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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.

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Greg Galer, Executive Director, Boston Preservation Alliance

Executive Director

AllianceViews Blog

Daniel Burnham’s Filene’s Building and the Millennium Tower

October 6th, 2012  |  Posted by: Greg Galer

Courtesy of the Bostonian Society

In the months leading up to my new position as Executive Director of the Alliance, I had many meetings in the downtown area.  As I made my way in and out of the city’s historic retail district – where the Alliance office is located – I had no idea that this area would soon become my “home base.” I also didn’t know that I would find myself in the midst of one of the best examples of historic preservation and new development working hand-in-hand to improve the quality of Boston.

Each time I made my way down Washington Street it was like a trip down memory lane.  I vividly remember being among the throngs of people that filled the entire downtown shopping area particularly during the holiday shopping seasons of the early 1970s: the hustle and bustle of Filene’s, Jordan Marsh, Kennedy’s, R.H. Stearn, and Gilchrist’s; the view from the street looking up at those fancy, towering buildings; the thought of floor-after-floor filled with an overwhelming array of items to purchase; and the witnessing of numerous incidents between women in “The Basement” bickering over who grabbed a blouse first.  These were the days when there was just one authentic Filene’s Basement – it was here in the heart of the city.

As I look back, I can see myself trying to understand it all.  At one end of Washington Street there was an overwhelming  volume of people, noise and activity.  In stark contrast, at the other end of Washington Street – which seemed like another world — there were buildings in various stages of disrepair, neon and lights, and unkempt characters lurking in the shadows.  There was a sense of discomfort associated with that end of Washington Street.  The differences between the two ends of the same street didn’t make much sense.

How times have changed!  Now, the end of Washington Street that we avoided has life and vibrancy — particularly at night.  The theaters have been rejuvenated (thanks in part to the Alliance!), new buildings have become home to thousands, and popular new restaurants and other business are in full swing.

Meanwhile, what we now call “Downtown Crossing” (that T stop will always be “Washington Street” to me) has been patiently waiting for over four years for a game changer.  And that day has arrived.  The Millennium project, recently approved by the BRA and enthusiastically supported by the Alliance, is the spark that will revitalize Washington Street.

On one end of the block, the Millennium project will beautifully restore Daniel Burnham’s 1912 Filene’s building to its original glory.  On the other end of the block, a sleek, new, glass-walled skyscraper will showcase the most modern of building technologies.  And the two buildings will exist in a harmonious and symbiotic relationship.  According to the Millennium team, the Burnham Building, with all its historic character, is an essential anchor to the 625’ tower beside it.  This building will contain retail businesses on its lower floors, re-energizing Washington Street, and will house offices on its upper levels.  In contrast, the new tower will serve both retail and specialized  uses such as a health club on its lower floors and contain up to 600 residential units above, continuing efforts to bring sustainable 24 hour life to this part of the city. (See the 9/23 Boston Sunday Globe for more insights from Millennium Partners Principal Tony Pangaro) []

This is not a case of a developer reluctantly keeping the old because it is necessary, a ball and chain that must regrettably be accommodated.  Instead, it was wise insight and planning that recognized the value of an historic resource and understood how to use it to the advantage of the overall project.

The Filene’s building was designed by Daniel Burnham (1846-1912), a central figure in the development of modern cities, and a leader in the development of the modern, steel-framed building, and the skyscraper.  He effectively created the field of urban planning, recognizing the many complex aspects that come into play in the development of a city:  architecture and design, politics and financing.  The Filene’s building represents his final major work and his only work in Boston.

This project serves as great testimony to Daniel Burnham.  It demonstrates the power of good design and planning, and is a project that will substantively move the city forward by blending old with new.  Could there be a better legacy to the history of Filene’s and its cohorts than using their history and former vibrancy to bring new life to the area?

In my opinion, this project should stand as one of the best examples of new and old working together — each providing benefits to enhance the project as a whole.  And for those of us who promote historic preservation, this is, in many ways, a leading case study of preservation in action today.

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