Paine’s Furniture Factory // 1871

Founded in 1835, Paine’s Furniture Company was at one time the largest furniture manufacturer and dealer in New England and had a nationwide business. The company was founded by Leonard Baker Shearer, who was joined in business in 1845 by John S. Paine, his son-in-law. Upon the death of Shearer in 1864, the name of the firm was changed to Paine’s Furniture Company. The company occupied a couple wooden and metal buildings on this site in the Bulfinch Triangle until a fire destroyed the complex. The growing firm took this opportunity to hire one of the most successful architect Gridley J. F. Bryant who worked with a colleague, Louis P. Rogers, to design the fire-proof building. The Second Empire style building with mansard roof was split into three sections with the rear two rented out to other companies, while Paine’s occupied the south-facing (main) facade. When Paine’s moved to their new building in the Back Bay, they sold this building and later alterations severely diminished the original design of the building. The current hodgepodge of alterations creates a mess of what was once an undeniable architectural landmark.

Western Union Building // 1930

While Boston doesn’t have as many iconic Art Deco buildings as New York or Chicago, we do have some that pack a punch! Located at the southern end of Downtown Boston, the Western Union building at the corner of Congress and High streets served as a headquarters for the third district in Western Union’s eastern division. Western Union was founded in 1851, and ten years later, built the first transcontinental telegraph line. The company made a brief foray into the telephone field but lost a legal battle with Bell Telephone in 1879 and thereafter concentrated solely on telegraphy. In the 20th century, Western Union diversified its operations to include: leased private-line circuitry, a money order service, as well as telegrams and mailgrams. The company’s Boston building was designed at the same time as their New York City headquarters, designed by Ralph Thomas Walker, and the buildings are strikingly similar, just with the Boston building on a smaller scale. The building in New York is among my favorite Art Deco buildings ever, as the use of red brick in varied patterns creates such a stunning composition. Amazingly, in 2004, water infiltration behind the original brick façade of the Boston building necessitated the removal and replacement in-kind of the entire brick façade. The existing signage and light fixtures, designed in the Art Deco style were added at that time.

B. F. Keith’s Boston Theatre // 1894-1952

The other day, I was walking in Boston Common along Tremont Street, when I noticed this oddly ornate building wedged between larger, modern buildings. I HAD to investigate! The building was actually constructed as an arcade/covered walkway which ran to Mason Street behind, with a tunnel running under that street into the B.F. Keith’s Theatre. In 1892, Benjamin F. Keith and his business partner E.F. Albee purchased land off Mason Street, a scarcely trafficked street between the busy Tremont and Washington Streets in Boston’s Theater District, with the goal of creating the city’s finest vaudville theatre. The duo hired J. B. McElfatrick & Son, architects who specialized in theatres, to design the new B.F. Keith’s. Due to the site being wedged between two main streets, entrances were built off both Tremont and Washington with flashing lights and marquees, guiding patrons inward. The Tremont facade was especially grand so that B. F. Keith’s New Theatre could be advertised on, and approached directly from, Boston Common, with lights flooding the park. The theater opened in 1894 and was over-the-top with intricate details and sculpture all over, appealing to the city’s wealthy as a place to see the arts. Although it was primarily a vaudeville house during Keith-Albee’s ownership, famed inventor Thomas Edison demonstrated his new Vitascope movie projector here on May 18, 1896. This was the first projection of a movie anywhere in Boston. As live shows made way for motion pictures, the theater adapted, but suffered around the Great Depression when would-be patrons decided to save their limited money. In 1939, the theater was converted to a movie theater named the Normandie. The theater was demolished in 1952 for a surface parking lot to provide better service to the Opera House (originally B.F. Keith’s Memorial Theatre, confusing I know) and Paramount Theater. Today, all we have left of the once beloved B.F. Keith’s Theater is the small annex, which is virtually unrecognizable from historic images as most of its decoration and the top two stories were removed.

1906 image courtesy of Library of Congress.

Flour and Grain Exchange Building // 1892

One of my favorite buildings in Boston (and always dressed up with a big red ribbon for the holidays) is the Flour and Grain Exchange Building in Downtown Boston. The third Boston Chamber of Commerce was incorporated in 1884 to promote just and equitable principles of trade, solve disputes between members and acquire and disseminate information related to mercantile interests. There was, however, a feeling among the members that the organization could not attain its full stature until it had a building of its own, one that would be both an ornament to the city and a credit to itself. In 1889, a triangular site was donated to the organization by members, who then hired prominent Boston architectural firm, Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge, the successor to Henry Hobson Richardson‘s practice. It appears the firm was inspired by H.H. Richardson’s F. L. Ames Wholesale Store which was built nearby just years before. The steel-frame building is constructed of rough hewn Milford granite pierced with engaged columns and arched openings, both common in Richardsonian Romanesque buildings. The prominent corner at Milk and India Streets features a rounded corner tower with conical roof, surrounded by a crown of dormers. The building was restored by owners Beal Properties in the late 1980s who own it to this day.

Commonwealth Trust Company // 1908-c.1974

Ca. 1910 image courtesy of Boston Public Archives.

Located at the corner of Summer and Devonshire Streets in Downtown Boston, the Commonwealth Trust Company’s two-story marble banking house commanded the corner, despite its short stature. The building, completed in 1908, was constructed with Lee marble and decorated with ornate wrought and cast-iron grilles over windows. The building was designed by the architectural firm of Parker, Thomas & Rice in the Classical mode with large, fluted Corinthian columns and boxed corner pilasters framing the recessed center entrance, Corinthian pilasters ran along the side facade. At the inside, the building was coated with Cararra and Blanco marble with paneled oak offices. At the ground floor, offices and banking stations framed the outer walls, with the safety deposit boxes located on the second floor. The building was demolished by the 1970s and replaced with a one-story minimalist Modern building (I could not figure out why the former building was razed). The new building was demolished after a few decades with a larger building, better fitting the commercial district.

125 Summer Street // 1989

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.

What do you think of this design?

Cotting Building // 1812

On Water Street, one of the lesser-trafficked streets in Downtown Boston, you will find this little commercial building dating back to around 1812. It was built by Uriah Cotting (1766-1819), a merchant and developer of Boston. The row of three brick Federal style mercantile structures were sold soon after completion to David Hinckley in 1813. Hinckley was a descendent of Thomas Hinckley, Governor of the Plymouth Colony from 1680 to 1692. The building was altered in 1915 with Federal (Colonial) Revival detailing and combined for a single tenant by architect Andrew Hepburn, later a partner of Perry, Shaw & Hepburn. This structure is still one of my favorites and is always a treat to stumble upon when strolling around Downtown.

Boylston Building // 1887

2019 image courtesy of Brandon Bartoszek.

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 also designed 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!

Richards Building // 1859

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.

Union Block // c.1842

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.