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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

Executive Director

AllianceViews Blog

With Historically Informed Eyes, The City Makes More Sense

September 21st, 2012  |  Posted by: Greg Galer

The Atlantic Avenue Elevated Outside South Station

One morning  last week I attended my first Boston Preservation Alliance Board of Trustees meeting, held in the North Station area. As the Alliance’s new Executive Director it was an exciting morning.  I eagerly made my way from South Station to North Station.  As I made the requisite, multiple changes on the T, I became a bit irritated by the convoluted route of what should be a simple connection. This is a frustration that Bostonians have shared and talked about for generations, and an issue over which city planners have endlessly wrought their hands.  My observation isn’t new.

So, the point of this entry?  Rather than let my mild frustration get to me I took a mental step back, chuckled, then felt awestruck.  Why?  I was living the very lessons that I have taught for years and will try to promote each day in my new position here at the Alliance: the past and present are intimately linked; what we experience today is contingent upon historic events; and decisions we make today are the determinants of the future – not just our personal future, not just the future of those with whom we are directly interacting, but the future of our community and its physical landscape.

Historical events and decisions, determined by social and political forces that existed long ago, shaped this city, and literally shaped my steps that morning.  My path from South Station to North Station was not a straight and simple route, due largely to the disjunction between the train lines entering opposite ends of the city.  Specific reasons, each both contingent and co-dependent include:

  • Competition between railroad companies and land and right-of way ownership issues.
  • Ridership patterns — most people came to, not through, the city.
  • The influence of street-conveyance businesses and laborers who relied upon the fairs and transport of luggage and cargo from one side of the city to the other.
  • Both a freight linkage (the Union Freight Railroad, 1872-1969) and an elevated passenger connection (the Atlantic Elevated Railroad, 1901-1938) did provide service between North and South station, although not fully integrated with north and south-running lines.  However, other economy-driven transportation changes such as the decline in ferry service (after the Sumner Tunnel was built) and shrinkage of maritime industries led to the elimination of service.  The above-grade el of the Atlantic was scrapped during WWII metal drives.

We all know that we can see the past in our historic buildings, but the story is far more complex and subtle — so much richer than only appreciating older styles and construction methods.  These lessons are just one reason why preservation is so important:   because these sites we work so hard to preserve have deep meaning and give rise to a variety of fascinating discussions that reveal how the past is truly relevant to us today.

So, the next time you walk the city streets or grumble about some seemingly nonsensical aspect of the city’s built environment, pause, take a deep breath and appreciate the moment as an opportunity to learn about the city’s history, about why it is the way it is, rather than the way you think it should be.

I’d be curious to hear if you’ve had similar experiences in Boston.

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Keeps Boston Cultured into the 21st Century

September 6th, 2012  |  Posted by: Boston Preservation Alliance

Photo courtesy of Benjamin Johnson

Established by Isabella Stewart Gardner in 1903, the museum is housed in a purpose built structure designed to emulate a 15th century Venetian palace. The Gardener Museum presented a new context for art in America by creating a museum where the visitors experienced music, beautiful gardens, and historic and contemporary art all in a highly personal setting.  Today, the museum functions much in the same way, exposing thousands of visitors a year to priceless artifacts and stunning visual arts.

But with its popularity increasing each year, the museum was in dire need of renovations to accommodate its growing interest from the public. A new 71,000 square foot addition designed by Renzo Piano Building Workshop was the main feature of the renovations that took place over the past year. The addition connects to the main palace via a glass corridor and includes four floating pavilions which house a visitor and orientation area, special exhibition gallery for light-sensitive objects, a state of the art acoustically isolated music hall, a café, gift shop, office spaces, and conservation labs. The addition was carried out by Shawmut Design and Construction working with local Architect Stantec and was finished in early 2012.

