Saturday, March 2, 2013

A beanstalk grows in Beantown

The "sliver" building — the real estate developer's attempt to eke out as much square footage as possible from a little footprint — has been a bumper-crop staple of New York City real estate for decades, owing to the overdevelopment on the tight little island of Manhattan that forces developers to build up when they can no longer build out. Hence the sliver building's tendency to sprout like weeds wherever the parcel-pollen happens to land, with a there-goes-the-neighborhood kind of shadowy dominion over whatever it happens to be dwarfing. Nonetheless, it has garnered certain mass market appeal for the city views it inevitably commands so high up, despite its ensuing vulnerability to high winds, seismic activity, and close encounters of the Sept. 11th kind.

But who would have thought these New York Neanderthals would invade Boston's historically low landscape? Then again, the Hub's winding and narrow streets and rising real estate values yield pretty dinky parcels too — which makes them fertile ground to grow giant beanstalks in Beantown for those with the jack to live in their luxury. Yet 45 Province, one of the choicest of the crop, isn't such a half-baked idea. Bruner/Cott Associates and The Abbey Group carefully designed and developed this 33-story, 137-unit residential tower to avoid the sacrifice of historic structures (only a dismal parking garage) and to fit in with its old neighborhood as best as possible. The facade's variety of materials, surfaces and forms alludes to the area's architectural diversity. The terra cotta paneling jibes agreeably with the old brick buildings...

...particularly the no-longer-standing Province House, a majestic colonial brick mansion that was home to royal governors of the Massachusetts Bay Colony from 1716 to 1776. Since its demolition in 1922, its sole remnants have been the granite steps and lanterned cast-iron gateway arch that led up to its gardens (now to Bosworth Street), which The Abbey Group took care to preserve during construction, paying heed to Nathaniel Hawthorne's warning about the Old Province House's decrepit state in his Legends of the Province House (1838-39): "...any jar or motion was apt to shake down the dust of ages out of the ceiling of one chamber upon the floor of that beneath it." 

Not anywhere near that condition, 45 Province's spacious, high-ceilinged, high-end-finished units bring Province House grandeur back into the neighborhood in condominium form, complete with stunning vistas of old and new Boston. In this way, 45 Province is to 21st-century Boston what the Province House was to Colonial Boston: the height of luxury.

Provincial propriety
Historical image courtesy of the Boston Public Library
Memorialized by The Abbey Group with a pair of bronze plaques on the old garden steps wall (one of which lists all Massachusetts governors to date), the Province House was first built in 1679 on the present site of the Jewelers' Building on Washington Street in Downtown Crossing as the private home of wealthy London emigrant merchant Peter Sergeant. Like 45 Province's developers, Sergeant built high, wide and strong, hiring the best of local English artisans and builders and embellishing his Jacobean mansion with "the latest stylistic refinements of houses of the English gentry," according to historian Fay Campbell Kaynor. Its three-story height, high basement and gable, and distinctive cupola, topped by a copper Native American archer weathervane now exhibited at the Massachusetts Historical Society, made it the beanstalk and giant of its time, the ultimate in upward mobility. Its high tower gave Sergeant a privileged perspective on Boston's landscape, as well as his own vast landscape of gardens, orchards, and a 75-square-foot front lawn.
Governors' grandeur
Renting his house to the colonial governor, the Earl of Bellmont, as early as 1699, Sergeant died in 1714. Royal Governor Samuel Schute moved in two years later, beginning the Province House's succession of gubernatorial dwellers — including Gens. William Howe and Thomas Gage, chief commanders of British forces at the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775 — until the British Army evacuated Boston at the hands of General George Washington on March 17, 1776. (Thomas Hutchinson, governor during the Boston Massacre of 1770 and the Boston Tea Party of 1773, did not live there, however.) And the house was gussied up aplenty for royal ceremonies and aristocratic balls and receptions with lavish cast-iron railings, sentry-attended front-entry gates, drawing-room tapestries, Dutch fireplace tiles, window seats, paneled wainscoting...

A tavern in the town
Province House, drawn by Peter Orlando Hutchinson, 1837
After the British left Boston, the Province House was put to a smorgasbord of government and private uses — the Committee on Accounts office, the state treasurer's office, the state council's office, a boarding house, a tavern, a theater — and naturally went through umpteen overhauls over time, including the beheading of its tower when the king was dead from the scene. Rechristened the Old Province House tavern in 1835, it inspired Nathaniel Hawthorne's Legends of the Province House (later published as Twice-Told Tales), where he takes us through its wainscoted, paint-peeling ballroom darkened by neighboring building shadows, up its bridal staircase ("a feature of grandeur and magnificence"), into its formerly grand rooms "cut up by partitions and subdivided into little nooks" for lodgers, and along its garret's "ponderous white oak framework so much more massive than the frames of modern houses... although the timbers are said to be as sound as ever... it is contemplated to gut the whole." 

It was gutted in the 1850s to become Ordway Hall, which attracted throngs to minstrel shows, burlesque circuses, Professor Harrington's magic acts, Signor Di Carlo's virtuoso violin, and much more... until a fire gutted it down to the studs on Oct. 25, 1864, leaving its old brick walls standing, which later enclosed a cluster of lodgers' quarters and tradesmen's shops.

From royal ball to wrecking ball

Despite historian William Sumner Appleton's efforts to preserve the Province House because it "is one of the most remarkable houses of which there is record in America" and "must have been as satisfactory in its own way to a visiting Englishman of quality as a home in England," it was razed in 1922 for a movie theater and office building (now the Jewelers' Building). 

