The late 1980s were a time of financial success for developers and banking companies all over the country. It seems that more skyscrapers were constructed in Boston this decade than any other of the 20th century, but working within the confines of the historic downtown of the city, left architects and developers to come up with creative ways to build here. The architectural firm of Kohn Pederson Fox was hired to construct a 20+ story office tower at the southern edge of the Financial District in Boston, while preserving the small-scale commercial buildings there. A row of four-story commercial blocks constructed after the Great Boston Fire of 1872 were retained with the tower seemingly growing out of them. The process here is known as “facadism” which is a valuable preservation tool to balance preservation with density in historic downtowns, though not always done right. This KPF design with its Post-Modern tower in concrete and granite fits well within the streetscape and maintains a walkable block downtown.
Built by the Boylston Market Association, replacing the former Boylston Market (1810-1887) in Downtown Boston, the Boylston Building is a great example of late 19th-century commercial design in Boston. The Association hired German-born architect Carl Fehmer (who alsodesigned the amazing Beaconsfield Terrace housing in Brookline) to design a structure that would stand up to the architectural landmarks along Boylston and Washington Streets nearby. Fehmer’s design exhibits many features of the emerging Commercial style (also known as Chicago school style) of architecture which promoted new technologies of steel-frame construction in commercial buildings with masonry cladding, while clearly showcasing the Romanesque round arch windows. In the mid-20th century, this area of Downtown Boston became known as the ‘Combat Zone‘, Boston’s Red Light District, flooded with prostitution, drugs, and adult video stores. The Boylston Building was occupied by an adult video store and dive pizza shop. The building and area surrounding are different today, but you can always find some characters nearby!
One of my favorite buildings in Downtown Boston is the Richards Building on State Street for its rare and lavish cast-iron facade. Built in about 1859, the building was developed by Quincy A. Shaw and Gardiner H. Shaw (uncles of Robert Gould Shaw, who led the famed African American regiment that is the subject of St. Gaudens’ and Charles McKim’s Boston Common monument), merchants who then leased out commercial space in the building. The architect of the building is unknown; however, the sheet metal was supplied by E.B. Badger & Sons. The original design was a five-story, eight-bay cast iron front structure, in the Northern Italian mode of the Renaissance Revival style. The facade is only a screen attached to the front of the building. It is made of pieces of cast iron that were fabricated in Italy and bolted together in Boston. In 1889, the building was sold to Calvin A. Richards, a wealthy street railway tycoon and it is presumed that the two upper stories and corner oriels were added at that time. The building features one of a handful of extant cast-iron facades in Boston, which was restored in the 1980s.
Located in the Blackstone Block of Downtown Boston, this flatiron building encloses Marshall Street on the Freedom Trail, creating a tight, pedestrian-oriented street that once covered old Boston. The Union Block (c.1842) is a Greek Revival commercial block which typifies this network of short, narrow streets which somehow survived Urban Renewal and the coming of the highway in Boston. The longest running occupant of the building was Ward & Waldron Paper Hangings, which from my understanding, made wallpaper for the estates of Beacon Hill which were being built on the other side of town. After successive ownership, atlas maps show the ownership of the building in 1888 conveyed to Massachusetts General Hospital, which still held title to it past 1938. The building is now home to Bell in Hand, an iconic local pub that was founded in 1795 at another location.
Located between the heavily-trafficked streets of Tremont and Washington Streets in Downtown Boston, you’ll find the Wesleyan Building, centered on Bromfield Street. Constructed in 1870, the Second Empire commercial building was designed by the architectural firm (and brothers) of Billings & Billings, who designed College Hall at Wellesley College just four years later. The five-story granite-clad structure features neo-Grecian detailing and a mansard roof, showcasing the waning popularity of the Second Empire style by the 1870s. The building was constructed adjacent to the Bromfield Street Methodist Church (demolished around 1913) and housed the offices of the Wesleyan Association, which published the newspaper ‘Zion’s Herald‘, a Methodist publication. The building was also occupied by the Emerson College of Oratory by 1890, which later became Emerson College.
The Hotel Touraine at the corner of Boylston and Tremont Streets in Boston was built in 1897 as one of the most luxurious hotels in the city. Designed by the local firm of Winslow and Wetherell, the Jacobean Revival style building commands the well-trafficked corner opposite the Boston Common. Early articles described the hotel as “a large and sumptuously equipped house, with internal decorations in the style of the Chateau de Blois (a French chateau). Winslow and Wetherell appeared to have been inspired by the Louis XII wing of the Chateau, as many design elements of the hotel closely resemble it. The hotel was advertised as having 350 rooms valued at $2 a night up to $3 a night for a room with a private bath. Separate men and women’s parlors, a library, and elevator service made the hotel desirable for the upper-class Bostonians and visitors to the bustling Downtown area. The hotel’s rich clientele eventually began frequenting the larger hotels near Copley Square and the stature of the Touraine slipped with a changing Downtown character. By the 1960s, the hotel closed and was converted to apartments.
This Victorian Gothic commercial block in Downtown Providence was built by George Slade, a merchant who was involved in real estate along with his role as part-owner of Westcott, Slade and Balcom a paint company. Slade likely saw the development of the new Providence City Hall next door as a catalyst for development in this section of Providence and built an attractive block with units inside for rent.
The building was designed by Clifton A. Hall (1826-1913) a relatively unknown architect based out of Providence. The cost of the building was estimated at $45,000 according to a posting in American Architect & Building News. In 1895, the corner tower was added as a way to modernize and increase appeal, also designed by Hall. The building features lancet windows, intricate brickwork and stone detailing.
Located adjacent to the Providence Arcade Building, the Atlantic Bank Building at 75 Weybosset St. provides a fine contrast to the earlier arcade structure. The building was constructed for the Atlantic Bank, which had two former offices in Downtown Providence before settling at its final destination. The bank failed in 1913 for a multitude of reasons, most notably due to the President, Edward P. Metcalf, who beginning in 1910, started passing checks worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to banks in Boston and Lowell without the knowledge of his board of directors. Perhaps sensing the trouble looming, he resigned from Atlantic National on April 2, 1913 and set sail for Europe. The bank closed soon after.
The building was occupied after by the Ashman Coffee House. The building featured a storefront and cafe on the ground floor and packaging and offices on the two stories above. After this, it was occupied (until 1976) by the Rhode Island Bible Society. The whole time, the exterior was mostly preserved and many original detailing intact. The three-story Italianate building features puddingstone facade with three bays of round-head windows.