Wednesday, January 4, 2012

In the Absence of Evidence You Research and Speculate…and hope everyone agrees

We do our best at HBI to reposition historic buildings based upon what physical evidence we can find on site and what documentary research will tell us. Unfortunately, the available record is all too often incomplete and we are simply left to speculate.  In the absence of good photographs or written documentation we have to do our best to make design and construction decisions based on limited context, research, expert opinions and guess work.

Speculative preservation design and development is more than just an academic debate; it carries financial and legal consequences for those engaged  in historic rehabilitation. A number of Local, State and Federal agencies have approval authority over project design and treatments, and ideas about what might have been based on Local, State and Federal standards and criteria – which may not always prioritize the same things. Further, when a building is exceptionally significant, opinions about these things can be particularly strident.

We have been running up against those  tensions at the 1875Hayden Building project, HH Richardson’s only remaining commercial project in Boston On the first floor of the LaGrange street elevation is a large opening blocked by a reddish stucco panel that conceals some of the modern improvements from our preservation intervention in the late 1990’s.


We have very clear pictures and evidence of the evolution of the Washington Street storefront and successfully fabricated an appropriate wooden storefront with the help of the North Bennet Street School shortly after we acquired the building. 

However, we have no such evidence for the LaGrange façade. We know the current stucco panel was a commercial entrance and was likely a loading door,a design challenge as we are redeveloping the upper stories into residential units which require a more pedestrian scale entrance. Further, this is not a small opening and it presents a more industrial scale to the otherwise elegant Romanesque fenestration, both vertically and horizontally. Whatever we put in this location, it has to be based upon some rational relationship to the historic doorway’s original purpose, serve as a pedestrian entrance for the building’s new residential use, and be acceptable to all applicable authorities.

Our architects, CUBE DESIGN + Research, have proposed a number of thoughtful solutions ranging from a basic single glass pane doorway  to a storefront that uses varying glass and muntin configurations to mimic the building’s heavy ashlar stone patterning that was a signature of Richardson’s work to blend the opening into the existing façade. They have examined various iterations that include  overhead canopies, different sizes of opening and different materials. 

However, the final decision does not simply rest with HBI. As a prominent preservation project seeking state and federal tax credit equity, our proposals need to be approved by the Boston Landmarks Commission, the Massachusetts Historic Commission and the United States Department of the Interior. All of these agencies have their own experts, each has slightly different oversight, and while they all ascribe to the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabiliation, we’re learning that each has a slightly different view on the influence of the Standards on design.   Each of them has found one of our proposals acceptable and have offered many helpful suggestions on how to improve or tweak an element of the design in the interest of preservation.   Unfortunately, they haven’t found the same one.

So, in the absence of photographs or Richardson’s drawings, we have to research typical designs for loading bays on contemporary places like the Marshall Field Warehouse in Chicago, and similar building types in and around Chinatown and Boston.  What’s at stake?  Money!  To preserve and rehabilitate a small building for a modern context and market, it is very expensive.  Once all of this is resolved to the satisfaction of all the reviewing agencies, the Hayden Building project will hope to benefit from State and Federal Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credits. 

We’re confident this will come to a good resolution, but the debate is an interesting one to share and discuss.  What do you think?   

No comments:

Post a Comment