Friday, June 15, 2018

The Little in limbo

From stone to bone.

From regal to rusty.

From grand to gross.

From icon to eyesore.

From stately to studs.

From dignified to dull.

From graceful to grimy.

From eminent to empty.

From elegant to elephantine.

From Little to...little.

Such was the essence of my shock upon emerging from Boylston Street Station to find the Little Building, a Beaux-arts landmark that had regally anchored Boston's Boylston-Tremont corner for 101 years, shorn of its stonework and stripped to its structure. 

Now it is but a somber specter of its former self, a snake bereft of its skin, 'dem dry bones disconnected, in limbo between actuality and potentiality, solid and void, erection and demolition.

No, not 'erection' in the turn-on sense of the word—though it perplexed me what could possibly have prompted Emerson College to have its main dormitory perform the architectonic equivalent of the strip-tease acts that had flocked the sex-starved to the Combat Zone (left) down the block a generation ago.

Only this time the naked limbs and spread legs reveal nothing stimulating, just the barren steel skeleton and vapid 'fly space' of Emerson's next big act: "replacing/restoring the façade of the Little Building as well as interior renovations on floors 2-12 and the construction of a new 13th floor located behind a 14-foot, 4-inch parapet," as the Boston Planning and Development Agency (formerly the BRA/Boston Redevelopment Authority) proudly trumpets on its website. Designed by Elkus Manfredi (who else?), this facelift/bowel-cleansing "will add 294 new beds to the building." To boot, the lightwells will be glassed in (to create luxury student lounges, no doubt), bridging the gap between old and new in the name of progress and regress.

Speaking of regress, let's go back a bit to see what kind of building is being belittled. It was built in 1917 by dry-goods merchant John Mason Little as what was then deemed a "skyscraper" by Boston standards, conforming to the roofline the Colonial Theatre building had established. The architects were Blackall, Clapp & Whittemore; Clarence Blackall designed the Colonial in 1900, along with the Wilbur (1914), the Wang (1925) and many other Boston theaters.
The Little Building's Gothic limestone-colored terra cotta detailing was likely inspired by that of New York's Woolworth Building (1912, Cass Gilbert, right), which had set a precedent for the "cathedral of commerce" as an ecclesiastical symbol of upward mobility and the sanctity of financial gain. The Little's projecting bay windows were distinctly Bostonian, however. This aesthetic amalgam of styles motivated historian Walter Muir Whitehill to deem the Little Building "the most glamorous office building of the era of World War I."
It was one of the most ahead of its time as well. Promoted as "The City Under One Roof" (left), it was an early example of transit-oriented mixed- use development. It housed 900 offices in one central location across the street from a subway entrance (it even contained one of its own). On its street level was an arcade of 15 stores, 22 boutiques of "distinctive and correct merchandise," a post office, restaurants, a basement Automat for the meager of budget, and corridors offering egress to the abutting Colonial Theatre on Boylston and Majestic Theatre on Tremont (both of which Emerson owns as well). The arcade formed an atrium with handy passage among second-floor stores along a Gothic lace collar with a connecting bridge about midway, making shopping and dining an architecturally and spatially awe-inspiring experience.

Artistically, too, for 19 of the elliptical arches above the street-level shops each contained a mural of a scene from Boston history, including...
...the Towne House (1657) that the Old State House replaced in 1711...

...the leveling of Beacon Hill (1811), with the new State House (1795)...
...and the East Boston shipyard of Donald McKay. His "Flying Cloud"
clipper ship set the world's sailing record for the fastest voyage from
New York to San Francisco (89 days, 8 hours) in 1851, only to break
its own record by making the same route around South America's
Cape Horn in 13 hours less time in 1853.

Given the dark, cavernous void that now lurks beyond the grand Tudor entrance, I shudder when I think of what became of those murals and Gothic details Emerson had restored after acquiring the Little Building in 1994. They defined an interior street for the modern office worker to shop, dine and mail conveniently with a touch of class, and receive a little Boston history lesson along the way.

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