The Suffolk Savings Bank for Seamen and Others was incorporated in 1833 as a banking institution catered to seamen and merchants who received their earnings after a trip in cash, and wanted a secure place to store their funds. At the time, these men were among the richest in the city, and the bank did very well. It later became a national bank in 1865 and membership boomed. The bank grew and grew until the early 20th century, and it needed a new banking house that showcased their stability, but also provide a visual embodiment of the security their institution provides. The bank’s board hired world-renowned architect Cass Gilbert to design a new building, which would be located on one of the busiest corners in Downtown Boston at the corner of Tremont Street and Pemberton Square. The Classical Revival building was constructed of Hallowell Granite and featured four monumental columns recessed into the Tremont Street facade. Minimal windows allowed for security, while a domed skylight covered in a cap provided light into the rounded banking room below. Inside, the walls and floors were of marble with a tile coffered ceiling. The building lasted until 1965 when Urban Renewal brought the wrecking ball. The bank was demolished by 1967 for the present Center Plaza building in Government Center.
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?
Comprising twin bowfront Greek Revival rowhouses, the Jacob Wirth Restaurant buildings on Stuart Street are scarce survivors of a century of urban change in an area in which the building type once abounded. Built by developer housewrights quite active in the area, the twin houses were soon sold to “gentlemen” for rental purposes. Jacob Wirth, a German emigrated to Boston from Bingen, Germany, and began work as a baker before getting into the restaurant business. Wirth bought the left building seen here in 1878 as his dwelling above and ran his authentic German restaurant below. Due to the success of the restaurant, he purchased the adjacent home in 1889 and constructed the storefront that now unites them. Jacob Wirth ran the restaurant until his death in 1892, which was then managed by his son, Jacob Wirth Jr., who also managed it until his death in 1965! In 2018, Jacob Wirth’s, the second oldest continuously operated restaurant in Boston, closed its doors following a fire. The future is somewhat uncertain for the space, but as it is landmarked, there are protections (even at the interior) of the building.
Did you get a chance to eat at Jacob Wirth’s before it closed?
After the Great Fire of 1872 burned a large portion of Downtown Boston and destroyed the Russia Wharf structures on Atlantic Ave, the city decided to extend Congress St. over the wharf and across a new bridge connecting Downtown to areas being filled in South Boston (now Seaport). The wharf was the center of Boston’s trade with Russia in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The original wharf buildings were destroyed in the Great Boston Fire of 1872, and the land area was extended by building over the wharf and filling the spaces surrounding it. Three new Russia Wharf buildings were built on the original site of Russia Wharf, near where the Boston Tea Party took place in 1773. Permits were issued in 1897 for the Russia Building and its two neighbors facing Congress St. Opening in 1898, the principle occupant of the Russia Building (seen here) was the Library Bureau, manufacturers of the “Perfected Card System,” library and office Supplies, with branches in other major cities. The buildings were designed by the renowned firm of Peabody and Stearns, who were VERY busy at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries around Boston.
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 Kirstein Library is architecturally notable as one of the city’s best examples of the Federal Revival style. The design, inspired (mostly copied) by the central arch of Charles Bulfinch’s 1793 “Tontine Crescent” on Franklin Street, reflects the architects’ academic interest and study of the Federal aesthetic. The Federal Revival building features many Federal features including the Palladian window on the second story, the Ionic pilasters, central lunette window, and a triangular gable pediment.
The Kirstein Memorial Library is historically significant as the sixth “business” library in the United States and was operated as part of the Boston Public Library system. Louis E. Kirstein, the Vice-President of Filene’s Department Store, donated $200,000 for the cost of the building and its furnishings in memory of his father, Edward Kirstein. The main purpose of the library was to provide convenient access to information needed by the business and community. The first and second floors were devoted to magazines, bulletins, government reports, and books dealing with business and economics. The library was later moved to the BPL Main Branch at Copley Square and the building is still owned by the City of Boston.
