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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

Ever wonder about…the Winthrop-Carter Building?

December 16th, 2015  |  Posted by: Boston Preservation Alliance

The Winthrop-Carter Building sits on the edge of Water, Washington and Devonshire streets between the Financial District and Downtown Crossing. It’s well-loved for its cast iron storefronts, yellow Roman brick, beautiful detailing and cool compact entrance to the State Street MBTA station. It also has the distinction of being Boston’s first steel frame sky scraper – which is a bit of a story in and of itself.

If you love this building, you’re not alone! This January the Boston Landmarks Commission (BLC) will likely vote to landmark the Winthrop-Carter Building, which will give the structure increased protection so that its character-defining features will be preserved.


Built in 1894, the building was designed by Boston architect Clarence Howard Blackall of Blackall and Newton. It wasn’t always intended to be a steel-framed skyscraper.  Blackall initially submitted a design for a seven-story brick building, but changes to the nearby streets and revised building codes ultimately led him to scrap the first design and propose a second, this time with a nine-story steel frame building.

Steel, stability and the “wild west”
The use of the steel frame stirred up public attention – both positive and negative. There were concerns about the structural durability of the material. At one point, Blackall was walking on the Boston Common when he was approached by a well-known architect, who offered this charming insight:

I understand that you are about to erect a building at the corner of Washington and Water Streets and in that you are about to use that abominable steel skeleton construction which has come to use from the wild and woolly west. Don’t do it; you are sure to have trouble.

The wild and wooly west, indeed. The use of steel framing can be credited to the Chicago School, which pioneered the method in the early 1880s. So when Blackall brought steel frames to Boston just a decade later, the response was mixed. Media coverage noted that passersby often stopped during construction to question the stability of the building. Upon its completion, however, the building was considered one of the most prominent in Boston.

Over 120 years later, the steel speaks for itself – the building remains a gem. The entrance to the T was established in 1907 and remains largely unchanged today. Since its construction, it’s remained in use for commercial office and retail purposes. Though plagued with high vacancy levels in the 1970s, a restoration project completed in 1978 revived the building. Subsequent interior and exterior projects have continued to ensure that the building remains a vibrant space downtown.

Why landmark the building, you ask?
While the Winthrop-Carter Building is by no means under threat, designating the building as a Boston Landmark is a proactive way to provide additional protection, such as guidelines for future work on the building’s exterior. In Boston, landmark designations are given to cultural resources of outstanding architectural and/or historical significance. Following the upcoming vote, any proposed physical changes to the Winthrop-Carter Building would require extensive review by the BLC. In other words, there’s no chance of you walking down the street one day to find that the building’s been drastically changed or demolished. The landmark status gives the City of Boston the tools to maintain the historic buildings that we love.

If you want to learn more about the Winthrop-Carter Building, you’re in luck. In preparation for the designation hearing, the BLC prepared an exhaustive report about the building’s history, defining characteristic and options for landmarking. It’s also the source of the beautiful photos featured in this post. See the entire report here.

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5 Responses

  1. Luann Ebert says:

    Really interesting article. It is so much fun to learn the history of the buildings that make Boston, Boston!

  2. Timothy Orwig, Ph.D. says:

    This building is certainly worthy of landmark designation. I teach about it in classes at Northeastern University and Boston College.

  3. Donlyn Lyndon FAIA says:

    In The City Observed:Boston, my guide to the architecture of the hub published in 1982, I refer to it as the Winthrop Building “an exquisitely narrow building that stands by the side of Spring Lane. It has nearly everything right. It’s easy to imagine being inside, its relation to the site is immediately clear and the nature of the structure has influenced its form in quite evident ways.”

    Then go on to discuss the frame, the articulation of the facade and the siting of the building, concluding with “At the Devonshire end the building is only one bay wide, a marvelously appealing stack of rooms with light on three sides- the most singular office space in Boston.”

  4. Kim Brengle says:

    One of my favorite buildings!

  5. A. Pangaro says:

    It is a gem. My office on the second floor has floor to ceiling and end to end plate glass windows. Dan Prigmore restored it for Fidelity’s Ned Johnson, who deserves great credit for caring for it since 1974.

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