A subcommittee of the South End Landmark District Commission (SELDC) met on June 15 to discuss the design details of the Harriet Tubman House at 566 Columbus Ave. The subcommittee consists of Commissioners John Freeman, Catherine Hunt, and David Shepperd.
Last month, the SELDC approved the building in concept, and the demolition of the existing building was approved in 2019, said Boston Landmarks Commission Preservation Planner Mary Cirbus. She reiterated that the SELDC does not have purview over the use or sale of the building, which has caused some conflict in the neighborhood.
Architect Jonathan Garland presented an updated proposal to the subcommittee that was based on some comments heard at last month’s hearing. Some of the updates included a better connection along the West Springfield side of the building, as well as changes to the metal on the corner and daylight studies for the building soffit.
Garland said that previously, the smaller window openings at the corner of the building were the same size as the ones on the brick portion of the facade, which “created more metal than glass in this one area,” he said.
In the new rendition, Garland showed a broken transition of brick from Columbus Ave. to Mass. Ave., and the metal goes from the second level to the top of the building.
“We think it’s a much stronger corner,” Garland said. He also said that they have “taken away how the sculpted metal transitions at every floor.”
On the Columbus Ave. elevation, “some of the language of the brick on this facade” has been changed. The way the parapet line “jogs up and down now” was also something that was changed, as well as introducing a granite base to line the edge, and bringing that same stone material to wrap around the windows on the first floor.
The corbeling above the windows will start with triple band, then as the floors go up will transition to double band, then single band.
Garland said that this creates a “more grand feel” on the ground floor, which gradually gets lost “as you go up.”
On the Mass. Ave. elevation, the same corbeling will be used and the fifth floor will be tied into the cornice itself.
On Columbus Ave. looking down West Springfield St., there was previously a double height metal mansard roof with dormers, but in the new rendition, the fifth story of the building will now be brick, and it will be a one story mansard with no dormers.
As it abuts the rowhouses, it will still be a two story mansard but there will be no dormers, Garland said.
A grayish color was proposed for this section, as it “picks up on the mansard roofs of the rest of the houses on West Springfield St.” Garland said that a faux slate material would be used here between the windows, and it would be a flat plate metal that is non-reflective.
At the West Springfield elevation, Garland said the “harsh line” at the fourth story would be removed.
At the ground level canopy soffit, Garland explained the daylight studies and how the light would affect underneath the canopy.
“What we’re trying to do is make sure that the outdoor seating is well-lit and getting ample sunlight from these different seasonal time periods,” he said.
He also said that the originally proposed planter has been removed at the stairs so they could be widened, and the handrail material has been changed to an oil rubbed bronze color to match the other metals.
After Garland’s presentation, the Commissioners asked questions and made comments about what they saw.
“I think it’s a nice improvement,” Commissioner Catherine Hunt said, but she still had issues with the West Springfield facade.
She said that the two story element on that portion of the building “continues to trouble me,” saying that “this is a more delicate street.” She said that she recognizes Garland’s attempt to blend in with the rest of the street with different materials and setting the stories back, but “I just think it’s too massive for West Springfield.”
Garland said that “this was a standard condition in the South End” with how buildings like this came down side streets.
Commissioner John Freeman said that the Commission has received a lot of comments from the public, and a common concern is that the rooftop headhouse equipment would be visible. Garland said that there are no large chilling plants or cooling towers, and “we’ve done a very careful job of where we locate the elevator,” so the HVAC condenser units that will be installed on the roof will be setback and unable to be seen from the street.
Garland did not have a roof plan to show during this presentation, but he said one could be put together for the next meeting.
Commissioner David Shepperd said that “the metal doesn’t speak like it’s part of a historic district to me.” He said he liked the faux slate along the top part of the building, but he said he “expected” to see brick on the face of the building where metal is proposed. “The brick is fitting with most of the Victorian buildings in the neighborhood,” he said.
“I think the building has taken a huge step forward,” Commissioner John Freeman said. “The changes make a really big difference. I think the corner works architecturally.”
He said that he believes the metal connects better now and works with the building. “I think the window detailing,” he said, including the “reduction and corbeling as it goes up and the slight color difference around the windows; that’s going to be so subtle but not so subtle that you miss it.”
He said that the building “brings in some modern elements” and combines them with historic elements, which is “exactly what a new building should do.”
He said that the Columbus Ave. corner “needs a little more articulation,” but it’s “very very close to being excellent.”
He also shared some of Hunt’s concerns about the West Springfield St. facade.
“What we’ll be looking for going forward is several options of ways to approach this,” he said. “Then we can talk about them.”
During public comment, one resident said that he doesn’t “see a lot of 19th century detailing in this building,” and asked the Commissioners to point out why they believe this building is fit for the district.
“We can’t tell someone not to do a recreation,” Freeman said, but “we don’t want to make Disneyland.” He said that the Commission wants new buildings to be “sympathetic with historic buildings but should stand apart from them.”
Resident Leslie Kulig said that she is “confused and discouraged that the four story part of the building isn’t on West Springfield.” She said that it will “create a lot of shadow and darkness on West Springfield St. on my building.” She also suggested more garden area and more detail on the windows, as she believes the size of the corbeling is too small.
Alexa Pinard, an Urban Designer at the Boston Planning and Development Agency, thanked everyone for their work and contributions to the design of this building. She said she will ensure that all comments will be taken into consideration for the final design, and “I think the design just keeps getting better every time we see it.”
Several other neighbors wrote int he chat that they were disappointed and concerned with the height and massing of the building, and the fact that it might block light at certain times of day on the West Springfield side.
Freeman told the design and development team that for the next subcommittee meeting, they should be prepared to bring live computer generated models of the building that are able to be rotated, some different options for the West Springfield St. side, and provide a roof plan that shows the proposed HVAC condensers.
The subcommittee will not vote on this project, but once they feel they have the best design, it will come back before the full Commission for an official vote.
The next meeting of the subcommittee does not yet have a date, but one will be selected “as soon as possible” and posted on the City’s website when it is scheduled, and will again be open to the public.