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Missed Opportunity

Project: Hotel Commonwealth, Kenmore Square, Boston, MA

Architect: Ahearn|Schopfer & Associates, Boston, MA

Owner: Great Bay Holdings, Boston, MA, with Boston University

Reviewed by Sheldon Richard Kostelecky

Boston is a city justly proud and appreciative of its well-preserved historic architecture, ranging from the elegant Neoclassical late-18th and early-19th-century Federal and Greek Revival row houses on Beacon Hill to the early-20th-century eclectic revival styles found in the surrounding neighborhoods. When a rare new traditional building springs up in the city (usually a replacement structure), contemporary Bostonians are not shy about speaking up, even filing lawsuits if and when they find their new neighbor does not meet their expectations of proper decor, or appropriateness, within their beloved historic districts.

The Hotel Commonwealth in the city's Kenmore Square, designed by E. Kevin Schopfer of Ahearn|Schopfer and Associates of Boston, presents an example of how Bostonians will express this ire. It is also a case study of a lost golden opportunity to create a proper Classically inspired landmark building in the heart of an architecturally rich urban historic district.

Completed in 2004, the four-star $72-million Hotel Commonwealth is a mixed-use project with 150 luxury hotel rooms, seven meeting rooms, 13 retail shops including galleries, florists and boutiques (both along the street and within the building on the second, or piano nobile level, in the form of a galleria), two upscale restaurants fronting the south side of Commonwealth Avenue and a reconstructed entrance to an underground MBTA subway station. Boston University (BU) joined forces with developer Great Bay Holdings, a partnership of Frank Keefe, Terrence J. Guiney and Dennis Callaghan, to create this "European style" grand hotel near its campus.

One of the primary goals of this project was the revitalization of Kenmore Square, which, along with other parts of Boston, had deteriorated into seediness and dereliction by the 1970s. In its heyday during the 1930s and '40s, the square had been an active hotel center for visiting sports teams and a home for dentists' and doctors' offices. One of the attractions of the area is Fenway Park, built in 1912. It sits directly across the sunken Mass Turnpike Extension to the rear of the hotel.

While money flowed into the more upscale Beacon Hill, Back Bay and South End neighborhoods during the 1980s and '90s, Kenmore Square was forgotten, until now. These neighborhoods provided examples of how well-preserved historic urban environments conceived in the 18th and 19th centuries can continue to play a vital role in promoting an active and vibrant civic life in the 21st-century. The early French Academic and Second Empire styles are predominant in the Back Bay proper (approximately bounded by Arlington Street to the east, Beacon Street to the north, Massachusetts Avenue to the west and Boylston Street to the south), consisting of approximately 40 percent of its building stock. The Kenmore Square project hoped to follow these examples. It was initiated in 1986 when BU, in conjunction with the city and local neighborhood groups, produced a master plan (updated in 1997) making the revitalization of the square one of its main priorities.

An early sensitive proposal from Great Bay Holdings, and one of the partners, Dennis Callaghan, who had earlier refurbished the historic Equinox hotel in Manchester, VT, proposed renovating a row of eight existing BU-owned five-story 1892 brownstone bow-front townhouses, keeping their façades intact and infilling both ends with new construction. The agency in charge of reviewing and approving new development within the city, the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) turned this down, noting that the formerly residential townhouses had been altered beyond recognition by their contemporary retail and office uses. So the townhouses, along with four adjacent structures, were demolished to make way for the new luxury hotel designed to serve as the anchor for the rehabilitation of Kenmore Square.

There was some public opposition from citizens and local neighborhood groups, but this was mitigated by the promise of the new historically appropriate hotel with replacement sidewalk retail shops. It should be noted that the Back Bay Architectural Commission (BBAC), which faithfully reviews all new construction and renovation in the public view of historic structures for historic appropriateness within the Back Bay Historic District, does not have jurisdiction in Kenmore Square. Its jurisdiction ends at Charlesgate East, a block east of the project site. The BRA was the primary design review agency for the city.

In late 2002, however, when the six-story construction curtain was finally removed, the public and city officials saw the completed façade for the first time. The local residents and the BRA were both shocked at the façade, which was quite different from the promises of the early renderings. The developers had made an ill-advised attempt to "value-engineer" the exterior materials by using inexpensive yellowish fiberglass panels and by simplifying many of the fenestration details, including providing faux dormers that were not even connected to the roof. A flurry of angry letters from local residents published in The Boston Globe, and a neighborhood newspaper, the Back Bay Courant, declared that "BRA May Not Let Hotel Open" and added that the hotel would not get their occupancy permit until the city "approves the exterior design."

