By David Brussat
Saturday, May 22, 2010
South Station was the gathering point on Saturday afternoon, May 22, for a tour of Boston’s Financial District. Our march through Beantown’s corridors of money power was led by chapter board member and architect Michael Tyrrell, who opened the occasion with an erudite half-hour presentation at the Acela Club. The tour was a joint venture of the chapter and Boston by Foot, and attracted two dozen tourists, including six members of the chapter’s board: President John Margolis, former board president Eric Daum, Vice President for Education Sheldon Kostelecky, and board members Carl Close, Aaron Helfand and David Brussat. Boston by Foot’s Mary Ficter helped Tyrrell organize the event and its docent was Denis Doyle.
Old photographs and renderings of the 18 buildings that were to be highlighted on the tour revealed the evolution of the Hub’s banking center. Tyrrell described the financial architecture of yesterday versus today as a shift from “urban furniture” to “urban equipment” for which modernism and its machine aesthetic is responsible. He emphasized that the buildings on the tour were fully modern in technology, and designed with the stamp of a genuinely American flair. He noted the diversity of styles in the robust interpretation of the classical orders: Bank on the idea that your money is safe. Stout columns, florid swags and imperious architraves clearly protected your money better then than modern financial regulation does today. Trust and confidence that can be seen is easier for depositors to believe.
After his scholarly lecture, Tyrrell led the group out to see the 18 buildings selected for the tour. They included banks designed by Daniel Burnham, Cass Gilbert, Shepley Rutan & Coolidge and Parker Thomas & Rice. On the way from one building to the next, we felt the abundance of downtown Boston’s late 19th and early 20th century neoclassicism, banks and otherwise. The profusion of ornament distracted our attention from the larger but less ornate buildings erected since World War II. Not all of the latter literally resembled equipment as forthrightly as the new Federal Reserve Bank, above left, which calls to mind the offspring of an old mainframe and a refrigerator), but they all did cause us to shrug (if I may take the liberty of interpreting for the group) at the minimal aesthetic diversity available to a minimalist architectural palette.
Denis Doyle helped Tyrrell finagle our way into a couple of unopen-for-business lobbies: the Samuel Appleton Building and 31 Milk St. They illustrated that today and yesterday are as different, and as differentially satisfying, inside as out.
The hands-down tip-top of the tour was the Custom House tower, designed by Peabody & Stearns and added in 1915 atop the 1849 base designed by the U.S. Treasury Department’s chief architect, Ammi B. Young. We were assisted in probing the tower by a tour member, Dan, who owns one of the Marriott time-share apartments whose development financed the building’s extraordinary renovation and restoration. The views from its observation deck 26 stories up offered stunning perspective on the evolution of the Boston skyline, not to mention the byzantine pathways of its civic history.
The tour concluded at the restaurant Oceanaire, formerly the banking room of the United States Trust Co., where all could perhaps agree upon the conclusion, ratified persuasively by current events in the world of finance high and low, that they don’t build banks like they used to.