Downtown Time Machine: Boston Architecture Tells a Story

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Posted May 28, 2013 by Scott Kearnan in Urban Living
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When you think “Boston Architecture,” iconic brownstones are probably the first things to come to mind. But take a stroll through downtown—home to some of the city’s oldest and newest buildings—and you’ll notice a pretty wide variety of architectural styles. Like any art form, architecture tells a story about what was going on in the world. So when you stop and think about it (and snap a photo with your iPhone, because really, that would make for a great screensaver), downtown buildings are time stamps that say a lot about the different eras of Boston life.

To help break it down, I chose four buildings representing four different decades and four totally different architectural styles. Take a read and enjoy some fast facts that’ll help your team bring down the house at your next trivia night. Then take a walk through the impressive Boston architecture yourself.

Old State House

A historic photo of the Old State House. Photo courtesy of the Bostonian Society.

The 1710s: High Georgian

Then: This red brick building, built in 1713, is known as the Old State House for obvious reasons: It housed both the Council Chamber of the Royal Government and later the Massachusetts Assembly. But it has other unique claims to fame, too. It’s the oldest surviving public building in Boston. The Declaration of Independence was first read to the public from its balcony. The infamous Boston Massacre occurred right outside. Oh, and the spot seems to be . . . well, oddly flammable. The Old State House was built on the site of Boston’s first Town House, which burned to the ground. Since then, this building has been damaged by fire in every century: in 1747, 1832, and 1921. Its formal Georgian architecture includes a gambrel (symmetrical and sloped) roof and dramatic steeple, flanked by a decorative lion and unicorn. The animals were symbols of royal authority, and celebrating revolutionaries actually tore down and burned the original wooden statues in a bonfire after the reading of the Declaration of Independence. The ones you see today were part of an 1882 restoration project.

Now: That restoration project was the first carried out by the Bostonian Society, which was founded to preserve the historic building and still inhabits the space today, offering tours, special education programs and events.

The Flour and Grain Exchange Building

The Flour and Grain Exchange Building shortly after construction. Photo Credit to Shepley Bulfinch.

The 1890s: Richardsonian Romanesque

Then: It was known as the Flour and Grain Exchange building at 177 Milk Street. Completed in 1892, it was built to house the newly formed Boston Chamber of Commerce on land donated by Henry M. Whitney, a transportation magnate who had introduced Boston’s first electric-powered streetcar line in Allston-Brighton in 1888. The exterior is made from pink granite—a rare variety that, between 1870 and 1940, was only quarried in Milford, Massachusetts, and prized for its use in museums and monuments. And the architecture firm of Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge (now Shepley Bulfinch) designed the cool, castle-like building in the Richardsonian Romanesque style. H. H. Richardson, a famed architect whose work also included Trinity Church in Copley Square, was the firm’s founding principal. He was inspired by the castles and abbeys of medieval Spain, Italy and France. The coned roof, typical of his style, is iron covered with black slate.

Now: The Grain Exchange building is home to diverse offices—from the Beal Companies, one of the city’s most prominent commercial real-estate firms, to Global Rescue, a company that provides medical evacuation services to ill or injured world travelers.

The 1930s: Art Deco

Then: The New England Telephone and Telegraph Company building was designed by the then-thriving Boston firm Densmore, Leclear and Robbins during the heyday of the art deco style. The glamorous French-born aesthetic (particularly popular for movie houses) emphasized geometric shapes, strong symmetry, and an air of gilded industry—and the Telegraph Company building, which dominates Bowdoin Square, is a perfect example. Its 20-story limestone facade includes an entranceway flanked by carved eagles and adorned with ornate metal moldings of flowers and chevron patterns. Also included in the molding is a large bell that stands for “Ma Bell,” the consortium of telephone companies that flourished for decades until antimonopoly action broke it up. The Telegraph Company’s old headquarters, though, still looks solid and stylish.

Now: The 411 here isn’t surprising: This old telephone company headquarters is now home to Verizon.

The 1960s: Brutalist

Then: What’s in a name? A lot, when the name is brutalist. A lot of people criticize the style for being off-putting, and brutalist architecture does make municipal buildings feel like frill-free modern fortresses. The irregular, blockish configurations, blank walls, and big slabs of concrete create an imposing vibe. But context is everything: Brutalism flourished during a time when Americans were optimistic about and trusting of government, when people would look at buildings like this and see a well-oiled civic machine—not an intimidating home to bureaucratic headaches. (It was also a cost-effective approach for government buildings.) Boston City Hall is usually ranked among the best examples in the world, though ironically, locals complain it’s an eyesore. But it shouldn’t overshadow the nearby State Services Center, designed by architect Paul Rudolph. One of America’s foremost brutalist architects, Rudolph used a signature style of “corduroy concrete,” a hammered type that gives certain exterior walls the ribbed texture of, well, corduroy. The many nooks and crannies that surround it on the plaza, several of which are concealed and hidden by overhangs, are noteworthy. Inside are two commissioned murals by Italian sculptor Costantino Nivola. See? Even the brutal can be beautiful.

Now: In real life, it’s still filled with government offices and a courthouse. But in the movies it served a different purpose, playing the role of Boston Police headquarters in The Departed.

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