After a $5-million façade facelift that the developers agreed to do, the hotel, as finally completed, still has the thin panelized feel of a scaled cardboard model literally blown up to full size. Despite the subsequent upgrading (from fiberglass to cast stone, the reconfiguration of the faux dormers, the addition of additional window openings, the use of real copper roof flashing, et al.), the overall finished design of the hotel lacks the basic understanding of what the French Second Empire actually is. If Ahearn|Schopfer had used that style's system of elements, proportional systems and fenestration schemes as a sound basis for the architecture – whether as a pure imitation of the original style or a modern invention within the rules of that language – it would have produced a more archeologically accurate and thus more pleasing neighbor in Boston's historic Kenmore Square.

The hotel was described in "Renewing Kenmore," by Thomas C. Palmer, Jr., in the January 3, 2003 issue of The Boston Globe, as "semi-ornate French Second Empire architecture [that] will recall a rich era when stately hotels shared space with residences along the outer reaches of Boston's Commonwealth Avenue." Ahearn|Schopfer's own website adds that "The project has been conceived in a demeanor and style appropriately fitted to the bustling urban context of historic Commonwealth Avenue."

In discussing the design of the Hotel Commonwealth itself, a primary question comes to mind. Should the design of a contemporary building in a period style within a historic district be authentically Classically informed, or is abstracting and simplifying generic traditional elements not related to any specific stylistic syntax appropriate and acceptable?

In a 375-year-old city where historical architecture is so highly valued by its citizens, the former approach would have been the most appropriate response for this particular building. For the Hotel Commonwealth, the architects chose not to design the building in a Classically correct mid- to late-19th-century Second Empire style of Napoleon III (as their public statements implied), but rather as a modern and abstracted reinterpretation of what they erroneously viewed as Second Empire. The results of this "modernizing of a dusty old style" appears to have induced a general dissatisfaction among a sizeable portion of Back Bay and Kenmore Square residents, even after an expensive façade facelift.

If not using strictly Classical French Second Empire proportions, fenestration composition conventions, ornament, decorative details, etc., then, at a minimum, the architects should have conducted the extensive research necessary to fully understand this particular style in depth, and only then, carefully extracted and invented from that base knowledge. Even if greatly simplified and reduced (budget constraints being the only valid excuse), the historically accurate "bones" of the French Second Empire style would have still shown through and provided the building with a layer of genuineness and legitimacy.

It is not just the tacking on of Classical columns and traditional looking moldings here and there (or in this case, providing a faux mansard roof) that define a Classical building. It is an underlying structure that addresses the basic Classical design tenets, or canons, as described by Vitruvius and later expanded by 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 basic time-tested principles of Classical architecture is what endows a well-designed traditional building with that special quality of concinnity, the ethereal feeling that it is "just right."

The succession of stacking rounded bay windows marching along the length of the principal façade on Commonwealth Avenue has no direct reference to the Second Empire style, which generally used large framed French casement windows instead. These bays may rather have been inspired by the nearby Somerset Office Building (and condominiums) at 390 Commonwealth Avenue, built in 1908. While a fine example of the early-20th-century French Revival apartment building, it is not Second Empire.

If one were to compare and contrast this century-old building with the Hotel Commonwealth side by side, it would be immediately apparent to even the most casual observer that the earlier building has a depth, authenticity and substance that the new hotel does not. The ornamentation of the Somerset Building's façade gives the impression of being carved out of the material the building was made of, while the Hotel Commonwealth looks like what it is, a steel structure with a curtain wall of thin cast-stone panels and a face-brick skin one wythe thick.

Common characteristics of the Neo-baroque French Second Empire style include a double-pitched mansard blue-slate roof with piercing dormers (clearly defining the attic floor level as being occupied space); paired engaged columns framing important entrance openings or façades; deep and sculptural surrounds framing entrances, windows and doors; and architectonic ornamentation, such as quoins and oeuil de boeuf (bull's eye windows). All serve the purpose of making the structure appear substantial, imposing and grand. In addition, the façade is usually organized with projecting horizontal entablature and cornice string courses at each and every floor level, with real or implied super-positioned engaged columns supporting those entablatures. The windows are generally large, either flat-topped or rounded (Italianate influence), and framed individually with either aedicules or richly sculptured surrounds. The uppermost mansard roof cornice would be the deepest of all the entablatures, and may have large brackets, either paired or marching along underneath the corona, which is also indicative of the use of Victorian Italianate (aka Bracket Style) motifs.

