The long, thin walls of period red brick and granite look more like a lone movie prop rather than a preserved piece of Boston’s early history.
The exterior walls are all that’s left of a 211-year-old building on Broad Street in downtown Boston designed by architect Charles Bulfinch. The property is being redeveloped into a 12-story condominium tower called Boulevard on the Greenway, whose developer struck a compromise with city preservation officials.
The Bulfinch building had originally been used as a warehouse for goods unloaded at the wharves, back when Boston Harbor came right up to the rear of the buildings. The Boston Landmarks Commission in 1983 said the warehouse was “a fine example of commercial architecture in the Federal style, which is rare in Downtown Boston.”
But only the exterior of the building was declared a landmark; the interior had been altered over time and was not in the same original condition. Its last incarnation was as a tavern — The Littlest Bar. All that’s left are two walls that measure a scant 12 inches at their thickest, and in one fragile spot are a mere 8 inches wide. The walls are so prone to falling they need to be propped up and stabilized by steel beams.
Harry Collings, who is in charge of community outreach for developer New Boston Ventures, said the decision to keep only the facade was part of a long negotiation with the Landmarks Commission.
“They wanted that portion of it saved,” Collings said. “The community appreciates that it’s not all these square box buildings, and that we’re saving something from the history of the city.”
Born in Boston, Bulfinch is widely regarded as the first American-born architect to practice the craft in the United States. A prolific architect of the Federal style, Bulfinch’s notable works include the Massachusetts State House. He also oversaw the completion of the US Capitol.
Bulfinch was responsible for the design of India Wharf, one of the largest commercial wharves of the time, and of the larger Broad Street area, which still has other buildings from Boston’s mercantile era.
Keeping the facade of the warehouse helps to preserve a sense of the old Boston that Bulfinch helped create, said Gretchen Rabinkin, director of civic initiatives for the Boston Society of Architects
“One of the benefits of preserving something like that is not about preserving Bulfinch and his body of work, but about preserving the character of the streetscape of Boston,” she said.
The old facade will be integrated into the $60 million development, designed to make the Bulfinch portion deliberately stand out from the rest of the tower in style, color, and height. It will serve as the tower’s lobby, with its second floor housing a club room, gym, and pet spa.
The new building will be made of gray brick and copper-colored metal panels. Adding to the modern look will be a 10-story glass panel, tilted back to mimic a ship’s prow, a nod to the area’s maritime history, said Dennis Kanin, principal at New Boston Ventures.
“We found it exciting to have the lobby in the Bulfinch building because a lot of Bostonians care a lot about preservation,” Kanin said. “This is a building that preserves the old while moving to a new direction at the same time.”
The demolition of the Bulfinch building, but not its facade, was a delicate task. Removing the attached walls, floors, and roof required the surgical use of heavy equipment and, in certain tight spots, construction workers wielding old-fashioned sledgehammers. Even with all the precautions, demolition crews were forced to remove one upper corner after discovering a crack in the masonry that threatened to topple a part of the wall, said project architect Jim Alexander of Finegold Alexander Architects.
“Every time I go by, I worry. I look over to make sure I don’t see anything new [happening to the facade],” Alexander said. “It’s the worry and reward of working with something like this. . . . Keeping this little piece is a big commitment.”
Crews will have to dig underneath the facade to shore up the foundation to meet current codes, Alexander said. Construction is expected to take about two years.
Keeping the entire Bulfinch building would have been Alexander’s preference, but it would not have been feasible for the project. The condo project will have a four-story underground garage with an automated parking system, a first in Boston. It will allows drivers to leave their car on a platform, where a computer system will then deliver it to a designated slot by way of treadmill-like technology.
“This is a combination of one of the newest technologies, in automated parking, with one of the oldest buildings in Boston,” Alexander said. “That’s what we tried to do with the design of the building.”
Alexander, said he has wondered a few times what the famed architect who shaped Boston’s early development would think of the unusual marriage of old and new.
“Charles Bulfinch is really a patron saint to many of us as architects,” Alexander said. “He was such a creative architect that you can make yourself feel more comfortable that he would come up with new ideas all the time. He might even be comfortable with this.”