Traditional Building Portfolio
Palladio Awards

Project: African Meeting House, Boston, MA

Architect: John G. Waite Associates, Architects, PLLC, Albany, NY; John G. Waite, FAIA, senior principal; Clay S. Palazzo, AIA, LEED AP, principal and project manager

General Contractor: Shawmut Design and Construction, Boston, MA

 

 

Awards

Restoration & Renovation

Winner: John G. Waite Associates, Architects, PLLC

Open to All

By Lynne Lavelle

It is impossible to discuss the Abolitionist Movement without acknowledging the role played by Boston's African Meeting House, located at 8 Smith Court within the city's historic Beacon Hill district. The three-story brick Federal-style building was constructed in 1806 as the First Independent Baptist Church, and became the city's first and only school for black children two years later. Among the many landmark events it hosted are William Lloyd Garrison's founding of the New England Anti-Slavery Society in 1832; Frederick Douglass' anti-slavery speech in 1860; and the recruitment in 1863 of the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, one of the first official black army units in the country, led by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw.

The African Meeting House, as it came to be known, served as a community meeting place for more than 160 years. It was acquired by the Museum of African American History in 1972 and designated a National Historic Landmark two years later, at that time the National Park Service stated, "The African Meeting House stands as testament to the enduring legacy of the courage and determination of the Boston black community." John G. Waite, FAIA, of John G. Waite Associates, Architects could not agree more. "Boston was a hotbed of activity during the American Revolution and had an early, active Abolitionist community," he says. "In 1806, important black religious leaders rose to lead the quite sizable black population in Boston, and with their white supporters decided to build a church to serve their community. The original building committee consisted of white tradesmen, including a baker, builders and a chocolate maker, not wealthy businessmen, politicians, or intellectuals. There are numerous accounts of Abolitionist meetings held in the building, sometimes to the point of the meeting house being completely full, with hundreds of people outside."

Last year, John G. Waite Associates, Architects completed a $6-million restoration and renovation that returned the African Meeting House to its 1855 appearance and earned the firm its second Palladio Award (see Traditional Building, June 2010). The project began with a thorough historic structure report, completed in 2004, and the design included new fire stairs and an elevator, as well as new HVAC, electrical, plumbing, heating, air-conditioning and fire-protections systems – all of which were accommodated without compromising the historic building, "Each project is different," said Clay S. Palazzo, AIA, LEED AP, of John G. Waite Associates, Architects. "It is a balance between today's building and life safety codes and the historic, character-defining features of the building – you don't want to compromise the cultural significance and character of a building for modern use."

The year 1855 was not only a historically significant period, but it also saw the installation of much of the building's surviving fabric including the framing system, small apse, window openings, doors and wall finishes. This played a significant part in the decision to return the structure to that era. "Most of the building fabric, except for the exterior, dated from 1855 not 1806," says Waite. "The use of the building as a synagogue in 1902 changed some of the decorative finishes of the meeting space and removed the Christian pulpit, but the basic building survived. Also, to return the building to its 1806 appearance would have eliminated a very important part of its history, namely the pre-Civil War Abolitionist period."

Documenting the building was made more complex by the fact that it suffered a serious fire in 1973, which burned off the roof and roof framing. However, upon the building's acquisition by the Museum, the National Park Service had completed an extensive report of its condition. Also in the architects' favor, the building had been well taken care of over the years. "It is very fortunate that the building survived," says Waite. "It could have been lost at many stages in its history. Having the synagogue own the building at that particular time in its history was critical for its preservation and repair."

The restoration began at the ground-floor basement, which had at various times functioned as a minister's apartment, school rooms and as a meeting space for the congregation. Because it had been extensively remodeled, the first order of business was to strip away all of the late 20th-century building fabric. The firm followed the same process on the upper floors, investigating behind recent finishes and determining what was new, original, and what dated from 1855.

From the beginning, the major challenge facing the firm was how to meet modern code requirements without destroying the building's character. "The museum wanted the building to fulfill the same functions as it did in its early history – to be a living building and not be only a museum," says Waite. "To do that we had to build a compliant modern fire stair and provide an elevator to the first floor, so that the main floor as well as the ground-floor be wheelchair accessible." The solution was a new structure, of similar brick as the original, connected to the building but separated with a glass wall and visible only from the rear. "We spent a great deal of time designing that," says Waite, "because putting those two necessary modern elements into the original unpretentious but elegant building would have destroyed the very thing we were trying to save."

Before construction began on the new structure, the rear courtyard was excavated and a new fire-resistant underground vault was constructed to house new heating and air-conditioning equipment. Inside the historic building, air-conditioning and heating ducts were carefully concealed so as not to intrude on the historic spaces. The original meeting room once again contains curved pews, a pulpit, and restored period details such as cast-iron posts and lighting fixtures. "Being able to restore the building to house its original function, with modern codes, without compromising the integrity of the building, was very rewarding," says Waite.

Suppliers for the project included New Stamp Lighting of North Easton, MA; Mark Richey Woodworking of Newburyport, MA, (custom reproduction of the pews and pulpit); DeAngelis Iron Work of South Easton, MA, (reproduction of cast-iron pew brackets and cast-iron column repairs); Longleaf Lumber of Cambridge, MA, supplier of the salvaged pumpkin pine flooring; and One Lux Studio of New York, NY (lighting design). The restored African Meeting House opened on December 6th, 2011, with an emotional dedication ceremony attended by Mayor of Boston, Thomas M. Menino, Massachusetts Governor Duvall Patrick, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, as well as numerous politicians and activists. It is open every day, and entry is gained via the adjacent Abeil Smith School, which also holds exhibitions.

Beverly A. Morgan-Welch, executive director of the Museum of African American History, was recognized at the dedication ceremony for her tireless fundraising efforts. "The campaign to raise the money for the restoration and then coordinate with the myriad of government agencies was a struggle that rivaled that of 1806 in the original construction of the building," says Waite. "However, Beverly persevered and never lost sight of the goal." TB

 

 

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