Three Building Facades on Essex Street

Facadism, façadism, or façadomy is the architectural and construction practice where the façade of a building is designed or constructed separately from the rest of a building, or when only the facade of a building is preserved with new buildings erected behind or around it.”

We can find examples of facadism here and there around the city. Boston has gone from a city that allowed John Hancock’s mansion to be torn apart and sold in pieces to one where we find worth in buildings that have outlived their usefulness, their location, and sometimes their structural integrity.

Essex Street, Sixties, Izzy Ort's, Playland

Essex Street in the Sixties: City of Boston Archives

A Street-Level Surprise

That works for me. I love coming upon unusual buildings as I walk around Boston. It can come as a surprise to find that only the shell exists at street level. Behind and above it rises a more modern structure that serves the neighborhood’s purposes better than the original.

Essex Street, Hong Lok House, renovation, restoration

Essex Street facades during reconstruction.

Sometimes, of course, a developer wants to make some big money but has to preserve something of historical or architectural merit to get the construction permits. As commercial as that trade-off might be, it prevents Boston from turning into a city of soulless glass-walled buildings. We know what that city looks like. We have seen the Seaport.

Facadism can be done well, as with the Russia Wharf/Atlantic Wharf complex. Or it can look like the shopping mall of Las Vegas casino. A small-scale example of worthy and well-done facadism exists on Essex Street in the Liberty Tree Historic District.

15 – 17 Essex Street

This three-building façade stretches along the south side of Essex Street. It preserves three buildings of different architectural styles that had deteriorated beyond any usefulness.

15-17 Essex Street, Cummings and Sears, Romanesque Revival, polychromy, facadism

15-17 Essex Street

To me, 15 – 17 Essex Street stands as the centerpiece. At street level, this building presents its narrow but colorful façade to the viewer as if the building still exists in its entirety. It does not.

Built in 1875 and designed by the architectural firm of Cummings and Sears, this Romanesque Revival structure housed multiple commercial enterprises over its long history. Stern and Company, a sewing machine dealer, occupied it for thirty years. A restaurant and then a liquor store followed.

Yet it lay empty after that and appeared abandoned for years. Although the building lost its battle for survival in toto, it remains with us, saved along with two other historic structures when Hong Lok House was built to provide much-needed senior housing in Chinatown

Romanesque Revival Style

15-17 Essex Street, Romanesque Revival, polychromy, Cummings and Sears, quatrefoil window

Architectural details of 15-17 Essex Street

The four-story building has architectural interest to spare. Its Richardsonian Romanesque heritage made the most of the narrow space by including as many design elements as would fit.

Multiple columns of different polished stones in different colors, some long and some short, appear on each floor. The columns have deeply carved Corinthian capitals, and they occupy different places. (At first, I thought two of columns were missing on the third floor, but on closer inspection, I could see they never existed.

Multicolored stonework, or polychromy, in brownstone and sandstone frames the windows and decorates the Gothic arch that breaks the cornice line. A quatrefoil window fills the arch. Other decorative elements include rosettes, medallions, and an ornate foliate string course above the second-floor windows.

Photographs on the Boston Preservation Alliance website give you an idea of the work involved in restoring these three historic facades. Construction proceeded in two phases to avoid temporary off-site relocation of the existing Chinatown residents.

Boston’s Oldest Commercial Building

The three-story Italianate structure to the right of 15 – 17 Essex Street reconstructs Boston’s oldest wooden commercial building.

Hong Lok House, oldest commercial building, Boston, Essex Street, reconstruction, facadism

Boston’s oldest commercial building

M&A Architectural Preservation removed the storefront. They restored, assembled, and reinstalled over 100 pieces of millwork and trim comprising the original wood façade. When necessary, the company made replica parts and pieces to replace missing ones. They also installed new replica windows and repainted the storefront a dark maroon.

 

The first floor has arched windows on either side of the arched entrance. Three rectangular windows bring light into the second floor, while six double-arched windows hang on the third floor. Four brackets support a flat cornice.

The sign for Hong Lok House hangs over the storefront. To the left is the parking garage entrance for Hong Lok House. The bulk of this modern residential building rises above and behind.

Chinese Golden Age Center

Greater Boston Chinese Golden Age Center, GBGAC, Essex Street, facadism, Second Empire

The Greater Boston Chinese Golden Age Center

Just past that we find the historic Second Empire façade of the Greater Boston Chinese Golden Age Center. The structure’s stones were disassembled and moved offsite where they were carefully reconstructed. M&A restored the wooden cornice and storefront. The also installed all-new, replica arched windows and wood storefronts in the completely rebuilt stone façade.

From 1935 to 1969, this building housed Izzy Ort’s Barr and Grille, later renamed The Golden Nugget. These dining and dancing venues attracted Bostonians with jazz, hillbilly, and rock in that order. The Normandy Lounge replaced it with the expansion of Boston’s sleazy adult-entertainment district called the Combat Zone.

Although Essex Street is narrow, the three-building reconstructions maintains its historic pre-sixties character for the neighborhood while allowing for modern-day needs.

 

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About Aline Kaplan

Aline Kaplan is a published author, a blogger, and a tour guide in Boston. She formerly had a career as a high-tech marketing and communications director. Aline writes and edits The Next Phase Blog, a social commentary blog that appears multiple times a week at aknextphase.com. She has published over 1,000 posts on a variety of subjects, from Boston history to science fiction movies, astronomical events to art museums. Under the name Aline Boucher Kaplan, she has had two science fiction novels (Khyren and World Spirits) published by Baen Books. Her short stories have appeared in anthologies published in the United States, Ireland, and Australia. Aline’s articles have also appeared on the Atlas Obscura website. She has been an active member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America since 1988 and is a long-term member of the Spacecrafts science/fantasy writers’ group. As a tour guide, Aline leads architectural and historical walking tours of the city for Boston By Foot, ghost tours for Haunted Boston and historical bus tours of the city. She lectures on Boston history and has appeared in the Boston Globe, as well as on TV for Chronicle, an award-winning television program that broadcasts stories of New England. As a lecturer, Aline has spoken at Brandeis and Tufts universities for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. She has also addressed as service organizations and local meetings. She is a graduate of Northeastern University in Boston and lives in Hudson, MA.

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