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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

Preservation in Unexpected Places: A Shining Example in the Back Bay

The MIT Alpha Theta Chapter of Sigma Chi Gets an Updated Home

September 8th, 2015  |  Posted by: Boston Preservation Alliance

The newly restored façade of 532 Beacon Street.

The newly restored façade of 532 Beacon Street.

Since 1919, members of the MIT Alpha Theta Chapter of Sigma Chi fraternity have called 532 Beacon Street home. Karl Büttner, part of the Alpha Theta Sigma Chi Building Committee, appreciates that the house has always been an integral part of the students’ living experience. “What’s special about this house is that it really is a home,” he explains. “That’s something that generations of MIT students have experienced – they all lived in this home when they were undergraduates. And it’s the historic elements of the house that make it feel like a home.”

The fraternity’s desire to carefully preserve the building’s historic elements is evident when viewing the building’s restored façade, grand central staircase and common rooms. The Back Bay Architectural District Commission required replacement of the curved sash windows in kind. Tony Salem of Sea-Dar Construction, the project’s general contractor noted, for example, that “This isn’t typically done – a lot of clients and developers will do regular windows. [In this case], they decided to restore the façade fully back to the original character.”

At the same time, the project team was presented with the challenge of incorporating modern building systems while preserving the historic integrity of the building’s original elements. New systems were entirely integrated into the existing architecture. “There was a lot of focus on how to introduce a full overhaul of the building systems in a way so that it was concealed, and so that the character of the interior was not disturbed,” said Peter Makrauer, of LDa Architects. “We wanted to make it a ‘new building,’ but have it feel exactly the same.”

The historic stair detailing was recreated and extended to the fifth floor addition.

Another view of beautiful staircase

Notably, the home’s grand central staircase was restored and extended beyond its original length to service a new fifth floor addition. The extension blends seamlessly with the original stair – all details such as nosing profiles, balusters and newels were matched. As a result, the staircase remains a focal point of the house, which Bütter called, “a central part of the building’s architectural beauty.” Additionally, a new elevator was added that provides wheelchair access to most of the building.

Common room before.

Common room before, just prior to the start of restoration.

Common room after.

Common room after.

Did we mention that this fantastic project was completed in under a year? Though the vision for this restoration was 15 years in the making, time was of the essence once the project began in order to minimize disruption to students. Each person that we spoke to about the restoration was quick to note that the team’s cohesiveness contributed to the project’s success.

When you think stellar historic preservation projects, a fraternity house might not be what immediately comes to mind – but that’s the point. The restoration of 532 Beacon Street demonstrates the positive impact of thoughtful preservation in unexpected places. The results are not only beautiful, but built to last. As Salem noted, “When you renovate a property, you expand its lifespan for the next fifty to one hundred years. So being able to go in and restore the façade and the interior, while bringing in new technology – that’s a new lifespan for that building.”


In the common areas, including the library (pictured above), wood paneling was repaired and refinished; all new paneling and woodwork was matched to the original profiles.

To learn more about 532 Beacon Street, click here.
To learn more about the 2015 Preservation Achievement Awards, click here.

All photos courtesy of LDa Architecture and Interiors.

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