A unique vision often sounds foolhardy at the time, and it’s just so for the Laconia Lofts building between Washington Street and Harrison Avenue in the South End – a building build on what was the “risky” edge of the neighborhood 20 years ago, and is now one of the most celebrated addresses in the heart of today’s South End.
Laconia Lofts was the vision of developer Jack McLaughlin, but was designed by David Hacin, current president of Hacin + Associates – a firm still located on Harrison Avenue. At the time, in 1999, Washington Street and Harrison Avenue didn’t have a SoWa Market, nor did they have unique residential buildings lining the thoroughfare – and Peters Park wasn’t the dog-friendly, kid-friendly enclave it is today.
In a time when artist housing came in old buildings or rehabilitated buildings, Laconia was one of the first new construction buildings for artists in a long time – and it was happening in a part of the South End that was not well-established.
“Laconia was a big deal when it happened,” said Hacin this week, ahead of what is to be a spectacular exhibit at Laconia over the next two months and an opening celebration this Friday, Dec. 6. “There were a few buildings with artists down here, but it was a lot of parking lots and abandoned gas stations and auto body shops. The 20 years has gone by quickly. Without the Ink Block and all the development around it, Laconia back then seemed so much on the edge when built, but is now much more in the middle of things. It’s so interesting how the community has changed.”
McLaughlin was originally from British Columbia and came to Boston to attend Harvard University, then stayed on as a developer. Hacin said McLaughlin had a great vision for the area back when it was still under-developed, and thought that housing for artists was a great undertaking – something that today is still a housing priority in the city. McLaughlin was a caring developer, Hacin said, often sitting down with artists and filling out bank forms so they could get a mortgage at Laconia. It was an undertaking that was more than just a building built to turn a profit.
“It was his vision and not my vision,” said Hacin, who has lived in Laconia since it opened in 2000. “He really had a vision when I think back to all the things he said 20 years ago that came true.”
But unfortunately, McLaughlin died a few weeks short of the building opening, and that left a huge hole in the project. Many of the early residents, like Hacin, found themselves moving in and also finishing the building. Many residents laid down carpet in the hallways, installed lighting, and completed other punch-list tasks – and it was something that might have been frustrating, but ended up knitting together the community.
“We all had to come together and finish the building ourselves as we moved in,” he said. “It was a way of building community because we had to work together to complete Jack’s vision.”
That vision also included some great architecture that has stood the test of time – and that is to the credit of Hacin.
He said he took on the project five years into the start of his company, and though it was risky, he felt it was a chance to showcase what they were capable of doing. Having moved from Union Park to 500 Harrison Ave. around the same time, he was familiar with the neighborhood and the changes some were trying to make.
Hacin said he designed the building purposefully to emulate two faces – in industrial warehouse feel to the Harrison Avenue side, and the tower side on Washington Street to pay homage to the Back Bay and other parts of the South End.
“The SoWa area was the musical instrument manufacturing district in the early 1900s,” he said. “There were large industrial buildings marked by towers. The idea was to riff a little on that.”
Another distinctive piece was the use of red brick and light brick – the red brick being used historically in the warehouse areas, and the light brick being used in places like the Pine Street Inn.
“It was unusual at the time,” he said.
“The banding wrapped around and unified the whole thing.”
Hacin also said he believes the building has stood the test of time because of the relaxed atmosphere (there are no traditional apartment building amenities), it’s tight community – and design-wise – it’s use of brick.
“We are very concerned with buildings that are contemporary and also contextual and well crafted,” he said. “There are a lot of buildings going up with panels now. I think that one of the things we’ve done is tried to build with traditional Boston materials like brick and that has helped us to hold up to time. I always say in 100 years I want people to fight for the preservation of our buildings.”
One fun fact, he said, is that the view from the tower of Laconia lines up perfect with the thin edge of the new John Hancock Tower.
“That was a happy accident,” he said. “I knew it was possible, but the fact we nailed it was a happy accident.”
Hacin and those in Laconia invite everyone to rejoice in that and other happy accidents – and happy times – this Friday, Dec. 6, at 5:30 p.m. in Laconia. The exhibit on the 20th anniversary will stay up for two months.