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January 2012 meeting notes

Historic warehouse development in Boston

1. Committee Changes and the BSA Space- Committee members found their way into the new space at 290 Congress Street, began to adjust to a trapezoidal room plan, parsed the electrical installation to identify individual circuitry for lighting controls, shook out their sodden umbrellas—and introduced themselves. Henry Moss spoke briefly about the new guidelines for committees’ governance, protocols for expenditure, requests of BSA administrative staff, and public statements as part of advocacy efforts. He explained that the current co-leaders, Matthew Bronski, Gregory Colling, Sara Wermiel, (and himself) had invited Jack Glassman to assume the role of committee chair. Jack is an architect actively engaged in private practice, who specialized in preservation studies at Cornell, and has worked for city agencies and for the National Park Service. Although somewhat daunted by the amount of time required to run a committee that meets monthly and that responds to so many unpredictable advocacy challenges, Jack agreed to take over. Jack, wet through, then entered the room and agreed that he would start by chairing the March meeting.

Henry noted that there are now many more tasks associated with maintaining a BSA committee than there had been in 1972, when the HRC was founded and in 1987, when he took over the chair from Bill Barlow. He encouraged people to contact Jack to offer their support by taking responsibility for particular, recurrent tasks; such as, suggesting and arranging for speakers and tours, issuing the monthly committee news and continuing education bulletins through the BSA web site, posting advocacy materials on the HRC site within the BSA web presence, and producing meeting notes.

Sara and Henry also suggested that the committee offer ideas to Jack about how to manage the succession of leadership to fit the term limits set by the BSA board to encourage new ideas while maintaining the committee’s momentum and authority in relation to external advocacy issues. Henry, Sara, Matthew, and Greg are not going to disappear, but Jack will be in charge and will need volunteers to keep the committee on course while new directions of thought and activity emerge.

2. Massachusetts Senate Bill 2053- Proposed Changes Massachusetts Historical Commission Review and Enforcement: At the time of the meeting, there had been little discernible progress within the state legislature and all of our attention had been focused on the Senate. It has been difficult to uncover the real basis for the proposed bill although the archaeological approach to the Meditech development site near Fall River seemed to be the center of the controversy. The MHC has many detractors at present, a number that has gradually increased during the past few years, and it is a group that includes practitioners and advocates for historic preservation. The MHC process is neither completely mechanistic nor legally determined, but our committee’s assessment has been consistent: S.2053 is a destructive proposition and its pursuit must not be confounded with frustration with administrative responses at the agency. We do not know how interested in this bill the Senate’s leadership is at this point.

[After the meeting, a hearing date was set by the Senate- Tuesday, January 24, giving about a week’s notice to the BSA and others who would expect to offer testimony. The BSA and AIA Massachusetts leaders for public affairs quickly began to assemble opinions and confirm the organizations’ position on S.2053. In the meantime, a version of the bill was attached to a House budget bill as an amendment that did not require a public hearing. The bill with this amendment passed in the House a few days prior to the scheduled Senate hearing.

Here are links to two articles that address the bill and some of its background:
http://www.commonwealthmagazine.org/News-and-Features/Features/2012/Winter/003-Historical-roadblock.aspx
masshistpres-bounces@cs.umb.edu ]

3. Shaped by Function: Boston’s Historic Warehouses- Our committee has profited for almost two decades from the active participation of Sara Wermiel, whose continuing studies into construction history and the evolution of design and engineering approaches to different building types and their associated infrastructure have enlivened many of our meetings. Sara and Susan Ceccacci wrote the draft study report on the Fort Point Channel Historic District for the BLC, starting their survey in 2003. That experienced focused Sara’s interest on warehouse and loft forms that originated in Boston: the warehouse block, and its characteristic approach to heavy timber framing.

Sara had already become an authority on New England’s mill construction when she began to realize that warehouses were a common but distinctive type of building that had received little study. Her talk to our committee addressed their history, special features, and what they reveal about a locale’s economy and trade. Her study centered on Boston, but its context is both national and international in scope. In October, 2011, Sara presented her research on ports and warehouses at a conference in Hamburg. Hamburg is nominating its historic warehouse district, called Speicherstadt, to the World Heritage List, and part of the application required placement of the proposed site in the international context, therefore conference presentations addressed ports and warehouses world-wide.