Modifications to the original palace are restricted by Gardner’s will, but the design team was able to relocate one installation to provide a link from the expansion to the original palace. Additionally, historical doors and windows previously blocked from use were restored and replaced to allow for the reintegration of space previously hidden from the public. All aspects of the renovation are LEED certified.  Visitors will be sure to marvel at the new additions, and at the same time take comfort in the fact that the original palace still remains much as it was when it first opened its doors over a century ago.

St. Cecilia’s Shines Again

August 8th, 2012  |  Posted by: Boston Preservation Alliance

Photo credit: Bruce T. Martin Photography

In the late 19th century, the Back Bay was quite the hoity-toity place. It was the premier residential neighborhood of the Yankee aristocracy. But also populating the neighborhood were hundreds of working class maids and coachmen who served the wealthy residents of the neighborhood. St. Cecilia Parish, located in the Back Bay at 18 Belivdere Street in Boston, was established in 1888 to serve this less affluent population.

The Romanesque, 12th Century Norman church was dedicated in 1894, and featured a main altar carved from a single marble block.  In 1954 a lavish reproduction of da Vinci’s “Last Supper” was added.  While the church has undergone various renovations over the years, the work done in the past calendar year has gone great lengths to restoring the property to its prior glory. Shawmut Design and Construction, working with Architect Donham and Sweeney Inc, installed a new two story glass and steel addition at the site of the demolished Parish House. Other additions included new slate roofing and masonry repointing of 80% of the façade, as well as a restoration and cleaning of the original ceiling and stained glass windows.

Amazingly, the church remained open during the ten month long construction period, and now members of the parish and the general public from all walks of life have the opportunity to enjoy St. Cecilia’s in its original glory.

Boston Common: It’s Not Just for Cows Anymore

July 10th, 2012  |  Posted by: Boston Preservation Alliance

Photo credit: Boston Parks and Recreation Department

In the mid-sixteenth century, Boston Common was little more than a public cow pasture. Over the past several hundred years, it has become the vibrant public space where Bostonians and visitors alike get fresh air in the city. Near the corner of Park and Tremont Streets stands the Brewer Fountain, a gift to the City from local businessman Gardner Brewer in the mid-1860s. The bronze fountain was constructed in France for the 1855 Paris World Fair and then moved to Boston. Featuring Neptune, Amphirite, Acis and Galatea, figures from Greek mythology, it is 22 feet tall and weighs 15,000 pounds.

The fountain first began working in 1868, but over the course of many years, fell into disrepair and then ceased to function altogether in 2003. In May 2010, after a year-long, off-site restoration was undertaken by the City of Boston in partnership with the Friends of the Public Garden. The City commissioned artist and sculpture conservator Joshua Craine of Daedalus Inc., the fountain was rededicated. In order to restore the fountain, Craine first had to clear the pipes of the fountain of park detritus, everything from pigeon skeletons to tennis balls. Then, he and his team pressure-washed the fountain, carefully dismantled it into 14 pieces, and brought it to their office in Watertown, where it received thoughtful restoration services from architects, engineers, electricians, and plumbers. In order to remove the patina that had formed, Craine used oxidizing chemicals and a blowtorch. He also painstakingly repaired even the smallest holes and imperfections that had formed over the duration of the Fountain’s reign in Boston. The fountain was reassembled and returned to its proper home in the Common in November, 2010.

The restoration, which cost $640,000, was funded in part by the federal government, and in part by local benefactors. The rejuvenation of this fountain is part of an overarching multimillion-dollar endeavor to beautify the Common, which includes major improvements to the corner in which the fountain is located. Don’t let the summer pass by without spending an afternoon relaxing in this part of the common, and enjoying the beauty of this magnificent—and magnificently restored—work of art.

What to do with a Wall

June 20th, 2012  |  Posted by: Boston Preservation Alliance

The J. S. Waterman and Sons Building in Dudley Square

Planning for the City of Boston’s new Dudley Municipal Building is underway! It promises to be one of the most exciting preservation and new construction projects in the city of this decade. As Sonja Vitow wrote in our most recent issue of the AllianceLetter, the restoration of the facade of the Ferdinand Blue Store after decades of vacancy is going to have a profoundly positive impact on the neighborhood.

