Boston’s Hidden Gems: New England Museum Restoration

This is the seventh in a series of posts on largely unknown spaces in Boston that are open to the public.

The good news is that it happened in the case of the original New England Museum of Natural History. Designed by William Gibbons Preston in the French Academic style, the redbrick and brownstone museum was constructed from 1863 to 1865. It was the second building to go up in Boston’s “new land” in the Back Bay and it occupies a manicured space at 234 Berkley Street that is a city jewel in its own right.

RH Boston at night

It’s not unusual for a building of architectural and historical note to be re-purposed over time. Often it’s also “upgraded” and renovated—but often not for the better. Sometimes the results are ugly but temporary. If we’re lucky, the changes aren’t structural, don’t destroy the style or craftsmanship, and can be reversed at a later date. If we’re really lucky, that renaissance actually happens.

The good news is that it happened in the case of the original New England Museum of Natural History. Designed by William Gibbons Preston in the French Academic style, the redbrick and brownstone museum was constructed from 1863 to 1865.

It was the second building to go up in Boston’s “new land” in the Back Bay and it occupies a manicured space at 234 Berkeley Street that is a city jewel in its own right.

The exterior is highlighted by Romanesque arches and graceful Corinthian pilasters. The museum’s interior centerpiece was originally a large, two-story hall and atrium that reached up to the ceiling, lit by clerestory windows. In this space hung the skeleton of a whale and below it were the glass-topped display cases typical of museum exhibits in the nineteenth century.

The Retail Years

The museum moved out in 1951 when it expanded and became the Boston Museum of Science, now located next to the locks on the Charles River Dam. The original building was re-purposed as the home of high-end clothing retailers Bonwit Teller (1947-1989) and men’s clothier LouisBoston (20 years). The latter store moved to the Seaport District in 2010 and closed its doors in July of this year.

The museum’s interior centerpiece was originally a large, two-story hall and atrium that reached up to the ceiling, lit by clerestory windows. In this space hung the skeleton of a whale and below it were the glass-topped display cases typical of museum exhibits in the nineteenth century.

The old museum

During the Retail Years, the 44,000-square-foot space was modernized and renovated in ways that either blocked or disguised William G. Preston’s original design. That’s the look modern Bostonians came to know and the original interior was obscured.

The retail stores inhabited the space but they didn’t acknowledge it. False ceilings, false walls, partitions, divisions, dressing rooms and other devices covered up the beautiful architecture. Mezzanine levels broke up the stately atrium. The retail stores were businesses, not public institutions. They highlighted fashion over art and put clothing ahead of structure and that’s only to be expected. But over time people forgot what the original interior looked like because most of us had never seen it.

The Good News

Now for the good news. The latest owner is also a retailer. Restoration Hardware—now RH Boston—that sells furniture and home goods from the old museum building. They took a completely different approach, however, doing their very best to return to Preston’s original design. it’s less a retail renovation than a museum restoration.

Open the atrium from the ground floor all the way to the iridescent gilded and coffered ceiling

Third floor with elevator and gilded ceiling

First, the AD100 firm Backen, Gillam & Kroeger Architects essentially gutted the building, taking all the newer additions and divisions out and stripping it back to the walls. They consulted the original architectural drawings and old photographs. Then they boldly went where no retailer had gone before to:

  • Remove the mezzanines, dividing walls, and other interior structures.
  • Open the atrium from the ground floor all the way to the iridescent gilded and coffered ceiling
  • Remove an elevator bank that blocked the building’s central axis
  • Open up the winder staircase that was hidden behind walls
  • Refurbish the original elegant details and ornamentation
  • Install a glass elevator that rises 70 feet to give a bird’s eye view of the structure

To grasp the scope of this painstaking15-month renovation, watch RH Boston’s video, with statements Gary Friedman, RH Boston’s Chairman and CEO Emeritus, from James Gillam of Backen, Gillam & Kroeger; and from William Young, Senior Preservation Planner for the Back Bay Architectural Commission.

Take a Look at the Museum Restoration

For views of the RH Boston galleries, scroll through this Architectural Digest slide show.

Don’t stop there, though. To really appreciate what RH Boston has done for the building—and for the city—stop in to see the galleries for yourself. Ride the glass elevator, which is a recreation of an 1892 traction-and-counterweight elevator inspired by the one in L.A.’s Bradbury Building. Stroll through the 18-foot antique mirrored archways on the second floor and under the 12 sparkling crystal chandeliers. Have a beer at the beer bar or a verre du vin at the wine bar. Don’t forget to wind your way down to the basement, which houses the RH Baby and Child gallery.

RH used to be called Restoration Hardware. Renamed, it now displays a different class of merchandise in what it calls its galleries and prefers to open them in historical buildings. I’m thankful that they chose William G. Preston’s building in #backbay and have done such a marvelous job of restoration. They have returned this architectural gem to its original shine. Now it’s hidden only from people who knew it during the Retail Years and haven’t stopped in since. The change is amazing.

Information and Directions to the New England Museum Restoration

#RHBoston is located at 234 Berkeley Street between Boylston and Newbury streets. It costs nothing to enter—although purchasing some of the furniture might set you back a few dollars.

RH Boston is located at 234 Berkley Street between Boylston and Newbury streets. It costs nothing to enter—although purchasing some of the furniture might set you back a few dollars. It’s open during store hours:

It’s open during store hours:

  • Sunday: 12pm – 6pm,
  • Monday through Friday: 10am – 7pm
  • Saturday: 10am – 7pm

Phone: 857-239-7202
Email: boston@restorationhardware.com

The Series

  1. Tenshin-en
  2. The Mapparium
  3. Boston Public Library Courtyard
  4. The Ether Dome
  5. The Tiffany Sanctuary
  6. The Salada Tea Doors

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