By Frank McGuire, AIA
Boston’s Beacon Hill is an enclave of redbrick facades combined with stone trim, traditional six-over-six, double-hung windows and an occasional cobblestone street or driveway left over from Revolutionary days.
The Beacon Hill National Historic District was created by an Act of the Massachusetts Legislature in conjunction with the National Park Service in 1955. “To preserve the character of Old Beacon Hill as it existed in Former Times” was the stated purpose of the Act. That said, the Act recognized that while most buildings have remained faithful to their original design, some changes have taken place over time that “have attained historic significance.” The Guidelines for renovation in the Historic District do not suggest either returning buildings to their absolute original state regardless of later elements, or new “historical” additions or embellishments. “Disney-fication” or Williamsburg “Restoration” are violations of the spirit and intention of the Act.
8 Spruce Court was built sometime in the 1950s as an infill Squash Court, part of a Private Club, which included both a large mansion on Beacon Street and the garage/carriage house and servants quarters behind. Both were built by the Jordan family, founders of the Jordan Marsh department stores, in a traditional 19th-century Boston red-brick vocabulary.
And 8 is a very different building. Crisp white stucco walls, clean punched openings and black casement windows, with horizontally divided sash mark, this as a building of quite another period: early 20th century Modernism in the “Bauhaus” or International Style.
When I took on the project as Architect for my daughter and son-in-law, together with the general contractors, Ricci Brothers of Watertown, Mass., I looked, as one should do on any Beacon Hill building, into its stylistic past, its architectural DNA.
The Bauhaus School of Design in Dessau, Germany, brought together architecture, painting, sculpture, graphics, furniture and interior design , to respond to the powerful impact of the industrial machine age in a holistic interdisciplinary manner, much as the Renaissance in the 16th century brought together painting, music, architecture, and sculpture in an attempt to recover the lost Greco-Roman heritage of the Classical Period.
Adolf Hitler, who abhorred Modernism , as did both Stalin and FDR, shut down the Bauhaus in 1935, and many of the school’s faculty fled to America. One such was the architect Walter Gropius, who was invited by Harvard to become Dean of Architecture. Under his tutelage a generation of Harvard architects embraced what came to be called the International Style, and although we have not yet found precise attribution, 8 Spruce Court is clearly a product of his Studio at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design.
The elegant ornamental ironwork in a traditional style was likely added in the 1970s, as were the vertical metal strips nailed to the windows to create a more “historic” look. The ironwork is exactly the kind of significant change over time that the Act envisioned, and was intended to preserve. The false window mullions by contrast are exactly what should be removed.
When the building came before the Beacon Hill Architectural Commission, as is required for all work in the District that is visible from a public way, these issues were the subject of lively discussion. In the end it was voted that the building was “a Bauhaus Bijou on Beacon Hill,” in a Commissioner’s words, and should be renovated in that spirit, with the proviso that the later ironwork be retained.
The exterior renovation repairs and refinishes the original white stucco, replaces the decayed windows in their original modernist configuration, and retains the later high-quality ironwork at the ground level. Both exterior and interiors recall the classic “Workers’ Housing” of Gropius, Le Corbusier, Gerrit Rietveld, Hannes Meyer and other luminaries of the period, with particular reference to Le Corbusier’s Maison Citrohan and his Maisons Ouvrieres at Pessac, near Bordeaux.
Industrial materials, glass block, machine-like hardware and fixtures , absence of decoration, and splashes of strong interior color defining building elements in a painterly style derived from Cubism, all recall what Gropius, Corbusier and others called “The Will of the Epoch,” “Form Follows Function,” “ L’Esprit Noveau,” “A Machine for Living.”
This “Classical Modernism” has its own rules, proportions and philosophy as much as any building of the Georgian, Federal or Classical Revival styles. It is as distinct from Contemporary, Art Deco or Fifties “Moderne” as those are from a Back Bay Victorian.
Much of the optimism of that forward looking early 20th-century era has been overtaken by time, but to have a small example of what was to be a new way of looking at the world adds to the richness and historic variety of the neighborhood.
As such, 8 Spruce Court is faithful to the original intention and guidelines of the Act, and a worthy addition to the architectural fabric and history of Beacon Hill.
Or, as my daughter, who has grown up among these ideas and who picked out all the colors from a Le Corbusier sample chart, said, “Dad, we HAVE to have glass block. Where are we putting GLASS BLOCK?”
“Right here, honey, where Gropius would have put it.”
Frank McGuire, AIA is a former member of the Beacon Hill Architectural Commission, and a practicing Architect on Beacon Hill.