Several buildings on Newbury Street will be a little more see-through, thanks to the approval of a once-controversial proposal for 256-260 Newbury St. After an advisory review, a regular hearing, and a subcommittee hearing, Adam Gilmore of Meyer and Meyer returned before the Back Bay Architectural Commission on Jan. 16 to present yet another revised proposal for the project. The buildings lie on a block of Newbury Street known as “the block of death,” and project proponents feel this project will bring much needed revitalization to the block.
As the Sun previously reported, the project includes a penthouse addition and roof decks, with a restaurant in the digout below the first floor. The piece that concerned both the Commission and the community and what sparked the subcommittee hearing was the utilization of large pieces of cast glass to replace historic features on the front facade of the building. While it’s still a major part of the design, as the proposals morphed over time, there has been less and less glass presented for the facade.
At the subcommittee hearing on Jan. 7, the Commission requested that Gilmore come back with more detailed elevations of the rooftop equipment, a study of other digout restaurants on the street, and looking into adding a second staircase in the patio digout, as well as exploring the possibility of the handicapped access to go behind the building.
At the Jan. 9 full Commission hearing, Gilmore presented a plan that raised the restaurant patio terrace up a foot, making the actual offset difference 5.5 feet. There is also another staircase down to the patio, which was not in the original plan. The accessible lift has disappeared from the front of the building in the plan, and though it’s not set in stone, “we’re hoping that’s the direction it goes,” Gilmore said.
There will also be stone bands under the fixed glass doors, and the door panel configuration is “a little more elegant now for the lower doors,” Gilmore said. They are also looking to add a glass canopy over the main entrance door, though the details of what that will look like have not yet been finalized. Along the wall that leads to the street in the digout, there will be planters with two rows of LED strip lights; one strip to illuminate the stone, and one to illuminate the planters.
A major talking point at the subcommittee hearing was the creation of some sort of mockup for the glass doors so the Commission would be able to see the transparency aspect of them and decide if they will truly work. The design team agreed that they would provide a mockup, but it would take a lot of time to create since the glass casts are custom-made.
Sue Prindle of the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay said she was concerned about seeing the penthouse from certain angles on Newbury Street. She added that she was upset about the loss of the stoops on the second-floor fixed doors, which had previously been discussed.
The design team expressed their gratitude to the Commission for their help throughout this process. “We came to you with a very bold proposal and I really wanted to thank you for your helpful consideration of the project,” a member of the design team said. “I thought it really was a wonderful example of private and public collaboration where the Commission had a trust in our group.”
“I appreciate the energy that’s gone into this and the thought and really it’s a difficult challenge; how do you do commercial revitalization for the 21st century and respect 19th century context,” Commissioner David Eisen responded. He said that he’s still a little concerned about how the cast glass will turn out and how it will be perceived, but he told the design team that they’ve “backtracked enough on the cast glass” that even if it isn’t as successful as it’s hoped to be, it will be an important lesson for the future.
Sparking a round of applause from the room, the Commission ultimately voted unanimously to approve this project as presented on Jan. 9 with details to staff regarding the cast glass as that process progresses.