When the plywood finally came down in October to reveal the new Chase Bank branch in Jamaica Plain, retired architect and Jamaica Plain resident Gert Thorn actually gasped.
Gone was the painted woodwork that for decades had framed the large glass windows of a 19th-century storefront at the intersection of Centre and Burroughs streets. It had been ripped out, replaced with silver aluminum panels and trim, a design choice that Michael Epp, another JP resident and retired architect, described as “disrespect to the building."
The corner space at 701 Centre St. had been occupied by an Indian restaurant, one that community members said maintained the historic facade that had been in place for as long as anyone could remember. Over the years, other businesses had come and gone along the block, but all had maintained the same style storefronts of red brick and wood — and that had been the plan for the Chase branch as well.
“That’s what it said in their drawings,” Thorn said. “But it’s not what they built.”
When the Chase storefront was revealed, Thorn, Epp, and a third architect, Ed Forte, whose firm rents offices in the same building as the new Chase branch, decided they couldn’t stand pat.
They resolved to find out how these design choices had been approved without the public’s input.
The first step was to reach out to the city’s Planning & Development Agency to ask why the building plans had not been submitted for public review. They also contacted the Inspectional Services Department.
When they didn’t get a response, the three took what Thorn calls the “Brooklyn Approach”: visiting the offices in person. At inspectional services, the men learned that the storefront, as it appeared in October, was not in the original plans submitted by Chase’s architectural firm, Core States.
“They were going to keep the existing facade or restore it,” Thorn said. “ISD wasn’t aware of what they built.”
The building is part of the neighborhood’s design overlay district, meaning the historic character must be maintained, along with the “existing scale, quality of the pedestrian environment (and) character of the residential neighborhood,” according to the Boston Planning & Development Agency website.
The Inspectional Services Department suspended work on the project when officials realized the scope of work had been altered. The original plans called only for a simple window replacement, which typically wouldn’t trigger a design review.
The men then went to the BPDA and asked for a public review. An employee said he’d make a call. Days went by, then weeks — and meanwhile, Epp, Thorn and Forte noticed that work had restarted over at the bank.
“We started getting nervous,” Forte said. “Like we weren’t being heard.”
So they headed for the mayor’s office — and reached out to Chase directly.
It didn’t hurt, Thorn later admitted, that he had a past connection to people working in the office of Chase CEO Jamie Dimon. Back in the 1990s, when Thorn was living in New York and working for the architecture firm Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, he had led projects for Chase in London, Japan, and New York, including a 2 million-square-foot operations building in Brooklyn.
Thorn never spoke directly with Dimon about the JP branch — “I don’t live in their world,” Thorn said of the CEO — but he still had contact with employees in the main office. They helped him connect with Rick Dube, who oversees real estate for Chase branches in New England.
Dube lives in North Andover but was born in Boston and had lived in JP until age 3.
“I still feel ties to this place,” he said.
In December, the mayor’s office helped organize a meeting between the three JP men, planning and inspection officials, and Dube. They started to chip away at a compromise, rejecting the bank’s first proposal and offering their own vision of how the storefront could be restored to its original look.
A few days later, a story in the local paper, the Jamaica Plain Gazette, reported the bank would comply with residents’ calls to restore the woodwork that was present in the previous facade.
The neighborhood finally got an opportunity to see the design on Jan. 30 at a meeting at the Farnsworth House in JP.
Dube told those gathered that the restoration would likely be done sometime in May.
Residents had plenty of questions for Dube.
“Will a sign be embedded into the mortar?” one woman asked.
Another man wondered whether the black awnings could be changed to a dark green to match the neighboring store. “It looks a little dreary to me,” he said.
Shelley Icaza wanted to know if Chase planned to issue a formal apology.
Dube said he would consult the bank’s communications office. “We want to erase the board and reestablish ourselves.”
As attendees began to disperse, Izca waited for her turn to have one more word with Dube. He shook her hand.
“We screwed up,” he said.