Downtown View: A handsome Building

All the news about Boston’s central business district has been about the Millennium Tower and the remake of Filene’s.

Sitting around the tower, however, is a lot of old Boston, much of it built after the devastating 1872 fire. It isn’t yet known if the tower will prove to be as handsome as some of the late 19th-century and early 20th-century structures near it. Look at the nine-story, 100 Franklin Street as an example of one of the best buildings in Boston.

Its materials are first rate— white marble blocks, bronze details, decorative cast iron trim and a pair of Roman centurion torchbearers mounted on either side of the main entrance. The front façade curves gracefully to match the line of the street. Every detail, from the window grilles to the fire escapes, is beautifully designed and executed. The contractor was Norcross Brothers, who also built Trinity Church.

A bank now occupies the main floor, which has suffered from modern replacement windows and a newish, banal doorway. But the building is lucky in that other classical details have been preserved.

Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge, an architecture firm responsible for many handsome Boston and Cambridge structures of that era, designed the 1908 building for the Boston Safe Deposit and Trust Company. It cost $1.1 million to build, said Robert J. Roche, archivist and records manager for Shepley Bulfinch Richardson & Abbott, as the firm is now known. The City of Boston currently values 100 Franklin (or 201 Devonshire, as listed in official records) at more than $22 million.

Its occupants have included the Boston Stock Exchange and the Vault, a group of business leaders who met there as they helped instigate Boston’s urban renewal in the 1950s and ’60s. Now one of its occupants is the building’s current owner, Synergy Investments, which maintains the building at a high level. It is 98.5 percent leased, according to the CoStar real estate database.

A building such as 100 Franklin is desirable, said Kirstin Blount, senior vice president at the real estate firm Colliers International, even though it does not have the large floor plate of newer skyscrapers. It is ideal for smaller firms, she said. Many of these older buildings exist in Boston since high rises account for only 29 million square feet in the approximately 63 million square feet of office space located in Boston’s business districts. The rent in older buildings, even when they are in meticulous condition, can be half that of a high rise or a new building.

The urban analyst Jane Jacobs loved older buildings, claiming they add variety in aspect, diversity in ownership and economic vitality. She believed that older buildings were required to keep streets vigorous.

But such buildings can be vulnerable. The Shreve, Crump and Low building at the corner of Arlington and Boylston is slated for demolition to make way for the Druker Company’s new building as soon as the company signs an anchor tenant.

While 100 Franklin Street looks as if its current profitability will enable it to last, it has no protection other than its owner’s good will. It is eligible for listing on the National Historic Register and is located in Boston’s Commercial Palace Historic District, designated by the National Historic Register. But those honors are not much protection, said Lynn Smiledge, chair of Boston’s Landmarks Commission.

The state-sanctioned historic districts such as those of the Back Bay and Beacon Hill have serious protections for historic structures, but there are no such Massachusetts-designated districts in Boston’s central business district, she said.

As for individual buildings, “the bar is high and the process lengthy,” Smiledge said about designating a structure as a landmark. “A building has to demonstrate significance beyond the local level or be the finest example of its style.”

That wasn’t the case for the old Shreve, Crump and Low building, even though many preservationists objected to its demolition.

Dozens of buildings in the financial district or Downtown Crossing are fine examples of the classical revival period, so 100 Franklin, for all its beauty, has company. Few older buildings demonstrate state-wide or national significance even though they may have interesting local histories. Unless a building is threatened with demolition or significant change, it typically sits on a “pending” list for a local landmark if it has any paperwork at all, said Smiledge.

            For now, such beautiful buildings as 100 Franklin Street serve proudly as contrasts to the high rises, most of which in Boston are made of lesser materials and possess little interesting detail. Perhaps the qualities of the older buildings could be the jumping off point for the design of some of the new high-rises in central Boston or the Seaport District’s mid-rises. We could do worse.

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