Speicherstadt was built over four decades, then half-destroyed by Allied bombing in WWII. The core of the district was built in the second half of the 1880’s and had many features in common with the Fort Point Channel district, which was built during the same period. Each was developed by a single owner: a public entity in Hamburg and the Boston Wharf Company, a private company in South Boston. Today, Speicherstadt is owned and managed by a public entity. Sara has visited Speicherstadt twice and although first impressed by how intact and extensive it appeared, eventually saw how much was reconstructed and how inconsistently architectural details were observed and recreated. Sara also noted that the Speicherstadt business district will be included in the World Heritage nomination and displayed the example of Chile House, a modern Expressionist style block clad in clinker brick.

Sara had found an article about warehouses and factory buildings by Russell Sturgis, Boston architect and architectural critic (“The Warehouse and the Factory in Architecture,” Architectural Record 15 (Jan. 1904). Sturgis offered a definition of the warehouse, “a building which is devoted to industrial purposes, involving the safe keeping of a large quantity of goods.” He went further to note that warehouse floors were “to a great extent left open in great ‘lofts’”. Sara pointed out a set of more specific differences in that warehouses do not require much natural light and typically have fewer and smaller windows than factory spaces. Sara identifies “lofts” as open floors with the load-bearing capacity of warehouses and windows large enough to provide light and ventilation for factory work.

Boston’s warehouse construction evolved along with the development of the harbor as an active port, with finger piers or wharves built on tidal land, much of it filled later to create a new, permanent waterfront of dry land. No warehouse built prior to 1800 survives in Boston, but examples of the type of construction that probably lined the harbor side can still be found in other New England port cities: the 18th century Gerrish Warehouse in Maine, and the Sheafe and Shaw Warehouses in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. These are timber-framed, wood-clad structures with large goods doors and projection over the water to aid loading and unloading from boats and barges.

Boston’s Old Feather Store survived into the age of photography and was a 17th century storage building at Dock Square (the site of Boston’s early town dock that was filled in), and the Triangular Warehouse that was unusual because of its brick construction. Sara hypothesized an Amsterdam precedent for the latter. By the early decades of the 19th century, the nature of trade had developed with long-range speculative ventures. Ships were owned by investors that also owned their cargoes. Their investments were vertically integrated into warehousing and wholesale distribution of goods. Boston merchants invested in real estate, including the making of new land for harbor side structures by cutting down the hills that flanked the waterfront for fill.

India Wharf was the first example of private land making in Boston Harbor, a deep-water wharf that consisted of blocks of brick warehouses founded on wooden piles. This project was the prototype for the monumental warehouse block, including 32 separate stores integrated architecturally into a single structure by its designer, Charles Bulfinch. Bulfinch unified the separate stores with a central pediment and flanking wings. The developer was a single real estate company- not 32 separate traders. Bulfinch also designed Central Wharf with a similarapproach. Central Wharf and Long Wharf added granite to the exterior material palette although demising and back-up walls were typically brick. Sara noted that the “Monumental Block” originated in the Boston building tradition of wharf construction.

By 1860, the era of merchant trading was drawing to an end and the construction of warehouse blocks ceased. Even prior to the Central Artery, water front indentations were filled and new streets broke up the large warehouse blocks. This distinctive streetscape lost its consistency and its visual impact diminished. Sara showed images of these wharves and warehouse blocks today: Central Wharf has only 8 of the original 54 stores. Portions of the Broad Street warehouses remain along with some frontage. The Chart House, an early warehouse, still stands on Long Wharf. The Custom House block is one of the great granite warehouse blocks. Completed in 1848, it stands next to the Chart House on Long Wharf. The scale of it’s granite components in the main façade are extraordinary and special to Boston. Gridley Bryant designed the late monumental warehouses of the State Street Block and Mercantile Wharf. The Central Artery forced demolition of ¾ of the State Street Block, but its exuberant architecture remains visible at the west end facing the Custom House.

