and most prominent residents, including former Secretary of State John Kerry.

East Boston: A Planned Neighborhood 

Unlike most of Boston’s earlier neighborhoods, which grew organically over time, East Boston was planned. Boston’s third garden square, Belmont Square, was central to East Boston’s original design. A group of investors acquired Noddle’s Island in Boston Harbor in 1833 and formed a real estate venture called the East Boston Company to develop the island into a new neighborhood. Almost immediately after it was founded, the East Boston Company set to work selling lots for development on the island. As William Sumner, the founder and first president of the East Boston Company, put it, “A primary object to be attained in this sale was to secure purchasers whose position in community would give character to the enterprise, and who would erect such buildings as would induce others to settle at East Boston.” In other words, the company wanted to attract wealthy people into the new neighborhood. To this end, the first lots that were sold in East Boston were located in what the East Boston Company considered to be the island’s most desirable area, a hill known as Belmont at the southeastern tip of the island overlooking the harbor and downtown Boston beyond. Although the area’s panoramic harbor views were the main attraction, the East Boston Company also set aside an acre of land at the top of the hill for Belmont Square as a further incentive to attract wealthy buyers. They hired S.P. Fuller, the same surveyor who had designed Louisburg Square a decade earlier, to lay out the new garden square.

Belmont Square, shown here on the original 1833 plan for East Boston, is part of the neighborhood’s original street design. Courtesy of the Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library.

The East Boston Company had a lot riding on Belmont Square. It was the first area of East Boston that was opened to residential development, and its success or failure would set the tone for development across the rest of the neighborhood. When the lots surrounding Belmont Square went up for auction in the spring of 1833, nearly all of them sold, and many of the buyers were wealthy merchants and other members of Boston high society, just as the East Boston Company had hoped. But the new owners were reluctant to invest in building houses, since, at the time, East Boston was a brand new, almost completely uninhabited neighborhood. Despite encouragement from the East Boston Company to build, most of the Belmont owners instead decided to leave their lots vacant while they waited for the value of their land to appreciate.

Beginning in the 1840s, demand for housing in East Boston skyrocketed thanks to the neighborhood’s flourishing shipbuilding industry, and the Belmont owners began to build. They followed the precedent set by Franklin Place and Louisburg Square, building brick row houses along the perimeter of Belmont Square. In 1847, Benjamin Lamson, a wealthy cabinetmaker and early investor in the East Boston Company, built a row of nine bow-front row houses along Webster Street at the southwest edge of Belmont Square. Lamson spared no expense in building these Greek Revival style houses, adding carved brownstone trim to the facades, setting the row back 20 feet from the street to allow for large, front gardens surrounded by ornate cast iron and granite post fences, and laying out a rear service alley to provide access to stables behind each house, all features that were omitted from the more commonplace bow-fronts around Louisburg Square.

‘Still Awaiting Its Garden’ 

Despite this elegant new housing, the center of Belmont Square remained a vacant parcel of land. As landscape designer Phebe Goodman, whose research I’m drawing on heavily here, put it, “Belmont was a garden square still awaiting its garden.” In the case of Louisburg Square, the original owners of the surrounding houses immediately paid to furnish and landscape the garden at the center of the square, and to this day, the garden is privately funded and managed by the square’s residents. Belmont Square, on the other hand, never quite reached the same level of affluence as Louisburg Square. Most of the square’s early residents were middle class professionals who simply couldn’t afford to landscape their square. Landscaping the square apparently wasn’t a priority for the East Boston Company either—they instead relied on the square’s harbor views to attract residents to the area.

In 1853, the East Boston Company transferred ownership of Belmont Square to the city, and the Board of Aldermen agreed that Belmont was “to be laid out and accepted as a public square.” At the time, the city had just finished building several garden squares in Boston’s South End. Although the South End squares were developed with public funds, they had the same characteristic features of earlier private garden squares—grass, trees, and an iron fence. And like earlier squares, they were designed to attract wealthy residents to a new neighborhood. By opening the South End to development, the city hoped to entice wealthy Bostonians to stay in the city rather than move to the suburbs.

In the 1990s, when the city wanted to install a chain-link replacement fence around the square, residents lobbied for a replica of the turn-of-the-century iron fence, and ultimately got it.

