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Restoring historic public spaces in the age of sustainability—and heightened security

Hidden in the heart of Boston are some amazing interiors that you would never know were there, sequestered behind brick and stone facades, they are worlds unto themselves. Who would guess that the McCormack Courthouse and Post Office, Cram and Ferguson’s blocky depression-era high-rise overlooking Post Office Square, holds 18 recently restored floors that form an art deco paradise? A July 19 tour sponsored by the General Services Administration (GSA) and the BSA’s Committee for the Advancement of Sustainability and Historic Resources Committee offered the opportunity to see them in all their splendor and understand the meticulous work done by renovation architects Goody Clancy.

The $176,000,000 project was designed to upgrade the building’s infrastructure to current safety and energy-efficiency standards while bringing the building’s courtrooms, the double-height law library, generous lobbies and ornamental surfaces back to their original glory. Some spaces were reconfigured for new federal departments and tenant amenities; they are defined by contemporary butt-jointed glazing and abstracted deco-esque ornamentation to clearly differentiate new from old and tell the story of the building’s evolution.

Conflicts are inevitable when new technology has to be fit within tightly constrained spaces and historically important building assemblies need to be modified to meet contemporary needs and regulations. The Goody Clancy team had to negotiate the placement of every pipe, duct and wire so that their visual impact would be minimal and their environmental impact wouldn’t be compromised. The LEED Gold certification and luminous quality of the spaces suggest the skill with which they achieved their dual agenda.

Most of the environmental improvements are hidden above ceilings and behind walls, but a green roof on the fourth four setback is a case study in how to create “sustainable” urban environments. Rain collected from the upper-level rooftops waters a lush garden that overlooks the street and is pierced by a shard-like skylight illuminating the cafeteria below. Sunlight, rainwater and greenery are carefully choreographed to create a placid pocket of trees and grasses nestled between majestic sculpted facades rising up around it.

But in an era of heightened security, this powerful symbol of renewal is reserved for building occupants and is off-limits to the public. Anyone can enter the building after submitting to a scan and an inspection, but additional security barriers require the swipe of a card that keeps most of us from going any farther. Goody Clancy’s welcoming gestures are countered by the realities of a public realm that is becoming increasingly less public.

U.S. GSA project manager and self-described “Southie Boy” John Buckley described his childhood running through the building’s majestic passageways at a time when they were interior extensions of the city streets—or perhaps a momentary escape from them. A restoration can bring back the radiant interiors and hidden spaces of another era, but that kind of innocent experience of our public interiors may be lost forever.

David Eisen AIA is a principal at Abacus Architects + Planners in Boston. He is the author of Boston Modern: The Spirit of Reinvention and writes frequently on design issues for a variety of publications. He received his architecture degree at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design.

Top image by Carol M. Highsmith.