Some long-standing buildings are cherished because of what happened there, others because they clearly represent the work of a distinguished architect or style. The Prince Building on Devonshire Street didn’t really check either of those boxes, old but not historic.
So no one objected strongly when Fidelity demolished it in 1993 to put in a small parking lot for security vans. Only now is the Prince Building turning heads — not because of how it looked in life but because of freshly exposed traces it left behind, an eerie impression on a surviving wall it shared with a taller neighbor, a kind of death mask cast in crumbling brick.
For nearly a quarter-century, that scene lay hidden by a protective layer of what appeared to be beige plaster. When the cover was peeled back for the construction of a new hotel, it revealed what fans call a “ghost building,” laced with the fading outlines of floors and offices, the scars and cavities of chimneys and piping.
Remnants of vanished buildings like this — collected and shared on Flickr and Pinterest, admired for their accidental allure and mournful power — are a rare sight in Boston’s Financial District, where real estate commands such a premium. And even this one is temporary, receding from view one floor at a time at 54 Devonshire, where the core of the new hotel is rising toward 12 stories.
For now, though, it affords a layered look at the past, hinting at the workaday life of long ago and providing a cutaway view of the manner in which the tall buildings of the 1850s were built, before steel and concrete, before electricity, passenger elevators, and central heating: with brick and stone, wooden support beams, chimneys to carry away smoke.
And it has given fresh appeal to a building that rarely stood out in its day, catching the eye of those drawn to historical remnants, to the texture and beauty of decay.
Some of the details on the peeled-open wall, half a block south of the Old State House, are easy to identify, like the plugged holes where the ends of wooden joists were once embedded in the brick. Others reveal themselves in time, like the four columns of off-white rectangles that might read from afar as filled-in windows, but on closer inspection become the traces of internal office walls, finished originally in horsehair plaster.
And some details are as mysterious as a cloud pattern, like the long cavity running up the center of the wall. It looks like a syringe with a cap on the needle — like a lamppost, a Saturn V rocket, an electric toothbrush, a milk frother.
That it stops before the roofline means it was not a chimney, unlike the skinnier channels running between the office-wall rectangles on each side. Instead, the bulb shape at the top suggests a dumbwaiter or similar freight lift, with the pulley mounted in that pocket and the cables descending through a narrow channel before widening into the freight shaft, said Roger Reed, an architectural historian who wrote a book about Gridley J.F. Bryant, the Prince Building’s architect. The original plans that might hold the answer are lost with the rest of Bryant’s papers, Reed said.
Less an innovator than a skilled practitioner of popular styles, Bryant built scores of buildings in Boston, with recognizable survivors including Old City Hall, the Charles Street Jail (enduring as the Liberty Hotel), and the granite rows near the waterfront known as Mercantile Wharf and the State Street Block.
With a footprint of just over 2,000 square feet, the Prince Building — erected in 1854 for the Prince family, including future mayor Frederick O. Prince — was a relatively minor work in Bryant’s long career.
It originally had five stories, with an Italianate design. The street levels featured arcade windows and ornate cast-iron panels; the upper levels were clad in delicately carved brownstone — a material that soon fell out of favor here because it deteriorated quickly in freeze-thaw cycles.
By 1867, the building appeared on maps with six stories, after gaining a new top floor sheathed in copper — to mimic the mansard roofs of the French Second Empire suddenly in vogue. Much later, the decorative street-level ironwork was scrapped, replaced with aluminum and plywood, reflecting the humble economics of mid-20th-century Boston.
Like the Prince’s exterior, its tenants mirrored changing times — initially a mix of real estate agents, lithographers, and merchants, as well as a recruiter authorized to raise a militia company when the Civil War broke out.
By the turn of the century, as the wider Financial District took shape, the office renters had become bankers and lawyers, a mostly buttoned-up bunch; in 1920, three Charles Ponzi copycats were arrested here, while anxious investors pounded on their door.
For most of its final decades, the bottom floor held a discount store and deli known as Sandy’s, and briefly a bar, The New Place, advertising an “Eruzione” cocktail after the 1980 Winter Olympics: Russian vodka, on ice.
But the building was crumbling inside and out when Fidelity, already occupying surrounding buildings, acquired it for $2 million in 1984, hoping to string everything into a connected complex with a skyscraper rising above. That never came to pass, and the firm eventually persuaded the city that the Prince Building was too eroded and altered outside, too cramped and deteriorated inside, to viably restore and bring up to code.
Preservationists accepted that, losing enthusiasm over the building’s not-quite-mansard roof, modified storefronts, and decay. If Bryant had been Bulfinch or Richardson, they might have fought to save it still. But better examples of his work survived.
When Fidelity relocated to Summer Street a few years ago, developers bought the entire block. The hotel is just one aspect of a half-billion-dollar project called Congress Square.
Now hammers clang, saws whir — here and around the city. For even as the ghosted image of one of Bryant’s buildings slips away on Devonshire, another is being carefully restored a few blocks over: his 1873 Boston Transcript Building at Washington and Milk, a rare survivor of the old Newspaper Row.
Designed in the French Second Empire style, with a mansard roof of scalloped slate, it sits between a Brutalist garage and the Old South Meeting House, each from a different century.
Begrimed and vacant a generation ago, it was saved as an office building in the 1980s, a prelude to the high-end renovation going on now — dubbed One Milk Street, and burnished as a jewel of a revived Downtown Crossing. “Iconic Address,” the project’s brochure declares. “Iconic Architecture.”
Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this article noted that the renovated Transcript Building would become condos. The mixed-use project, known as One Milk Street, will contain office and retail space, not residences. Eric Moskowitz can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeMoskowitz.