SELDC Approves 794 Mass. Ave. Addition for Height, Landscaping, Setback, and Massing

The South End Landmark District Commission (SELDC) met virtually on December 1, where Commissioners heard a proposal for the Woods Mullen Shelter and Services at 794 Mass Ave. to demolish a section of the five story building and erect a three-story addition as well as create a new entrance vestibule.

The building is located in a protection area, so Commissioners had to come to an agreement about whether enough demolition was proposed to justify reviewing the project “to district standards,” according to Chair John Amodeo. According to the South End Landmarks Standards and Criteria, “…the only items subject to design review in the Protection Area are: demolition, land coverage, height of structures, landscape, and topography.”

Architect J. Michael Sullivan said that the purpose of this project is to improve the facilities for the women’s shelter, including creating a larger bathroom facility and a new entrance to the building. He said that the entrance is currently through the loading dock, but the new entrance is proposed to be on the southwest side of the building.

The proposed three story addition will be on the south elevation, he added.

“In addition, there is a desire to have an elevator to serve all five floors,” Sullivan said, which would be located at the southwest entry. He also said the project includes repairing the existing windows as well.

Sullivan said the entrance vestibule would have alucobond material on the facade, which would look like metal panels “to distinguish it a little” from the rest of the masonry building.

The addition will include red masonry that “evolves into the blond masonry” with random mixes of the two brick colors where they meet in the middle.

He said that a contractor has been selected and demolition is happening right now.

The Commission spent a good chunk of time discussing whether or not they think there is enough demolition to hold this building to district standards in their review.

Commissioner John Freeman said that he doesn’t think there is enough demolition, but Commissioners generally agreed that the building is highly visible to both pedestrians and vehicle traffic.

“I’d just say it’s a shame,” Commissioner Catherine Hunt said of the design. “It’s not doing the original building any service I don’t think.”

Commissioner David Shepperd said that it “seems like it’s a pretty highly visible corner of the building” where the addition will be, adding that it “takes away from some of the symmetry of the facade that people enter through.”

Hunt said she “urges” the project team to “strive for something that is more compatible with this art deco design that is so significant. I’m afraid because we don’t have any jurisdiction that that may go unheeded.”

Amodeo said he thinks the “fenestration is distracting,” and he does think the building contributes significantly to the neighborhood. 

Peter Sanborn, a former SELDC Commissioner and current South End resident, said he lives two blocks from this building. “I find this design frankly kind of appalling and I think as presented here reinforces the worst of institutional architecture,” he said.

“I understand the limited jurisdiction that the Commission has. I don’t see how the addition relates to the existing building in the least.”

He said that while the existing building is “not a gem,” it is “a piece of its period,” and he suggested the rearrangement of the brick pattern proposed for the addition. He said that “rather than placing the lighter brick at the corner, place it to the left side of the addition,” and at the Melnea Cass side, “place it at the right edge so that it would lighten out as it gets closer to the existing windows on the existing building.”

After some further discussion, the Commission voted to approve this proposal as submitted only for what they have purview over: height, landscaping, and setback, and it will be approved for massing “with the request that the applicant review the comments that were made during this session and consider massings which could possibly improve it,” Freeman said. Though it could not be an official proviso, the Commission also requested that the project team “review other comments made about fenestration and proportions of the walls,” he added.

Sullivan said he appreciates the comments made by the Commission and thanked them for their feedback.

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