The Boston Society of Architects (BSA) has moved into a brand-new space in Atlantic Wharf. It’s far from the first time that architects have inhabited this site. From the 1980s until the early 2000s, the three industrial buildings comprising what was formerly known as Russia Wharf—Russia, Graphic Arts, and Tufts—were a hot spot for architecture firms. These turn-of-the-century mercantile buildings, designed by Peabody & Stearns and other notable Boston firms, provided these architects with inexpensive, flexible and light-filled spaces. Collaborations were forged, new clients and projects were found, and fledgling firms gained their footing. A professional community was nurtured there, however informally. To find out more about life in these buildings, I sat down recently with a few of the architects who have worked out of these spaces over the years.
The first thing I asked was “Why Russia Wharf?” The answer—at least at first—was simple: It was inexpensive. “Architects are bottom-feeders when it comes to finding office space,” said Frank DiMella AIA and principal at DiMella Shaffer. “We paid 50 cents per square foot when we first moved in.”
But although cost is always a factor for architects, it is never the only factor. Peter Shaffer, AIA, another principal at DiMella Shaffer, added that the flexibility of the landlords at the time, Ed Barry and Dean Stratouly of Congress Group Ventures, went a long way in making architects feel welcome. “It was thought of almost as an incubator for the design professions, allowing firms such as ours that were modest in size to expand and contract as our needs required,” said Shaffer. Suites were rented as unfinished spaces with access to basic restrooms and minimal shared facilities—and architects welcomed the opportunity to save on rent while dividing and finishing their spaces as they saw fit. “You could do what you wanted in the space,” said Todd Lee FAIA and, at the time, a principal at TLCR Architecture.
Given the cyclical nature of the construction industry and the uncertainties inherent to building an architecture firm, this flexibility was key. DiMella Shaffer—then known as Huygens, DiMella, Shaffer & Associates—moved into Russia Wharf in the early 1980s. As one of the earliest nonindustrial tenants in the building—Shaffer told me that “there were still seamstresses working above us”—the firm had its pick of locations and selected a fourth-floor space over the Fort Point Channel. The firm soon rented out more space and, in the boom of the late 1980s, also took over the floor above, which was connected by communicating stairs. This expansion didn’t continue forever: When the real-estate market collapsed a few years later, the firm reorganized and contracted, at one point becoming a small staff of 17. “We like to say that for a day we were a hundred people,” Shaffer quipped, “but, more typically, we were around 50 to 60.” With the freedom to rent more or less space to suit its changing needs, DiMella Shaffer ended up being among not only the first but also the last tenants at Russia Wharf, staying until 2007, when construction for the new Atlantic Wharf project began.
The architects also welcomed the physical robustness and flexibility that served the building in its earlier industrial uses. Lee observed that the buildings had shallow floor plates, big windows and deep beams to support the heavy floor loads and demanding lighting needs of the printing and publishing houses that were housed there in Russia Wharf’s early years. The ceilings were high enough that Lee’s firm could install a platform at one end of its space for the partners, giving them nearly floor-to-ceiling windows with expansive views over South Boston. Other factors that attracted firms to Russia Wharf include its central location—at the time, outside the main high-rent districts of downtown while still within walking distance to the client base in and around these areas—as well as the presence of other architects and printing company Charrette.
Given the concentration of architecture firms that developed at Russia Wharf, cooperation was common. Many young designers got their start in these buildings, aided by low rents or the opportunity to share or sublease spaces from other firms.
Landscape architect David Berarducci ASLA was once such a young designer. He first worked at Russia Wharf after being contacted by David Dixon FAIA. Now a principal at Goody Clancy, Dixon was at the time working with TLCR Associates on a masterplan for the MBTA, and the project needed a landscape architect. Originally signed on for a three-month commitment, Berarducci ended up working for six. At the end of that time, Lee didn’t have enough work for a full-time landscape architect but, as Berarducci recalled, told him that “you can rent a cubicle and do your own work, and when we need a landscape architect, we can take you on.” Spalding Tougias Architects started out in the same way alongside Berarducci, and when the firm later moved across the channel to its own office, Berarducci moved with the firm to continue the collaborations that they had initiated at Russia Wharf. Of those years, Berarducci told me, “It allowed me to get started on my own with minimal cost because I had access to their office equipment and was able to cultivate clients as well…so I’ve always appreciated Todd for giving me that opportunity.”
These kinds of human and professional connections underpinned many of the fond memories that these architects recounted to me about their years at Russia Wharf. Shaffer said, “When you’ve been in business as long as we’ve been, you find that you’ve been able to help spawn a number of younger practices.” And Lee summed up his feelings by saying, “I always enjoyed having people who wanted to go off and start their own offices…and if it was right, you would send them some work or ask them to associate with you; it’s part of the profession.”
These connections are not limited to just mentor relationships. All the architects I spoke with talked about sharing equipment when things broke or elevator conversations that led to new clients or building-wide holiday parties that introduced everyone to one another.
Sometimes these encounters gave rise to the most surprising opportunities. When his firm Fuller Associates designed a Russia Wharf space for Quadra Capital Partners, John Fuller AIA met the director of a fledgling nonprofit called Summer Search, who was working out of Quadra’s office. Fuller helped Summer Search with fundraising and soon joined and then chaired the board. Summer Search’s mission is to give opportunities and mentorship to low-income high-school students with leadership potential. Seeing how powerful and scalable the effects of this kind of initiative can be, Fuller grew committed to including public service as part of his own practice. After Perkins + Will acquired his firm, Fuller jumped at the chance to become one of the firm’s three directors of social responsibility, enabling the firm to contribute almost 75,000 hours to national and international pro bono projects. Now in a very small practice, Mitchell|Fuller, he continues to incorporate public service into his work by doing pro bono projects in Beverly, Massachusetts, where he now works.
Berarducci had a similarly fortuitous story to tell. While working at Russia Wharf, the landscape architect “got to see the whole evolution of the site” during the Big Dig and also grew fascinated by the area’s maritime and industrial history. And when he became a candidate for Boston’s Landmarks Commission 10 years ago, he told me, “My interaction down there gave me the knowledge of what Fort Point was about, so that was instrumental in getting me selected.” Berarducci now serves as the chair of the Fort Point Channel Landmark District Commission and takes pride in his role in facilitating the strategic and thoughtful development of the area. “It was totally luck that I got there,” he said, referring to Dixon’s original phone call that invited him to work at Russia Wharf.
The old Russia Wharf was a beloved set of buildings, and the site still echoes with the memories of architects and others who called it home between the 1980s and the mid 2000s. But there was nothing magical about it. It could be described as a structure with “good bones,” as they say, a favorable location and agreeable landlords. These stories of professional collegiality and of serendipitous interactions are not unique; a professional community can find itself growing stronger, and together, wherever its members are given a chance to cross paths in different ways and times. Now that the dust of the Big Dig has settled and the neighborhood has seen a surge of energy and development, the BSA is confident that the new space in Atlantic Wharf can again serve the architecture community in these ways—now with an even broader and more public reach.
I’ll see you there!
Lian Chikako Chang has a PhD in history and theory of architecture from McGill University and is currently a MArch I student at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. She loves tennis, gardening and food.
Above photo courtesy of Building Conservation Associates.