The demolition revealed rows of rare colonial brickwork, fireplaces and other unique features, including large brick quarter-circles Appleton had never seen in any period house, and an uncommon third-floor fireplace, "an added touch of luxury proving Sergeant to be a man of great wealth and position whose house might well differ from all others in ostentation and comfort."
Wealth, position, ostentation, comfort

Bruner/Cott and The Abbey Group did just that with 45 Province, which won the American Institute of Architects' 2009 New England Merit Award for Design Excellence. They punched in, bumped out and broke up the facade with such touches of luxury as window walls, glass corners, projecting balconies, steel-railed terraces, and, of course, the great glass canopy at its street entrance. 

Though functional rather than ornamental, these elements make the building dance with delicacy and dignity on the skyline, lighten up the dark alley, and, in this way, differ from other Boston skyscrapers, especially the blandly boxy, dully dark One Boston Place (1970) in the background. 

The upward swoop of the blue-green frosted-glass canopy heightens the drama, signifying the building's upscale, valet-attended, full-service luxury, and presenting it as a spectacle of soaring space, beginning with the light-filled lobby atrium...

  A space odyssey
Let us follow in Hawthorne's footsteps and take our own odyssey through the space of 45 Province, which works magic unseen since Professor Harrington in Ordway Hall: making a new world of vast, sunny spaces appear out of an old-world alley.

Like the Province House's tapestries, Dutch tiles and fine finishes that welcomed home the royal governors, the lobby's marble-paneled concierge desk, captivating artwork and glass mosaic tile-inlaid mahogany floor give residents a royal reception. The butterfly sculpture reiterates the building's recurring theme of lofty lightness.

The library lounge's designer furniture (with a cloverleaf coffee table separable into four small tables for individual placement beside chairs and sofas), marble fireplace, attention-commanding artwork and book-filled shelves rekindle the old flame of the Province House's drawing room for the new millennium.

The resident dining room's orbs-in-space lighting, drapery-framed window-wall and high ceilin give a light, airy feel and provincial primness to a dinner party, corporate luncheon, wedding reception, or daily coffee and continental breakfast.

As a token tribute to Ordway Hall and the movie theater that replaced it, this is as luxurious as a screening room can be: stadium seating, drink-holder armrests, patterned carpeting, dimmable house lights, good- sized screen, and state-of-the-art video projection for movies, TV, PowerPoint presentations, etc.

Picture-watching passivity is balanced by abs-building activity in the gym of the in-house Exhale® Mindbody Spa, where professional trainers guide residents from couch potato to iron-pumper with the Life Fitness® weight-training equipment.

The Exhale® relaxation lounge with tea bar and window-wall looking out to the alcoved lap pool and patio is a seamless transition from outside to inside, from recreation to relaxation, from activity to passivity, as an antidote to the typical "locker room" effect. The continuation of the wood floor out to the pool and onto the alcove wall eases the transition.

It's also a transition back into the city. The 40-foot pool creates a broad sweep of a patio, the rail picks up the frosted glass of the entrance canopy, and the cramped alley gives way to the first of several open-sky vistas that take in panoramas of architectural history.
On the 33rd floor deck, the furniture organically adapts to the body's contours as a soft, sculptural contrast to the hard edges and planes of neighboring skyscrapers. From this comfort zone, the sweep of the city is at your command, and the deck's command point, like the royal governors' Province House lookout tower, makes you master of all you survey...

...from the historic Boston Common, Beacon Hill, Back Bay and Charles River...

 the "New Boston" mystique of Government Center, City Hall Plaza and '70s skyscrapers... the Old Corner Bookstore, Old South Meeting House, and the Province House site...
...from Filene's yet-to-be-filled crater out toward Blue Hill majesty...
...from the thicket of towers to the open, free expanse of Boston Harbor.

Provincial penthouse

As Jack struck gold at the top of the beanstalk, the lucky buyer of PH3002 on the 30th floor staked a giant claim to the sky. The 3,000-square-foot penthouse's great room combines living, dining and kitchen spaces (with marble counter and sycamore/lacquer cabinetry!) in one fell swoop, for home entertaining worthy of Province House royalty.
The great room's immense floor sweep takes in 180 degrees of boundless Boston panoramas through its widespread walls of windows and terrace balcony, supplying dinner-party guests with conversation pieces unlimited, sparing the owner the expense of buying art to put on the walls as a boredom-preventer.

But if art is the resident's vision, the broad, plain wall in the master bedroom cries out for it, with cove-lighting on the side to accent a painting, poster or print, or to add a little chiaroscuro to a sculpture, bas-relief or mobile. A king-size bed with designer headboard and night tables wouldn't make a bad wall-filler here, either.

The master bath's freestanding egg tub, marble floor, dual-sink vanity, designer pendant lighting, and marble shower with sliding door of frosted glass in the spirit of the entrance canopy is the height of lavatory luxury, especially since the resident won't lose sight of the city while relaxing in the bath or primping up for the day.

"45 Province brings together the best of old and new Boston. Glass and brick come together in a cutting-edge 21st century building that is thoroughly modern, while retaining the warmth and charm of the old."
— Simeon Bruner, Bruner/Cott Associates

"We call the building a modern classic. 45 Province exudes a warm modernism that respects the historic location and offers elegant services reminiscent of the classic New York Park Avenue buildings of the thirties, while utilizing the most modern materials, appliances, fixtures, lighting and building systems currently available."  
— David Epstein, The Abbey Group

In short, 45 Province brings New York to Boston the way the Province House brought London to Boston, each adapting its style, building technique and materials, and appearance to local tradition and exemplifying Boston life at its loftiest.

Thank you for visiting. I welcome your comments!


  1. A fascinating and wonderful post.

    1. Thank you, Linda! I'm glad you enjoyed it. Feel free to read some of my other posts.

  2. Province House was in Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story, "Howe's Masquerade," complete with cupola and carved Indian drawing back a bow and arrow.