One of the most perplexing and hated buildings in Downtown Boston is the former Fiduciary Trust Building at 175 Federal Street. The building exudes 1970s Corporate Modern design, focusing on large floor plates with minimal intrigue at the exterior. Sadly, Boston has quite a bit in the Financial District, but many are getting facelifts! This 17-story tower was designed by The Architects Collaborative (TAC) which was founded by Walter Gropius, one of the pioneers of Modernist architecture. The building is hexagonal with all six sides being of different lengths. TAC had to construct a tower that avoided large utility lines, the MBTA tunnel, and street patterns, which resulted in an “urban flower” which cantilevers over the narrow base. As of 2020, plans have been unveiled that show the building will be updated and a glass-enclosed lobby installed.
One of the strangest and intriguing buildings in New England is the Turk’s Head Building at the intersection of Westminster and Weybosset Streets in Downtown Providence. The flatiron building was designed by architectural firm of Howells & Stokes , and was constructed on the site of a ca. 1750 home owned by the early 19-century by Jacob Whitman. The skyscraper’s peculiar name dates back to that time when shopkeeper Jacob Whitman mounted a ship’s figurehead above his store. The figurehead, which came from the ship Sultan, depicted the head of an Ottoman warrior. Whitman’s store was called “At the sign of the Turk’s Head”. The figurehead was lost in a storm, and today a stone replica is found on the building’s 3rd floor façade.
The granite-clad building was built by the Brown Land Company as an investment property for members of the Brown family. It has continuously housed stock brokerages, insurance firms, advertising agencies, professional offices, and a bank since its construction. It was home to the investment firm Brown, Lisle/Cummings Inc. since the building opened in 1913, a continuation of the Brown Family.
Originally opening in 1928 as the Loew’s State Theater, this theater located at the heart of Downtown Providence exemplifies the high-style architecture at the height of motion-picture building activities. Designed by the firm of C. W. Rapp and George L. Rapp, of Chicago, who were among the most successful and prominent of American movie theatre designers, the complex building includes an elaborate 3200-seat theatre as well as offices and stores filling an entire city block. The Weybosset Street (main) facade
is entirely faced in terra cotta tile; elsewhere the brick walls are exposed and rather plain, except for terra cotta detailing.
Upon its opening, the theater was overwhelmed by an estimated 14,000 people, who jammed into the space to see the interior detailing, which included: marble columns, intricate carvings, and massive chandeliers suspended from the ceilings. As with many grand theaters in downtown settings, viewership declined as populations shifted towards the suburbs and Loew’s built new movie theaters in developing areas to capture that growing market. In 1971 under new ownership it was renamed Palace Theatre presenting movies, live performances and rock concerts. It was closed in late-1975 for refurbishment, reopening in 1976 as the Ocean State Theatre presenting first run movies. In that time, the theater’s owner applied for a permit to demolish the building, until Providence Mayor “Buddy” Cianci pledged over $1,000,000 in city funds to keep the building open.
Beginning in 1999, the theater was extensively remodeled and largely restored to its original 1928 opulence, utilizing Federal Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credits. It was also expanded to be able to accommodate traveling Broadway productions and orchestra performances. In 1996, the renamed Providence Performing Arts Center became the anchor of Cianci’s Arts and Entertainment District of Downtown Providence, which offered tax breaks to attract artists to the struggling downtown area.
Located in Downtown Providence at the southwestern end of Kennedy Plaza, stands a monumental Second Empire civic building, Providence City Hall. It’s story begins in 1831 when Providence residents ratified a city charter that year, as the population passed 17,000. The seat of city government was located in the Market House which still stands to this day. The city offices outgrew this building, and the City Council resolved to create a permanent municipal building in 1845.
Providence City Hall was constructed in 1875-1878 from the designs of Samuel F. J. Thayer, a Boston architect who won a competition, besting over 20 other submissions, which included designs by McKim & Mead, Ware & Van Brunt, and Charles B. Atwood to name a few. In designing the building, Thayer, being from Boston, was likely inspired by the iconic Boston City Hall, which was built in 1866 and set off a trend of Second Empire public buildings nationwide. Providence City Hall remains as a highly ornate and stately building, synonymous with the city’s rich history.