But there are also two other historic facades that the team from Mecanoo and Sasaki plan to preserve as part of this project, and one poses a significant challenge. The J.S. Waterman and Sons Building is a handsome Boston Granite Style commercial building that was constructed in 1890. Along with another building next door–known as the Curtis Block, the facade of which is also planned for preservation–the Waterman Building adds nicely to the character and “texture” of the neighborhood.

One of the major challenges in preserving this building, however, is the blank party wall that faces the Dudley Bus Station. Commendably, the City’s vision is to create a welcoming “face” to the station, that invites the many people who will approach the building from that direction into the new municipal complex. The ability to open up that wall and rebuild it in such a way that respects the historic character of the building while creating the sense of permeability is essential to this vision. (Even the staunchest supporters of Boston City Hall–including we here at the Alliance–admit that looming brick wall along Congress Street is not a friendly way for a city government to interface with its constituents! Nobody wants to see that repeated.)

We’ve been so impressed with what we have seen from the architects so far, and have great faith that they’ll come up with an elegant solution, but it isn’t an easy problem to solve. We look forward to seeing their ideas as they evolve!

Malcolm X: A Legacy Bears a New Vision

June 6th, 2012  |  Posted by: Boston Preservation Alliance

It was an honor to join an enthusiastic crowd today at the Malcolm X – Ella Little-Collins House on Dale Street in Roxbury for an announcement by the National Trust for Historic Preservation that the house will be listed as one of the 11 Most Endangered properties in the country. Mayor Menino was on hand to remind the crowd that while Malcolm X did get into “some trouble” during his time in Boston, his legacy lies in what he later overcame and accomplished as a human rights activist and leader of great national importance.

Owned by his half-sister, Ella Little-Collins, the house is where Malcolm X lived for several years as a young man. Working with Rodnell Collins, the current owner and son of Ms. Little-Collins, Historic Boston Incorporated (HBI) is taking on the challenge of restoring the house so that its future is secured as a symbol of Malcolm X’s life, and a physical reminder of his role in American history. The house is also important as a representation of the interconnected web of relatives and neighbors who grew up in this tight-knit community.

HBI’s hope is to restore the building to its 1940s appearance, the period when Malcolm X lived there, and to provide housing for students of African American history, social justice, or civil rights. They are undertaking a $750,000  fundraising campaign to try to make this happen. With the spirit and inspiration embodies in this house, I have no doubt that they will make their goal.


Fort Point Channel: Nicer for Noses, Better for Boats!

May 15th, 2012  |  Posted by: Boston Preservation Alliance

Carole Charnow, President of the Boston Children's Museum; Mayor Menino; Senator Jack Hart; Danielle Pillion, Executive Director of the Friends of Fort Point Channel; and Boston City Councilors Bill Linehan and Felix Arroyo sound off air horns to celebrate the Fort Point Channel dock opening / Photo Credit: Friends of Fort Point Channel

Boston’s Fort Point Channel is a a lot less stinky and a bunch more fun thanks to the City of Boston, and the many nonprofit organizations, residents, and property owners that have worked for many years to clean it up and create opportunities for public enjoyment.

That’s why it was so exciting to attend the Annual Meeting and dock opening ceremony for the Friends of Fort Point Channel, a fantastic organization on whose Board of Directors I am privileged to serve. Mayor Menino and Senator Jack Hart joined us for a celebration of the five boating docks that have just opened for the season. All of these docks have been built in the past decade, following the vision laid out in the Boston Redevelopment Authority’s 2002 Watersheet Activation Plan for the Channel.

Image of the Future from the Fort Point Channel Watersheet Activation Plan / Image credit: Goody Clancy

The maritime industrial past of the Channel lives on. It is evident in the historic seawall, the warehouses that have been preserved along its edges, and the historic bridges that still span it. But after decades of decline, it is getting a new life. No longer a polluted “no man’s land” the Channel is finally becoming what the writers of the Activation Plan hoped it would be: Boston’s Next Great Place.