Unlike the South End, the Belmont area was an established neighborhood in the 1850s, but the city took a similar approach to laying out the Belmont garden, planting a lawn and trees, and installing an ornate iron fence. (The fence, in particular, must have been especially impressive—the city spent $6,000 on it, which is something on the order of $150,000 in today’s dollars.)

The Fence Turns Into a Flashpoint  

The transfer of Belmont Square to city ownership marked the beginning of a gradual transition from a private garden square to a public park. Many of the square’s longtime residents, who no doubt remembered the square’s origins as a private amenity, seem to have actively opposed the city’s efforts to make the square more park-like.

The square’s fence, its defining feature and a symbol of its privacy and exclusivity, quickly became a flashpoint. In 1889, some of the square’s residents petitioned the city council to lock the gates to the square at 9 o’clock each night. The city council refused, with one councilor arguing that “the poor people should have an opportunity of going into the public parks and staying as long as they wish to after their hard day’s work,” while another councilor dismissed the square’s residents as “goody-goody people […] who object to the noise made by the children and by the boys and girls in the park.” And besides, he concluded, “the lovers should be indulged until 10 p.m.”

The city resolved the gate locking issue once and for all in 1891 by removing the square’s fence altogether. The city conceded that “some old residents” wanted to preserve the fence, but these objections were apparently overruled, and the fence, which the city described as a “clumsy […] relic of a past age,” came down. By removing the fence, arguably the defining feature of a garden square, the city seemed to have forgotten Belmont Square’s original identity.

Even as Belmont Square became more of a park than a square, the surrounding area remained one of East Boston’s most desirable places to live. P.J. Kennedy, President Kennedy’s grandfather, marked his business success and rising social position at the end of the 19th century by moving his family from a busy, commercial section of East Boston to a larger house just down the street from Belmont Square.

Photograph of Belmont Square ca. 1905-1915. Courtesy of Historic New England.

Residents Lobby to Save the Square 

In 1936, the square was renamed Brophy Memorial Park after local politician Michael Brophy, cementing its transition from a garden square to a public park. However by the later half of the twentieth century, the replacement iron fence was corroded and crumbling, the lawn was patchy, and all but three of the 56 original elm trees had been lost, likely casualties of Dutch Elm Disease. Rather than paying to refurbish the square, the city proposed paving the garden and turning it into a parking lot. Neighborhood residents organized to save the square, eventually convincing the city to partially repair the fence and restore the lawn. In the 1990s, when the city wanted to install a chain-link replacement fence around the square, residents lobbied for a replica of the turn-of-the-century iron fence, and ultimately got it.

Today, Brophy Park retains its essential nineteenth century character—the reproduction decorative iron fence, the original X-shaped path configuration, and the grassy lawn. Most of the square’s nineteenth century buildings are still standing as well. Only the formal arrangement of elm trees has been lost—a variety of tree species now dot the square at irregular intervals. Although the square’s uses and identity have shifted over its long history, it’s still the focal point of the surrounding neighborhood, and it continues to embody the “country in the city” ideal for those who live in the area. The square deserves to be recognized as a relatively rare American example of a privately developed, 19th century garden square, in the tradition of Gramercy Park in New York City and Louisburg Square in Beacon Hill.

To learn more about Boston’s garden squares, check out Phebe Goodman’s book, The Garden Squares of Boston.

Dan Bailey lives in Jeffries Point with his wife and cat. He blogs about neighborhood history and the trials and tribulations of living in a home built during the Polk Administration at Terrace Place.

 

The Historic Ladder Blocks District: Boston’s Endangered Hub

April 20th, 2017  |  Posted by: Boston Preservation Alliance

Just last week, The Boston Globe published an article extoling the transformation of Downtown Crossing into Boston’s “hottest destination.” Bustling with activity as residents, visitors, shoppers, and workers parade down pedestrian-filled streets, Downtown Crossing is, no doubt, a vibrant part of town.  Yet its rich and diverse architectural character is vulnerable. The physical uniqueness of this area as a richly textured place of historic retail, commerce, and small shops is threatened by overexuberance for its newly rediscovered desirability.

Washington Street

Washington Street

In 2016 the Historic Ladder Blocks District was added to Preservation Massachusetts’ Most Endangered Historic Resources Program after the Alliance nominated this neighborhood. The Most Endangered Historic Resource (MER) listing designates resources as worthy of recognition due to their historic or architectural significance. While the list is not legally binding, it focuses statewide attention on the condition of these historic resources and their importance to communities. Economic success and increasing real estate values are wonderful, but they must be managed to not lose the very character-defining features that make them attractive. The Alliance saw several proposals for new construction in The Ladder Blocks with no holistic planning for the neighborhood in sight. We’ve raised a warning flag. Now let’s look at The Ladder Blocks and see why it’s a neighborhood we need to evolve with care.

