When a new traditional building springs up in their city, contemporary Bostonians are not shy about speaking up, even filing lawsuits, if they find their new neighbor does not meet their expectations of proper decor or appropriateness. The Hotel Commonwealth in Kenmore Square, designed by locally-based Ahearn|Schopfer & Associates, demonstrates how the city’s denizens express this ire. It is a case study of a lost opportunity to create a proper, classically inspired building in the heart of an architecturally rich historic district.
Completed in 2004, the four-star $72-million Commonwealth Hotel is a mixed-use project with 150 luxury hotel rooms, 7 meeting rooms, 13 retail shops including galleries, florists and boutiques, two upscale restaurants, and an entrance to the MBTA subway station. Boston University (BU) and developer Great Bay Holdings created this “European style” hotel near the BU campus.
The revitalization of Kenmore Square was a primary goal of the project. Fenway Park, built in 1912, is an area landmark that sits across the sunken Mass Turnpike Extension to the rear of the hotel. In its heyday during the 1930s and 1940s, the square was an active hotel center for visiting sports teams and a home for doctors’ offices. The area had deteriorated into seediness and dereliction by the 1970s.
While money flowed into the more upscale Beacon Hill, Back Bay, and South End neighborhoods during the 1980s and 1990s, Kenmore Square remained forgotten. These areas provided examples of how well preserved 18th and 19th century urban environments can promote an active and vibrant civic life in the 21st-century city. The French Academic and Second Empire styles give the Back Bay much of its character, comprising about 40 percent of the buildings.
The Kenmore Square project was initiated in 1986 when Boston University, in conjunction with the city and local neighborhood groups, produced a Master Plan that made revitalization of the square a priority. An early scheme from Great Bay Holdings proposed the renovation of eight BU-owned 1892 brownstone townhouses, keeping their facades intact and bracketing the five-story structures with new construction. The Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) denied the proposal, noting that the townhouses had been altered beyond recognition by their contemporary retail and office uses. These and four adjacent structures were demolished for the new luxury hotel intended to serve as the anchor for the rehabilitation of Kenmore Square. Public opposition by local neighborhood groups was mitigated by the promise that the new, historically appropriate hotel would contain sidewalk retail shops.
When the six-story construction curtain was removed in late 2002, the public and city officials saw the completed facade for the first time. Local residents and the BRA were shocked, as the facade was quite different from the renderings. The developers had “value-engineered” the exterior materials, using inexpensive yellowish fiberglass panels and simplifying many fenestration details. Faux dormers were not even connected to the roof. Angry letters from local residents were published in The Boston Globe and a neighborhood newspaper declared “BRA May Not Let Hotel Open.” It added that the hotel would not receive an occupancy permit until the city approved the exterior design.
The developers agreed to a $5-million dollar facade facelift. But even as completed, the hotel still has the thin panelized feel of a cardboard model blown up to full size. Despite the upgrading from fiberglass to cast stone, the reconfiguration of the faux dormers, the addition of additional window openings, and copper roof flashing, the completed design lacks a basic understanding of the French Second Empire. If Ahearn|Schopfer had used that style’s system of elements, proportions, and fenestration as a basis for their design, it could have produced a more pleasing neighbor.
The design raises several questions. Should the design of a contemporary building in a period style within a historic district be authentically classical? Can simplifying generic traditional elements without specific stylistic syntax be acceptable?
In a 375-year old city where historical architecture is highly valued by its citizens, the former approach should be the most appropriate response for this particular building. But the Hotel Commonwealth’s architects did not design in a classically correct style, but chose a modern and abstracted reinterpretation that they erroneously characterize as Second Empire. The results have induced a general dissatisfaction among many Back Bay and Kenmore Square residents, even after the expensive facade renovation. At a minimum, the architects should have conducted the research necessary to understand this particular style and then carefully extracted and invented from that base knowledge. Even if greatly simplified and reduced, the historically accurate “bones” of the French Second Empire style would have provided the building with a layer of genuineness and legitimacy.
It is not just columns, traditional moldings, and a mansard roof that define a Classical building. There is an underlying structure that comprises basic classical design tenets as described by Vitruvius, Alberti, Palladio, and many others. Classical architects utilize the grammar of moldings and other traditional elements to define specific functions: crowning, supporting, binding, separating and buttressing. This attention to the time-tested principles of classical architecture endows a well-designed building with the feeling that it is “just right.”
