Sunday, February 7, 2010

Blog Post No. 2010-2: 45 Province Helps Re-Civilize Its Block

Dignifying a historical echo while losing a bit of local color

Location: 45 Province Street, Boston, MA

Year of Urban Fabric Restoration: 2009
Photos: Taking a walk around the block, starting at the corner of School Street and Province Street, then up School, left into Chapman Place to the rear alley behind the new building, around the corner onto Bosworth Street, down the Province House steps, and finally around the front of the building, stopping for a second at the former site of the Littlest Bar (the small, multi-paned facade at ground level with the red trim).

The Story: Where to start with this patch of Boston? I think I'll start with an excerpt from the treatment that Campbell and Vanderwarker gave to Province Court, the alley on the opposite side of Province Street, in Cityscapes of Boston (pages 158 and 159). [RTUF NOTE: Photo taken from the same vantage point in 2010 has been added as the last photo above. - ML] There, Robert said of the multi-storied garage that occupied this site from the mid-1950s until just a couple of years ago:

This car warehouse is the faceless Metropolitan Garage (1956), which may soon be demolished if a proposed redevelopment goes forward [RTUF NOTE: 45 Province is that ultimate redevelopment, some 17 years after Campbell wrote in 1992.] Regardless of whether it lives or dies, the Metropolitan's lesson is clear. Garages in the city are useful, but they shouldn't be allowed to kill the life of the street by occupying, as this one does, large areas along the sidewalk. Walking past so much dead frontage is like crossing a no man's land. It is empty, risky, and dull. Garages on commercial streets should be tucked out of sight beneath, above, or behind a continuous sidewalk frontage of other uses with interesting windows and doors, the architectural metaphors of human presence. Garages should also be designed with flat floors and enough ceiling room to enable them to be convertible -- like other buildings -- to different uses in the future.

Robert was right in so many different ways about that building. It was ugly, remarkably tall for a building used solely for a garage, and dead to the street in an aggressive, zombie-like way. Enough buildings like this, and you can kill even a city as tightly-knit as Boston. Despite its flat floors, it was not reused. Instead, it was totally demolished to make way for the building seen in the photos that I took this last week.

Even if you're not enitrely comfortable with the height of the new building (I personally am comfortable with the height, being, as I have stated in a prior post, from New York), it is a vast improvement over the former garage and parking lot that used to occupy this location. The residential condominiums rise above ground floor retail, a residential lobby announced by an expansive curving glass canopy, and off-street parking access/egress that is shielded for the most part by strategic landscaping and column placement. Following Robert Campbell's dictum, all of the building's 290+ parking spaces are located below grade beneath the building. One of the retail spaces appears to be reserved for a restaurant, with a side terrace (seen in the third photo, above) that looks like it will be a good place to perch come springtime. I especially like the careful treatment of Chapman Place at the rear of the building (cobblestones and granite curbing along the full length), how the building's main volumes are varied just enough to avoid a canyon effect, and the way the building fills in the entire block. All in all, 45 Province gives the surrounding streets a series of strong edges to work with.

Now for the historic echo and the lost piece of local color. The historic echo is the staircase leading up from the sidewalk on Province Street to the level of Bosworth Street above. This staircase is all that is left of the Province House, a mansion built by a wealthy Boston merchant in the 17th century that was made the official residence of the royal governors of the Massachusetts Province starting in 1716. After the Revolution, the Commonwealth found little use for the building once the seat of state government moved from what is now the Old State House to the Charles Bulfinch-designed (new) State House on Beacon Hill. So, in 1811 the structure was conveyed to the fledgling Massachusetts General Hospital as part of its endowment. After a century of income-generating commercial use for the hospital, the site was sold and the building was then demolished by the new owners in 1922. A plaque commemorating the location's rich history is located to the left of the base of the stairs. I think it fair to say that 45 Province re-civilizes this location -- an interesting concept considering it is located in the historic heart of a historic city, yet still true considering the garage structure it replaced.

We also now have another echo with the vestigial facade of the former Littlest Bar. Michael Levenson's Boston Globe piece lamenting the pub's demise can be read here. In summary, the pub was open for about 60 years, from the end of the Second World War until construction started on 45 Province a few years ago. It truly was the kind of place, as Levenson says, where half a dozen patrons could make it feel crowded. The Littlest did survive in altered form, relocating a few blocks away to Broad Street in a larger, ground-level space that just can't match what it had here. I don't challenge the notion that a strong piece of local color was lost here. But the city gained back a more extensive and functioning urban street frontage, and that has a value of its own.

RTUF Sketch of the Restored Urban Fabric: To say that this building neatly fills in a tear in the urban fabric that was crying out for restoration is an understatement. It does what was needed in this part of town.

RTUF NOTE: This post was modified after its initial publication to correct certain errors, improve readability, and add the photo of Providence Court. -- ML

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