Mapping the Ladder Blocks

Located at the intersection of Downtown Crossing and Theatre District neighborhoods, The Ladder Blocks consist of a series of blocks resembling a ladder when viewed on a map, giving the district its name.

Ladder Blocks in 1772 outlined in map along with the land infills and streets of 1880.

Ladder Blocks in 1772 outlined in map along with the land infills and streets of 1880.

Tremont and Washington Streets appear as the rails of the ladder with cross streets traversing from School Street to Boylston Street as the rungs. Many Bostonians walk through the Ladder Blocks without even knowing it. The area is easily accessible—public transportation pulses through all four corners (the Boylston, Chinatown, Park Street, and Downtown Crossing MBTA stops are all there)—resulting in heavy foot traffic that heightens its appeal as a commercial hub and historic district.

Architectural Significance

The Ladder Blocks is home to a number of architecturally beautiful and significant buildings, but its greatest strength comes from the diversity of all these structures combined. By having streets filled with historic buildings from a range of eras, The Ladder Blocks District is inviting to residents and visitors in a way that cannot be recreated and can easily be lost to large scale new construction.

The transition from what was a residential neighborhood until about 1872 to a commercial area resulted in buildings with both historically-typical and unique architectural features. The brick or stone side-hall Federal row houses that still stand at 13-15 West Street, for example, are some of Boston’s earliest forms of surviving architecture. Mid-nineteenth century granite commercial row buildings at 20-30 Bromfield Street were built during the height of Boston’s so called “Granite Era” and decorated with unique Egyptian motifs, and now stand as rare survivors of this once common form. Elegant theaters feature High Victorian Gothic (The Modern) and Art Deco (The Paramount) and now-restored (in part due to a major effort by the Alliance years ago) draw thousands of visitors each year. And hidden in the middle of the Ladder Blocks is the Orpheum Theatre too.

Density and Scale Reflect its Varied History

The Historic Ladder Blocks is one of those neighborhoods where diversity and scale demonstrates the richness of an organic neighborhood that has evolved over time. That lack of uniformity of style but overall pedestrian-friendly scale and welcoming nature of historic storefronts makes this neighborhood feel like the active center of an authentic city. It’s the kind of place that is inherently vibrant, but one with a vitality that can be squashed with the intrusion of too much modern, too much height, the loss of too much sky view by new, tall construction.

1600s

The Ladder Blocks was not always the fast-paced commercial hub it is today. When Boston was growing as a city, the small peninsula had little activity. In order to remain close to the water and main thoroughfare, settlers occupied the vicinity of Washington Street, then known as Marlborough Street. By 1634, Washington Street lined the public pasture that we now know as Boston Common. This street was once the only road connecting the Shawmut Peninsula to the mainland. Because of its vital location, Washington Street was Boston’s first thoroughfare and widely considered the city’s first Main Street.

1700s

As Boston’s population grew, the area’s role changed with colonists expanding the original town center and developing it into a fashionable residential area housing the city’s elite. By the 18th century this was an affluent residential area filled with townhomes, churches, and taverns. Notable historic establishments such as the Old Corner Bookstore (1712), Old South Meeting House (1729), and King’s Chapel (1754) materialized in this colonial period and continue to proudly stand in their original locations. With Downtown Boston as the Sons of Liberty and Ben Franklin’s stomping ground, nobody can deny this area’s history.

1800s

DT Map

View from corner of Washington and Bromfield Streets after the Great Boston Fire of 1872

The Great Boston Fire on 1872 obliterated this area with over 500 buildings burning to the ground. However, the development following the fire added to the variety of architectural styles we enjoy on those streets today. In an effort to bring new commercial energy to this area, new department stores replaced row houses and commercial businesses took up shop. Stores like Gilchrist, Filene’s, and Jordan Marsh dominated the Boston retail landscape before anybody heard of Newbury Street. 

1900s

Following World War II, the so-called Combat Zone rose in response to city dwellers exiting downtown Boston for the distant suburbs. Like in most American cities, shoppers went to malls in the suburbs and downtowns faltered. By the 1960’s the Theater District portion of the Ladder Blocks slipped into a seedy destination for adult entertainment. While, thankfully, retail never totally vacated this area, it dwindled to a pittance of its former self.

