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Filene’s developers look to past for inspiration

The original 1912 Filene’s building.

File photo

The original 1912 Filene’s building.

On a recent morning, Anthony Pangaro and Blake Middleton pored over faded blueprints of Boston’s original Filene’s building, studying its intricate details amid the constant buzzing of a cellphone.

The two men are busy these days presiding over the $620 million effort to restore the Filene’s property as the commercial focal point of Downtown Crossing. It is by far the most important redevelopment project in Boston, finally moving forward after the recession caused a four-year work stoppage at the site.

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Much of the public discussion so far has been around the major component of their project: a 625-foot residential tower. But Pangaro and Middleton believe the success of the development hangs as much on how well they rebuild the original Filene’s, the last work of the great American architect Daniel Burnham, who helped usher in the era of the modern high rise.

Also considered a founder of urban planning in the United States, Burnham designed the Filene’s building in 1911 to serve as a dramatic and beautiful new anchor of downtown Boston around which the city’s bustling commercial life would center. In its revived form, Pangaro and Middleton see the building again fulfilling Burnham’s mission, to be the centerpiece that draws people to the property and knits the overall project neatly into its surroundings.

“The property’s function as the traditional, 100 percent corner of the retail district makes it crucially important,” said Pangaro, a principal of Millennium Partners, the real estate firm leading the project. Added Middleton, a partner at Handel Architects of New York: “This is a chance to create a new marker for downtown Boston and this historic shopping district. To be able to give this building another 100 years of life, what a fantastic thing.”

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Right now the building is empty, its north face sheered off during the initial construction. Although it was designed in the classical Beaux Arts style, the eight-level Filene’s store was also part of an early generation of structures that employed steel frames instead of massive bearing walls, an innovation that paved the way for much taller skyscrapers.

When it opened on Sept. 3, 1912 — 100 years ago this month — the Filene’s store attracted more than 235,000 people, representing roughly one-third of Boston’s population at the time. The crowd was drawn more by the retailer’s products than the building’s architecture, but Burnham’s design also provided a unique shopping experience, with separate compartments for men’s and women’s clothes, a barber shop, a soda fountain, and a tea room.

‘The building sort of tells you what to do in a funny way.’

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Burnham was raised in the Swedenborgian Church, a religious movement that emphasized civic participation by its members. Its teachings guided his thinking that urban development should follow a larger community vision, rather than the economic impulses of the moment.

“The point in city planning,” he was quoted as saying in the Globe in 1911, “is to secure a thoughtful and beautiful plan . . . and then to proceed to educate the public of its value and ensure its adoption. Any great city plan is for gradual change and requires a generation or more to carry out.”

But it was the technical skills of Burnham and his partner, John Root, that made their firm influential. The pair mixed modern engineering and building techniques with classical design, winning prominent commissions such as the planning and construction for the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. Root died during the course of that effort, but Burnham went on to design the Flatiron building in Manhattan, Union Station in Washington, D.C., and other landmark structures.

Completed two months after Burnham’s death, Filene’s became the focal point of Boston’s downtown commercial district, eventually expanding to occupy a full city block. But over the years the building — much like the district around it — lost its distinctiveness through alterations that removed itsironwork, replaced some of its terra cotta ornamentation with fiberglass, and deleted the large display windows that were its chief innovation in merchandising.

In preparing to renovate the building, Pangaro and Middleton have dug through reams of old documents and photographs to study its original details, as well as the thinking behind it.

“We want to give it new life, and get its heart beating again,” Middleton said. “It needs to take on a new presence, and it’s got the bones to do that. You see the building and say, ‘Thank God it didn’t get knocked down.’ ”

Their plan is to bring back many original features, including metal and glass canopies, outdoor lighting, and a wall of glass along Washington and Summer streets. They will also complete a full restoration of the facade, repairing its damaged terra cotta panels large Chicago-style windows. Construction is expected to start by the middle of next year.

While the store’s layout was tailored to an old-fashioned retail use, Pangaro said it has many features that are popular among today’s office and retail tenants, including high ceilings and the generous amount of glass used in the design of stores by Apple Inc. and others.

“The building sort of tells you what to do in a funny way,” he said. “The context of what we’re doing is a guy who left us something valuable, perhaps overlooked, that has a life of its own that goes well beyond the mere occupancy of a fleeting owner.”

The revised building will have retail space in its basement and on the first few floors, with several levels of offices above. On the lower floors, it will be connected to stores at the base of the adjacent residential tower, which will have up to 600 units. The project replaces a prior version that called for construction of a 39-story tower that would have risen over the Filene’s store — instead of setting it off as a distinct structure.

“If people know that this building has been restored, then they will realize that there was something special here and that it has a kind of permanence going forward,” said Pangaro. “If it’s done right, it will take you back in history 100 years, and presumably you’ll be able to see your way forward for the next 100 when you’re there.”

Casey Ross can be reached at cross@globe.com.
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