H.H. is Hot Hot!

May 10th, 2012  |  Posted by: Boston Preservation Alliance

The Hayden Building / Photo credit: CUBE design + research

Looking to live in a building by one of America’s most famous architects in close proximity to all the amenities of downtown Boston? Boy do we have the apartment for you!

H.H. Richardson’s Hayden Building in Chinatown will soon be getting a complete overhaul thanks to the work of our colleagues at Historic Boston Incorporated and the up-and-coming architecture firm CUBE design + research. With a groundbreaking set for June 4, the project will bring new life to the last remaining commercial building by Richardson in the city and renovate it for apartments in the upper stories.

The architects' vision for the interior of an apartment in the Hayden Building / Image credit: CUBE design + research

Richardson was certainly a “starchitect‘ of his time. Designer of Boston’s Trinity Church, along with many of the country’s most treasured commercial buildings, train stations, libraries, and more, Richardson developed what came to be known as the Richardsonian Romanesque style. The style’s French, Spanish and Italian Romanesque cues, weighty stonework, and recessed arches are clearly evident in the Hayden Building, which strongly holds its corner on Washington Street.

So if you’re looking for a new pad that’s truly unique, stay tuned. When this renovation is complete, it’s gonna be a beauty!

A Teardown Trend in Charlestown?

April 28th, 2012  |  Posted by: Boston Preservation Alliance

44 Sullivan Street Before Demolition / Photo credit: Charlestown Preservation Society

In the 1960s, a whopping 60% of Charlestown’s homes–many dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries–were proposed for demolition as part of urban renewal. Residents stood up and prevented this from happening. But now in 2012 a slate of recent demolitions of historic homes in Charlestown has many residents worrying again about the fate of the neighborhood.

Boston does have laws that can delay proposed demolition of historic properties for 90 days. Sometimes that’s enough time for community residents to persuade developers to explore alternatives to demolition or to take other actions to prevent it. But in the majority of cases after the 90 day period is up demolition proceeds as planned. Such was the case recently with a house at 44 Sullivan Street, a small working man’s cottage from the early 19th century–the community’s latest loss.

44 Sullivan Street During Demolition / Photo credit: Charlestown Preservation Society

Unlike neighborhoods such as the South End and Beacon Hill, Charlestown does not have a local historic district in place. The vast majority of its small-scale, historic homes are not protected in any way. We’re strategizing with our friends at the Charlestown Preservation Society to see what we can do to keep more historic houses in Charlestown standing because the character of Boston’s oldest neighborhood is just too valuable to throw away.


Holding on to History in Jamaica Plain

April 20th, 2012  |  Posted by: Boston Preservation Alliance

The Historic Home for Little Wanderers Building at 161 S. Huntington Ave. / Photo Credit: Boston Preservation Alliance

Boston Residential Group has proposed to demolish the 1914 Home for Little Wanderers building (Knight Children’s Center) at 161 S. Huntington Ave. to make way for a 196-unit apartment building. At last week’s community meeting, the Alliance joined many Jamaica Plain residents in saying that demolition is premature. We are calling for serious consideration of a plan that would rehabilitate and incorporate the historic building into the new development.

The building is located on a stretch of S. Huntington Ave. that is home to a number of institutional buildings from the early 20th century, several of which have been beautifully rehabilitated and added to with sensitive new construction, such as the AstraZeneca Hope Lodge, which the Alliance honored with a Preservation Achievement Award in 2009.

The Alliance is urging the developer to consider a scheme that would reconfigure the proposed housing on the sizable lot and to explore financing structures that would help cover the cost of retention of the historic building, such as using Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credits.

We don’t think the community should have to decide between saving its history and building new housing. With a creative approach, this is a site that may very well be able to accommodate both.