Thankfully retail hung on enough to see a more recent resurgence. Work by the Alliance and many others prevented the demolition of several of the historic theatres, which became catalysts for a new life for the Historic Ladder Blocks.

By 1989, Boston’s growing downtown economy and the development of Chinatown created an increased in demand for office, retail, and residential space where the two districts overlapped. With the Combat Zone facing increased scrutiny, the adult oriented businesses shut their doors making way for more desirable establishments. A second investment bump came from Suffolk University and Emerson College creating dorms and reviving the neglected Paramount and Modern theatres. This influx of young students and the institutions’ development attracted further businesses to follow suit and set up shop in the Ladder Blocks.

2000s-Present

Burnham Building

Burnham Building

Boston is booming. A welcome sign of vibrancy, this influx naturally raises the need for additional housing and work spaces. Preservation advocates have played an important role in the ongoing success of the Ladder Blocks and Downtown Crossing. The Boston Preservation Alliance and the Boston Landmarks Commission  were both heavily involved in the saving and restoration of the Landmark historic theatres, and the lights of their historic marquis are important anchors of the neighborhood. More recently the restoration of Daniel Burnham’s former Filenes (also a Boston Landmark) and the transformation of the Armory and Blake buildings into the highly successful Godfrey Hotel set the standard for how The Ladder Blocks can be…and should be enlivened even further. The area is becoming a twenty-four hour neighborhood again as the residential population grows and restaurants and coffee shops sprout up to meet that demand. The diversity of historic buildings in the neighborhood creates a wealth of opportunities for creative re-use: housing in under-utilized upper stories or the use of historic tax credits as were used in both the Burnham Building and the Godfrey Hotel, for example. In the next installment we’ll talk about specific interesting buildings in The Ladder Blocks and the opportunity they present and threats to them if foresight isn’t considered.

Preservation Achievement Award Winner: Flagship Hill Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument

October 23rd, 2016  |  Posted by: Greg Galer

In anticipation of our 28th annual Preservation Achievement Awards ceremony on October 24, we are profiling each of the eleven winning projects over the next several weeks. Follow this series to get a special look at projects that honor and update the character of Boston.


We often focus on the many challenges to historic buildings in Boston, particularly in this period of rapid development where we see neighborhoods changing before our eyes. With that rapid evolution occurring so quickly it becomes harder to see the deterioration that occurs over longer periods of time: the wearing impact of weather, the buildup of corrosion, or the compounded impact of defacement and vandalism. It’s easy to forget that bronze sculptures weren’t intended to be green. With so many historic monuments in the city deciding how to focus limited fundsis not always straight forward. One would think a large, prominent memorial in one of the most popular spots in Boston would always be kept in pristine condition, but that hasn’t been the case. The Flagstaff Hill and Soldiers’ and Sailors’ had slowly fallen into disrepair withdamage so severe that some questioned how it could be restored.

Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument.

Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument.

Located prominently on the highest point in Boston Common and dedicated in 1877 to commemorate American Civil War veterans., one would hope that keeping it in good condition would be a given, but the losses had become severe until this challenging project was undertaken.

The origins of the monument date back 150 years to the close of the Civil War. Mr. Willis Clement initiated the discussion of constructing of a monument to honor fallen Civil War soldiers and sailors on March 8th, 1866. Nationally prominent sculptor Martin Milmore was selected to design and construct the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument. Born in Ireland, he immigrated to Boston at age seven became a well-known sculptor with seveal prominent works in the area as well as a bust of Senator Charles Sumner in the US Senate. (Sadly he died at 38 and more well-known-today sculptor Daniel Chester French created a memorial for him and his broher, sculptor Joseph Milmore.) This monument was dedicated on September 17th, 1877. It consistesof a Doric granite column surmounted by a bronze allegorical female figure (“Genius of America”) with four marble eagles at her feet along with four bronze figures (Army, Navy, Peace, and History) and four bas relief castings depicting Civil War events.

Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument.

Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument.

The monument has graceful bronze figures along with massive stones that make it a quintessential tribute to fallen soldiers and sailors. However, what remained before this restoration began no longer honored the veterans as intended. Instead, the arms and heads of the bas-relief figures were lost, and the monument was marred with graffiti and the attempts of graffiti-removal. In 2004, vandals attempted to make off with the figure of Army only to drop it yards from the monument. At this point, the bronze figures were removed leaving the monument stripped of its celebrated sculptures.

Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument.

Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument.

The preservation of Soldiers and Sailors prevented the bronze figures from living forever in a storage facility. Although the costs of a restoration surpassed the typical expenses for artwork in the Boston Common and Public Garden, additional sources of funds* thankfully allowed completion of the project. In addition to the return and restoration of the figures, a significant improvement to the landscaping surrounding the monument was fulfilled by providing universal access. Although the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument came dangerously close to perishing from neglect, the preservation efforts rescued this time-honored monument so that it can grace the Boston Commons for today and the future.

Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument.

Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument.

*Funding provided by the City of Boston Parks and Recreation Department, the city’s Browne Fund, and the Friends of the Public Garden.

 

Preservation Achievement Award Winner: The Godfrey Hotel

October 22nd, 2016  |  Posted by: Greg Galer

In anticipation of our 28th annual Preservation Achievement Awards ceremony on October 24, we are profiling each of the eleven winning projects over the next several weeks. Follow this series to get a special look at projects that honor and update the character of Boston.


Few would argue that neighborhoods and buildings within can reach a point where they need a re-boot. But how can that be accomplished without losing the funky, pedestrian-scale character that brings distinctiveness to the various parts of the city? The Godfrey Hotel demonstrates how historic buildings play a central role in revitalizing the modern downtown district while keeping their historic flair and pedestrian scale. By inserting a new use into historic buildings, such as the Amory and Blake buildings constructed in the beginning of the 20th century the Godfrey has transformed tired offices spaces into a desirable boutique hotel and restaurant.

The Godfrey Hotel.

The Godfrey Hotel.

The Godfrey Hotel comprises two historic buildings that are significant examples of early 20th century high style indicative of the evolution of city commercial construction. The average passerby or hotel visitor likely won’t know the terminology or architectural history but will know these buildings just feel right within Boston’s Historic Ladder Block District. The Amory, built in 1904, showcases classical style elements including a finely detailed dentil and bracketed cornice, pedimented windows, and broken architrave at the entrance. In comparison, the Blake building though built only four years later reflects a more experimental style shown through its wide expanses of glass made possible by the development of high-rise steel technologies.

The Godfrey Hotel.

The Godfrey Hotel.

Both the Amory and Blake buildings were designed by Arthur H. Bowditch, the notable Boston Architect who also designed Washington Street essentials such as the Paramount Theater, the Jeweler’s Building, and Old South Building. His impact on today’s Boston extends past Downtown Crossing with the Lenox Hotel in the Back Bay. The construction of these two historic buildings occurred during a period of increasing urban density. This restoration mirrors a similar trend occurring over a century later with more and more people enjoying the benefits of Boston’s downtown area. The Godfrey Hotel is part and parcel of that trend, both responding to the rejuvenation of the neighborhood and spawning greater vibrancy itself, all while reflecting Boston’s historic legacy.

The renovation project designed by Finegold Alexander joins the Amory and Blake buildings into one use while preserving their individual historic features. A building system challenge of the project involved integrating new MEP/FP for the two separate high-rise structures. Structural upgrades to protect the buildings from seismic and wind forces involve the insertion of two massive concrete shear walls that extend throughout all 11 floors. In addition to bringing structural upgrades, the project balanced modernization with retention of character through repair, preservation, and restoration solutions. Interior features designed in collaboration with the Gettys Group include a lobby featuring 16.-ft. ceilings, coffee tasting bar, and restaurant. Most notable interior restorations include the historic elevator lobby and marble stair.

The Godfrey Hotel.

The Godfrey Hotel.

As part of the Downtown Crossing district, the Godfrey Hotel brings additional new life to Washington Street by attracting both visitors and residents in the City of Boston. The 242 room boutique hotel serves a functional purpose while the decorative and historic elements of the buildings weave into the city’s historic visual fabric. This project demonstrates the ability for historic buildings in the downtown context to find new uses so that they can add to the neighborhood’s revitalization efforts.

Do you think the Godfrey Hotel is the best of the best? Then vote for it for this year’s Fan Favorite! Vote once per day until October 24. Join us that evening at the Paramount Theater to find out if your favorite won, and to celebrate the preservation of Boston’s vibrant built environment. Tickets on sale now!