The curved red-brick facade of the Hotel Buckminster has held a position of prominence in Boston’s Kenmore Square for more than a century. The hotel closed in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, and its white all-caps signage has seen better days, with some letters fully punched out. The vacant interiors look sad and deserted to passersby streaming toward Fenway Park.
For nine months now, historic preservation advocates have been pushing to designate the hotel’s exterior as a city landmark. Landmarking is a necessity, they say, given plans to transform the old hotel and property behind it into a life-science lab.
If approved, an exterior landmark designation would require a developer to preserve the existing masonry and other historic materials, while allowing for a new addition that wouldn’t obscure the building’s front. The designation was set for a key vote at the Boston Landmarks Commission last month, with staff recommending approval, but city officials pulled it from the agenda just a day beforehand. After preservationists sparked an uproar via an email campaign, the issue is back on the Landmarks Commission agenda for Aug. 22.
The episode, involving one of the last vestiges of old Kenmore Square, highlights the tension between safeguarding the city’s past and shaping its future, especially in a neighborhood that is seemingly being transformed by the week.
The Buckminster is famously the birthplace of the “Black Sox” scandal, where a Boston bookmaker and a Chicago White Sox player hatched the plot to throw the 1919 World Series, and was also home to George Wein’s Storyville jazz club, where singers such as Lee Wiley and Billie Holiday crooned to early 1950s crowds.
“The landmark status is extremely important to many of us who live in the area, particularly those of us who have lived here a long time,” said Katherine Greenough, who co-founded the Audubon Circle Neighborhood Association in the early 1980s. “It is a very dignified building ... and it needs to be preserved intact.”
After the hotel closed in 2020, its owners initially launched extensive interior renovations, but in November 2021 sold the building to life-science development firm IQHQ Inc. for $42.5 million. IQHQ — which is co-developing the $1 billion Fenway Center tower over the Turnpike a stone’s throw away — also owns a surface parking lot and two buildings, including Boston University’s Cognition and Decision lab, immediately behind the hotel.
Upon buying the Buckminster, IQHQ outlined how it envisioned the property as the start of “a vibrant life-science district” that would extend from Kenmore Square through the Fenway to the Longwood Medical Area, with plans “to bring forth an improved future for this prominent Kenmore Square site.” In January, the firm filed plans to demolish the three- and four-story buildings behind the Buckminster to make way for a 215-foot office and laboratory tower “which will connect floor-to-floor with” the Buckminster. The hotel building itself would be “substantially renovated,” wrote Darren M. Baird, an attorney representing IQHQ.
IQHQ declined to share more specific plans with the Globe, and has not formally filed more detailed plans or images with the Boston Planning & Development Agency. The firm has promised to reuse at least a portion of the building — though not necessarily as a hotel — in its future development plans.
“We are committed to reactivating The Buckminster, which was closed for years prior to our purchase, by preserving key elements in a fashion that recognizes its importance at Kenmore Square,” an IQHQ representative told the Globe.
Last October, after meeting with IQHQ representatives on the project, the nonprofit Boston Preservation Alliance filed a landmark petition to the Boston Landmarks Commission, which formally kicked off the city’s extensive landmarking process.
“Hotel Buckminster represents the development of Kenmore Square at the turn of the 20th century, and today remains the oldest historic building at the western edge of the square,” the landmark petition reads.
The Landmarks Commission hosted a preliminary hearing on the property just before Thanksgiving, and issued its study report in May. The detailed 62-page report goes into the hotel’s history and significance, with the landmarks staff ultimately recommending the hotel’s exterior be designated as a landmark.
Such a designation wouldn’t prevent IQHQ from moving forward with a lab project, said Preservation Alliance executive director Alison Frazee. Often, developers can preserve historic facades while building an addition, such as Roxbury’s Bolling Building.
“This building could be both a protected landmark and a new project for a developer,” Frazee said. “It’s not one or the other.”
The full Landmarks Commission was set to vote on July 25, but the day prior, Frazee got word from the mayor’s chief of policy that the Buckminster would not be on the commission’s agenda. Frazee issued an email alert to the Preservation Alliance’s email list, encouraging members to share their displeasure with the city and request the landmark vote be rescheduled.
“Kenmore Square has already lost much of its historic fabric, character, and sense of place because of insensitive development,” the alert reads. “It is critical that neighborhoods balance old and new, and preserve places that hold deep meaning to generations of Bostonians.”
The city declined to share specific details about who requested the delay or how a landmarking process would affect IQHQ’s development plans.
“We delayed the vote to ensure that all city departments involved in the site were properly briefed,” said a city spokesperson. The city later confirmed the Landmarks Commission will vote on the Buckminster at its next public hearing on Aug. 22.
Frazee said she was “thrilled” to hear that the vote was back on the agenda, but was still concerned about why a vote needed to be delayed.
“To pull it in the first place really undermines the process, and the tool of historic preservation,” Frazee said. “We should have multiple ways to protect historic character and fabric. In the city of Boston, we have one, and to have that undermined is really troubling.”
Landmarking is critical in protecting what’s left of Kenmore Square’s architectural history, Frazee and others have said. Beyond IQHQ’s proposed lab, there’s been a substantial wave of change in the neighborhood.
Next to the Buckminster, IQHQ is at work on a tower above the Massachusetts Turnpike. On the other side, where Beacon Street and Commonwealth Avenue merge, Mark Development won city approval in 2021 to build a 29-story hotel where a squat bank building now sits. And across the street, wearable fitness tech company Whoop recently opened its eight-story headquarters at 545 Commonwealth Ave., a newly constructed building that stands in the place of the demolished former home of the New England School of Photography.
That project, too, sparked preservationist uproar a few years ago, over the fate of the beloved Citgo sign that sat atop the former Boston University bookstore. The Preservation Alliance launched a campaign to landmark the iconic sign in 2016, and the Landmarks Commission later approved a landmark designation. But it was vetoed by then-mayor Martin J. Walsh in 2018. That veto — a rare move for any Boston mayor — was part of a compromise that kept the sign in place under a renewed lease while allowing the building beneath it to be renovated.
Now Whoop also has a sign atop its building. The large, all-caps lettering and building facade overtakes the Citgo sign from many vantage points, which hasn’t gone unnoticed by neighborhood advocates such as Greenough.
“There’s absolutely no semblance of the Kenmore Square architectural history,” Greenough said. “If the Landmarks Commission cannot designate what remains as a landmark, then the entire integrity of Kenmore Square and its dignified architectural history is gone.”