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Boston Society of Architects

Renew Feature

Shifting gears

The historic Speedway complex—hidden in plain sight along the Charles River—gets set for a reawakening

RENEW Jan-March 2020

Speedway 1898 Olmsted Speedway plan lo res

General plan for the Charles River Speedway, 1898

Image courtesy of Bruner/Cott Architects

If winter is cold and dark, at least snowdrops and the promise of spring give us hope and hint of new life. The cycles of change—to cities and the natural world—can remind us that places have souls to lose. Emotions may be mixed. There is a quiet richness to the reworking of existing buildings that has crept into the psyche of the design professions as they resurrect past aesthetics, juxtaposed against new imageries and an overturning of previous uses. Those cycles of change reel from catastrophic to delicately nuanced, and architects try to counter one and orchestrate the other.

Brighton Abattoir drawing, c. 1872
Image courtesy of Brighton Allston Historical Society

In 1872, the Butchers’ Slaughtering and Melting Association of Boston consolidated more than 30 slaughterhouses into a single 42-acre facility that remained on the banks of the Charles upriver from the bridge linking Western Avenue to Arsenal Street in Watertown. The new facility, called Brighton Abattoir, consisted of multiple buildings, including cattle pens, sheephouses, slaughterhouses, and a four-story rendering plant with direct drains to the river. Despite this effort to manage deliveries of thousands of animals and to limit perceived water pollution and aromatic onslaughts, the Charles River still ran with blood. Depending on the wind direction, offensive odors could waft in unwelcome directions.

Inspired by the success of the Metropolitan Sewerage Commission, landscape architect Charles Eliot and urban planner–journalist Sylvester Baxter formed the Trustees of Public Reservations. That private organization led the state legislature in 1892 to form the Metropolitan Park Commission (MPC), the agency charged to oversee and maintain the Metropolitan Park System, the first regional park system created in the country. The lands within this system were called “reservations” to distinguish them from Victorian parks.

In 1897, the Charles River Basin may have been the commission’s most important acquisition. Eventually, the smelly tidal estuary farther into Boston became part of the City Beautiful movement. For Brighton, Eliot sketched a plan for a “Speedway” that would establish his vision for “naturalistic” landscapes along the Charles River reserved for recreational uses.

An aerial view of the trotting park section of the Charles River Speedway, 1928.
Photo courtesy of the Boston Public Library

Eliot died in 1897 of meningitis, and his efforts moved to the Olmsted Brothers firm. They produced plans for a scenic parkway, a mile-long racetrack for horses and bicycles, and a riverfront pedestrian promenade. The MPC built dikes and then drained, filled, and regraded the land shown on the Speedway plan. [Fig. 2, 1899 Façade] Separately, in 1899, the Olmsted Brothers convinced the MPC to acquire and clear a site of lumberyards at the intersection of Western Avenue and Market Street to build the Charles River Speedway Administration Building—complete with a superintendent’s house, offices, and stables. The house looked across Western Avenue toward its immediate neighbor, the Brighton Abattoir.

Within five years, the Charles River Speedway Administration Building doubled the size of its stable yard for racing trotters, added a park police station with jail cells, and introduced a cow barn into the stone basement. There is no record of facilities for bike maintenance. World War I came and went.

Stables for carts and carriages became garages for automobiles.
Photo courtesy DCR Archives, Buildings Photographic Survey, 1941

In 1925, the main indoor stable block was converted to an expanded police station as the force shifted from mounted to automobile patrols. Over the decades that followed, cars and trucks took over the spaces once used for carts and carriages. Sheds were extended haphazardly to become garages.

The Speedway complex retained its picturesque version of Shingle style on its outward face, but new construction in 1940 inserted a concrete garage with seven wide bays of overhead doors. At the end of the 1950s, horses finally galloped off into the sunset, the Speedway tracks were bulldozed, and the multilane Soldiers Field Road cut the MPC buildings away from the Charles River and their context of recreational landscape. The Brighton Abattoir was finally demolished.

Hidden in plain sight, the Charles River Speedway Administration Building fell into a deep coma. People forgot it was there. Its interior courtyard was never a public space nor has it ever been visible from adjacent streets. The area’s real estate potential was not yet awakened by Harvard’s investment at the opposite end of Western Avenue.

State agencies and preservation advocacy groups focused on the building’s architectural character, its stage-set elevations, and its surprisingly tranquil courtyard to press for an overlay of new uses and a thorough rehabilitation sensitive to its rustic formal consistency. In 2011, the Boston Landmarks Commission released an exemplary study report explaining the historic significance of the complex. It remained empty. In December 2016, occupied by otherwise homeless persons, one part caught fire.

In 2013, Architectural Heritage Foundation (AHF) won the chance to rehabilitate the Speedway buildings under the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation Historic Curatorship Program. The foundation added the adjacent parcel where the 1940 concrete garage stands. Without the subsidy from new construction on the adjacent parcel, the deteriorating 1925 Speedway site had been unlikely to recapture the cost of its rehabilitation, but the Massachusetts Historical Commission determined the garage to be significant in the Speedway story. The site was forced to attract new uses that differ from conventional retail and large-scale commercial tenancies.

Craftsmanship in the mantle of cedar shingles and intricate millwork around the exterior will be only a close second in appeal to the quiet comfort of the courtyard with its surrounding stalls. The repurposed courtyard—once the paved stable yard—will be energized by a brewery and taproom (Notch), a full-service restaurant, small-format shops featuring local makers and artisans, food purveyors, social enterprises, and creative office space. The renewed Speedway site is now under construction, with the courtyard retail and taproom scheduled to open in the fall of 2020.

The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation distinguishes among restoration, rehabilitation, and reconstruction, three preservation strategies that typically combine with visually distinct new construction to revitalize individual buildings and sometimes entire streetscapes. Many historic commissions have been slow to allow new design components to be other than deferential, but as the scale of alterations and additions continues to grow, confidence in the creation of “combined works” with new kinds of architectural presence is certain to emerge. Although the Standards encourage a continuation of similar uses in historic spaces, the charm of rehabilitation projects often arises from the striking contrast between original uses and new occupancies. Stables and empty jail cells provide promising places to start.