The flamboyant Victorian Second Empire of the 1870s has its roots in the earlier Neorenaissance French Academic style of the late 1850s and '60s, in which the majority of the relatively chaste Back Bay townhouses were designed, where basic Classical architecture motifs were widely used. 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 proper that would have readily informed the architects how to design the hotel's façades, or even how to reinterpret the style with variations on a theme.

Even as currently designed with no 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 more attention had been paid to creating the fictive illusion of depth and substance within the façades. In addition, further development and enrichment of the design of the cast panels, windows (with their wide but thin metal contemporary storefront-style framing and mullions), too-thin and not totally resolved rusticated base and other architectonic trim and ornamentation was needed to give the hotel more historic validity.

The hotel's version of the mansard roof would have been more convincing if the detailing, proportions and design of authentic Second Empire mansard roofs and their elegantly enclosed dormers had actually been studied. As built, it appears far too simplified and rather like a stage set with a sloped shingled wall hiding roof-top mechanical equipment, resembling a roof of a Las Vegas or Disneyland version of a French building.

The building itself and its surrounding historic urban neighborhood would have been far better served if a rigorous academic approach to period authenticity had been utilized in its design, or alternatively, if the building had even been designed strictly as a pure modern edifice. If budget constraints had necessitated a relatively clean and ordered façade with a minimum of decorative ornament (though at $74 million, there appears to have been an adequate budget for the project), but with historically accurate and properly proportioned fenestration, trim and details, then the Back Bay's predominant and relatively chaste and Classical residential style, French Academic, would have been a viable alternative approach.

Compromise or mitigation between Modernism and Classicism is a tricky path for contemporary architects trained in Modernism, as their buildings usually end up as just that – unstudied compromises. The result is usually architecture that has been dumbed down, lacking any real meaning or authenticity. Attempts to "traditionalize" a contemporary building by applying easily recognizable Classical motifs such as columns and moldings without a thorough understanding of Classical architecture and a particular period style, often result in a building which is neither modern nor Classical, but actually something worse – kitsch.

By reducing and abstracting Classical elements to a basic kit of parts, the architect willfully ignores symmetry (proportional relationships of parts), eurythmia (pleasing appearance of those parts) and decor (appropriateness), creating a sort of faux architecture. If the Modernist architect attempting to design a Classical building, despite his or her good intentions, does not have an in-depth understanding of what Classical architecture is, he or she can, out of ignorance, dilute meaning from time-tested Classical forms. This architect designs traditional buildings with a sort of "soullessness," devoid of subtle shadows and changes of plane, meaningful implied structure and without a sense that all the Classical components are coming together in a careful and logical manner. The result is not a unified and clear composition that makes sense.

The luxury hotel itself is highly rated (4 diamonds by AAA), as are the two gourmet restaurants, with their seafood and French cuisine offerings. The retail shops have been unfortunately gentrified into Newbury Street-style boutiques and do not cater any longer to the student population of BU. Kenmore Square has, however, benefited with the hotel serving as a contributing background building. Along with the sidewalk restaurant and retail shops, the square is enlivened with its human activity. The building itself, however, is a clear product of unstudied Classicism, and thus falls short of what it could have been.

The elegant interiors of the hotel, in marked contrast to the uninformed exterior design, were handled with much more sensitivity. The urban luxury hotel's public spaces, meeting rooms, interior retail arcade, restaurants and guest rooms all convey an elegant and cohesive modern French-themed approach in its detailing and decoration. The material and color palettes appear rich and luxurious, without being overdone.

As a mixed-use building in the heart of the vibrant city of Boston, the Hotel Commonwealth may succeed in fulfilling its intended uses, but Ahearn|Schopfer and Associates ultimately missed a rare and golden opportunity to design a Classically correct landmark building. A more pleasing building could have added substantially not only to the real-life catalogue of the various period styles of the historic fabric of the Back Bay, but also would have encouraged more high-quality Classically inspired new buildings to be built in Boston and elsewhere in the country. TB

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