Built to Last: Downtown Crossing Architecture Full of History

Posted February 15, 2013 by Scott Kearnan in Urban Living
The historic Burnham Building will be preserved as part of the Millennium Tower project in Downtown Crossing

I’ve noticed that I tend to be most attracted to older cities, those with interesting histories and plenty of local character. But as a born-and-raised Bostonian (okay, more like a just-outside-the-city Bostonian) I sometimes take for granted how much history is right here under my nose–and my shoes. It’s hard to do that in Downtown Crossing, though, where there’s such an interesting combination of architecture staring me in the face. Seeing brick colonial structures standing within blocks of a twentieth-century art deco movie palace is a cool reminder of how much history is captured downtown. Even if you don’t feel like getting off the couch, I’ve compiled a walking tour of a few of my favorite Downtown Crossing buildings, from ye olden days to the bright future ahead.

The Old South Meeting House, a Georgian style building where the Boston Tea Party was planned.

Old South Meeting House

There’s a reason that the Old South Meeting House, built in 1729, is one of Boston’s most-visited tourist attractions. One look at that Georgian architecture, a stately English style common in the earliest American colonies, and you know it has plenty of history. A recap: This is where 5,000 colonists gathered to hatch the Boston Tea Party, and where guys like Sam Adams, John Hancock, and Benjamin Franklin congregated. The poor building was gutted by British occupants during the Revolutionary War and barely escaped the Great Boston Fire of 1872. But now tourists give it plenty of TLC, stopping by to see its museum and soak up American history. Like a lot of people who grew up in Massachusetts, I haven’t been back to these colonial-era landmarks since I first saw them on elementary school field trips. But I’ve been making an effort to return to them lately, and it has been (somewhat surprisingly) fun and refreshing to see them alongside the impressed eyes of out-of-towners who don’t take our amazing history for granted.

The Burnham Building

Millennium Partners is behind the $620 million project to build Millennium Tower, a residential, retail, and office tower standing 60-stories tall. And a major cornerstone of the project (no pun intended) is the restoration of the adjoining Burnham Building. The Burnham was built in 1912 in the Beaux-Arts style, a refined, flourish-filled French form of architecture that was particularly popular for academic buildings. But the Burnham was most famously home to Filene’s Basement department store, which wound up filling a soft spot in the heart of many Bostonians and representing the Downtown Crossing shopping scene. While the Millennium Partners project will take a few more years to complete, it’s worth the wait to see the site brought back to life and pump even more excitement into downtown Boston.

The Ames

Next time you’re at One Court Street, look up! You’re looking at the first skyscraper in the city of Boston: the 13-floor Ames Building, which opened in 1893. It’s named for Frederick L. Ames, the shovel company heir who paid for its construction. And it’s an example of the ornate Richardsonian Romanesque style, which has its best example in Trinity Church in Boston’s Copley Square. Today, the inside is totally modern, a home to the chic Ames Hotel and its shimmering restaurant and nightspot Woodward. It’s also a good place to grab a strong cocktail after a mini shopping spree downtown. Just saying.

The Paramount Center

The art deco style was a popular one for early movie theaters. French, a little futuristic, and often associated with Great Gatsby-era luxury (especially if Gatsby had a vacation home in Miami), art deco was a style that radiated glamour. And the Paramount, which originally opened in 1932 as one of Boston’s first movie theaters, looks better than ever after Emerson College’s $77 million renovation project. Behind those glittering marquee lights, you’ll find a 550-seat main theater, 170-seat screening room, and 125-seat black box theater. Since reopening in 2010, the Paramount Center has hosted shows, film series, and special events, bringing its old razzle-dazzle back to Downtown Crossing. (Random trivia: It is steps from the site where the Bijou Theatre once stood, which was said to be the first electric-lit theater in the United States.)

Boston City Hall is considered one of the best examples of 1960s Brutalist architecture.

Boston City Hall

Let’s be honest: Among Bostonians, Boston City Hall has a fairly mixed reputation. And no, not just because it’s where you go to pay your towing fee. This imposing concrete building in the middle of Government Hall Plaza strikes some people as an eyesore. But the truth is, our city hall is considered an apex example of brutalism, a particular architectural style that really hit its stride by the late 1960s. Popular in municipal buildings, the style was characterized by hard, straight lines, blockish configurations, and sheer wall. It comes across to some people like a cold, corporate castle. That was actually the point. The philosophy of brutalism was very 1984-ish, and dictated that government buildings feel big and intimidating. Mission accomplished! Locals often overlook Boston City Hall, but architecture experts consider it a legitimate landmark.




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