By Beth Treffeisen
Overlooking the Commonwealth Avenue, Mall in the Back Bay, a double-set of rowhouses dating back to 1880 have slowly been falling into disrepair after years of abuse as college dorms dating back to the 1960s.
In an effort to safe the two historic buildings located at 260-262 Commonwealth Ave., a joint venture between the upscale developers Chevron Partners and the Paris-based developer Fulton are planning to redo both buildings inside and out.
But after presenting their initial ideas to the Back Bay Architectural Commission (BBAC), the commission denied without prejudice the extensive exterior work proposed for the two buildings.
“We are a family group,” said Marcel Safar from Fulton at the hearing. “We are here for the long-term…the historical buildings are what drove us to Boston.”
This past March, the developers bought the buildings for $14 million. The project dubbed Maison Commonwealth plans on converting the buildings into five-story, luxury condominiums with below-grade parking for six spots.
This will be Chevron Partners second Maison-branded development in the area. This follows the Maison Vernon Condominiums located at 41 Mt. Vernon St. in Beacon Hill.
Bay State College ended a lease of the two buildings this past July even though the college has been subletting the two buildings to Berklee College of Music for the past few years.
“We are at a point if it degrades any more it would fall into disrepair that would be too expensive for anyone to fix,” said Adam Gilmore, an architect from Meyer & Meyer. “We believe these buildings continue to be a treasure but this kind of work needs to start happening or it would remain the same.”
The application included combining the two buildings into one building with five residential units. This included removing all existing fire escapes; restoring exterior masonry, metal work, replacing all windows, wood trim and doors.
As well, the application asked for lowering of existing roof structures to create parapet walls at front and rear to allow for a copper clad penthouse and roof deck.
There were also plans for extensive construction to the rear of the buildings including a four-story addition and erection of a brick wall, garden areas and a ramp to a proposed garage-door opening and basement-level parking.
Gilmore said that because the design will be removing the fire escapes in the rear, they would like to bump out the rear wall by four feet to allow for a second staircase inside.
In addition, the rear garden work that will include a two-tier garden, dogwood trees and a brick garden wall, is a move, Gilmore said, to brighten what is essentially just pavement with parking spots as of now. He said, “We are trying to bring some livelihood and landscape to an otherwise barren landscape in the rear.”
But the commissioners, who are impressed by the attention-to-detail in the plans and happy to see this kind of renovation happening to these buildings, are not pleased with proposed exterior changes.
“This is a stunning, finished project,” said Commissioner Patti Quinn. “But on the whole scale, it is a reimagining of something that is not historic preservation or even a re-working of it.”
Vice-Chair Iphigenia Demetraides agreed, saying that this building is historic and the current plans change the entire historic fabric of them.
Architect John Meyer from Meyer & Meyer said, “I’ve been spending a lot of time in the alleys lately – I know that sounds bad – but I’ve been taking notes and it seems like the great architects at the time, when they formed the alleys out it didn’t matter because it wasn’t for the people.”
Meyer continued, “I think if the architects had another program, where the alleys where for people, I think it would look like this.”
Meyer pointed out that the intuitional users allowed the buildings to deteriorate and have managed to tear the back of the building up with holes to allow for vents. He noted that it would cost more to restore the back of the building than it would be to rebuild it.
He said, “Of all the elements we’ve seen, this really is a wasteland.”
Demetraides pointed out that they have say over the alleys for a reason. The South End Landmarks Commission doesn’t have say over the back facades and Demetraides said that’s a shame. She said, “In the South End it’s like look at the front, but don’t look at the back because it’s horrible.”
Commissioner John Christiansen said, “For years we’ve been trying to improve the alleys,” but they all agreed this kind of change does not fit within historic guidelines.
Sue Prindle representing the Neighborhood of the Back Bay Association (NABB) agreed with the commissioners saying that this application does not follow the guidelines.
“We’ve been following the guidelines for the past 35 years, and things are different in the residential area than it would have been,” said Prindle. “Supplying the guidelines set a precedent of the historic fabric.”
The commission voted to deny without prejudice the application with approval of all the restoration work. The commission asked that the applicants review the guidelines and come back with new plans for the rear façade and for the rooftop penthouse.
“You need to look at the guidelines, which we need to uphold,” said Christiansen. “That’s what we’re here for.”