The succession of rounded bay windows marching along the length of the Commonwealth Avenue façade has no direct reference in the Second Empire style. These bays may have been inspired by the nearby 1908 Somerset Office Building at 390 Commonwealth Avenue. While a fine example of the early 20th-century French Revival, it is not Second Empire. Comparing this century-old building with the Hotel Commonwealth, the earlier building has a depth, authenticity and substance that the new hotel lacks. The Somerset building’s ornamentation has the impression of being carved out of the building’s mass, while the Hotel Commonwealth looks like a steel structure with a thin skin of cast-stone panels and face brick.
Common characteristics of the neo-baroque French Second Empire style include a double-pitched mansard roof with dormers that clearly define the attic as occupied space, paired engaged columns framing important entrance openings, deep and sculptural surrounds framing entrances, windows and doors with architectonic ornamentation such as quoins and bull’s eye windows. All serve to make the structure appear substantial, imposing, and grand. The facade is usually organized with projecting horizontal entablature and stringcourses at each floor level with real or implied columns supporting the entablatures. Windows are generally large, either flat-topped or rounded (demonstrating an Italianate influence), and framed individually with aedicules or richly sculptured surrounds. The uppermost mansard roof cornice is the deepest of the entablatures and may have large brackets that indicate Victorian motifs.
None of these features exist (even in abstracted forms) in the new hotel’s design. If the intent was to design the structure as French Second Empire, there are numerous examples throughout the Back Bay that could have informed the architect’s facades. Even without singular stylistic reference, but as an attempt to traditionalize a contemporary building by applying random Classical parts, the hotel would have more visual interest if the architects created the illusion of depth and substance within the facades. Further development and enrichment of the cast panels, windows, rusticated base, and other architectonic ornamentation is needed to give the hotel historic validity. The hotel’s mansard roof could have been more convincing if the detailing, proportions and design of authentic Second Empire mansards and their elegantly enclosed dormers were actually studied. It is far too simplified, resembling the roof of a Las Vegas version of a French building.
The building and its neighborhood would have been better served if a rigorous academic approach to period authenticity had been utilized in its design or if the building had been designed as a modern edifice. If budget constraints necessitated a relatively clean and ordered facade with a minimum of decorative ornament, then the Back Bay’s predominant classical residential style, French Academic, would have been an appropriate alternative.
Compromise between Modernism and Classicism is a tricky path for contemporary architects. The results are often unstudied compromises, an architecture lacking real meaning or authenticity. Attempts to “traditionalize” a contemporary building by applying recognizable Classical motifs without a thorough understanding of Classical architecture result in a building which is neither modern nor Classical, but something worse — kitsch.
Kenmore Square has seen some benefits from the project. The Hotel Commonwealth is highly rated, as are its two gourmet restaurants featuring seafood and French cuisine. The hotel’s sidewalk restaurant and retail shops enliven the square with their activities. But the retail shops have gentrified into boutiques that do not cater to the local student population.
And the building’s unstudied Classicism falls far short of what could have been. Ahearn|Schopfer & Associates missed an opportunity to design a true landmark. A more pleasing building could have added to the fabric of the Back Bay and could have encouraged more high quality, classically inspired new buildings in Boston and elsewhere.
An earlier, unabridged version of this article appeared in the February 2007 issue of “Traditional Building”: http://www.srkarchitect.com/Page_Image/Docs/TB_2007.pdf
By Sheldon Richard Kostelecky
I believed the 180,000 square-foot Hotel Commonwealth completed in 2004 was a lost opportunity to create a classically-inspired building in the heart of the architecturally rich historic district of the Back Bay in Boston’s Kenmore Square. I designed a more historically appropriate counter-proposal of this mixed-use grand hotel, which utilized the Back Bay’s predominant character of mid- to late-19th century French Academic and Napoleon III Second Empire styles.
The existing hotel’s program included 150 luxury hotel rooms, seven meeting rooms, 13 boutique retail shops fronting Commonwealth Avenue, two restaurants, and an entrance to the local subway station (the Kenmore T stop).
In addition to incorporating period-appropriate details, materials such as French limestone trim, hand-molded red brick and blue slate roofing with copper flashing were utilized to develop a more authentic and historically contextual building.