Sara proceeded to South Boston and the Fort Point Channel warehouse district, which contains 85 historic warehouses and lofts built between 1880 and 1930. She expects that this district will prove to be one of the largest collections of intact warehouses in a definable area in the United States. The Boston Wharf Company purchased extensive tracts of buildable waterfront with the express purpose of constructing and operating warehouses there. By 1837, the company completed two large wharves fronting Fort Point Channel. By the late 1860’s, The Commonwealth began to fill the South Boston Flats including land to the north of the Boston Wharf Company property and to build docks as a harbor improvement project. In 1882, the filling of sites was complete and the Commonwealth sold land to railroads that built terminals to serve the new docks. These developments created the basis for an integrated rail-, truck- and water-based distribution system that by 1875 led to construction of new bridges to tie South Boston to the financial district. The Congress Street bridge came first. Warehouses shared the advantages of the improved freight transportation systems with new factories in the area flanking Congress Street—especially in the southern end of the district. Freight doors built at railroad car height are a characteristic feature. Eventually, the Boston Wharf Company was an “industrial real estate” company, planning and building streets, building-to-suit specific tenants, and operating its own architectural department, headed by Morton Safford. By 1900, the Boston Wharf Company developed Summer Street as a monumental thoroughfare. Nine-story, fire-proof loft structures rose on the north side from the Fort Point Channel to A Street. These were mainly occupied by wool merchants. The wool trade expanded and occupied most of the loft buildings in the area, where wool was graded, sorted, stored and sold wholesale to textile manufacturers. This activity remained viable into the 1930’s.

Next, Sara compared the heavy timber construction of these warehouses with their girders and closely spaced beams (3’-0” O.C.) that differed from the heavy timber “slow-burning construction” developed for mill buildings that had lower floor loadings. Slow-burning construction has no girders and beams are spaced twice as far apart as in warehouse construction. In the earliest examples of the warehouse floors in the Fort Point Channel District, beams are placed on top of the girders, but in order to save floor-to-floor height, iron or steel stirrups were used to locate the top surface of beams at the same level as the girders. Automatic sprinklers were added to the warehouses over time.

Sara brought Boston and Hamburg back together as during the early 20th century, activity in the Port of Boston had declined. Hamburg was considered a model port for the ways in which materials handling was resolved with sorting sheds on quayside with moving cranes on rails that could reach both boats and warehouses. Robert Peabody led a BSA committee of architects who produced a study proposing the construction of a new port off South Boston and Dorchester based on the Hamburg model. The study featured an arrangement of finger wharves with warehouses, wharf sheds, and railways routed to serve them. This proposal never was built. However, the Commonwealth invested in the expansion of South Boston eastward and in 1919, the Army built a military supply base following the Hamburg pattern. The construction was of reinforced concrete instead of heavy timber, but the arrangement was one of quayside sorting sheds connected by freight bridges to the huge storage warehouses. This warehouse is now occupied by the Boston Design Center.

4. Other Business:
• The Christian Science Center MEPA Review: The Boston Preservation Alliance participated in the MEPA review and noted the support of the BSA Historic Resources Committee in their opposition to the proposed tower that cantilevers over the Pei/Kossuta Sunday School Building. The Christian Science Center has withdrawn its proposed crossing of the reflecting pool.
• Worcester State Hospital Tower: There is continuing pressure from Worcester preservation forces to have DCAM invest in retention of the tower.
• APT/Northeast: Jack Glassman announced the annual symposium that will take place at the Wadsworth Atheneum on February 3. The symposium subject is lighting for historic buildings and the line-up of speakers is impressive. Register on-line.

Present: Bill Barry, Robert Megerdictan, Susan Brauner, Adrienne Calli, Dale Cohen, Greg Colling, Marilyn Fenollosa, Lorri Ferriss, Jack Glassman, Meghan Hanrahan, David M. Hart, David Kelman, Catherine Logue, Henry Moss, Judith Neiswander, Mat Pitzer, , Susan Schur, Lynn Smiledge, Malcolm Smiley, R. Drew Sondles, Kelly Streeter, Cory Trembath, Rita Walsh, Sara Wermiel, Tim Withers, Gary Wolf