BBAC Provides Constructive Criticism for NEHGS Proposal for 97 Newbury St. Building

The Back Bay Architectural Commission (BBAC) on August 11 heard an advisory review for a proposal to renovate the existing building at 97 Newbury St. as well as construct rooftop and rear additions.

Ryan Woods, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer for the New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS), was on hand to present the proposal and hear feedback from Commissioners.

Woods explained that the NEGHS is in an “early phase of expanding our facility and creating some public space at 97 Newbury St.,” and has been meeting with the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay (NABB) Architecture Committee regarding the design.

He said that the NEHGS’s headquarters has been on Newbury St. since 1964, and “we are looking to create a space that is sensitive to the history…” He said that the Society hopes to use this space for more “free public spaces” and free programming for residents and visitors of the city, including a visitor center and shop, a discovery center, a lecture hall, a scholarly publishing center, and update the fire, accessibility, and mechanical systems.

For the facade, a limestone material was proposed, as well as the alignment of the floors of 97 Newbury St. with those at the adjacent 99-101 Newbury St.

“We have looked for a way to make this be a usable public space,” he said, “aligning the floors being one of the key elements.”

Woods proposed two different options for the building; the first being “to raise the existing roof position and dormer by three feet, nine inches,” and the roof line would line up with the adjacent building, creating an AB rhythm.

Option Two includes the preservation or reconstruction in kind of the dormer and mansard. “This creates a step back or forward depending on your perspective in order to take advantage of the 65 foot allowable height,” Woods said. He said that this option would reduce the top floor of 97 Newbury St. “by about 200 square feet.”

He then talked about the proposed storefront that would provide the “primary entrance to the complex,” and said that the team “would like this to be an inviting and welcoming space…drawing in neighbors, the public, and visitors.”

For the proposed rear addition, Woods said that they are “proposing to build back to the alley as much as is permitted. Our proposal is to build back to the lot line, seeking a variance on the 20 foot setback…”

He also said that the proposal includes a mezzanine above the double height first floor with a “standard floor above that,” and a garden terrace on the top floor of the rear addition.

He talked about some feedback from the NABB Architecture Committee, which included asking the team to think about using punch out windows as opposed to the proposed sunken in windows.

The Commission felt pretty strongly about this proposal, and urged the proponent to come back with a different proposal.

“I don’t think we can allow a full height of the existing building to go to the alley,” Commissioner Robert Weintraub said. “The guidelines permit a two story addition.”

He continued, “removing the mansard and restoring it in kind…in my mind is the way to go.” Weintraub did not agree with “raising the building beyond” the “historic height.”

Weintraub added, “this is a far cry from the guidelines and requires a substantial amount of thought and deviation and I don’t think the Commission is going to allow you to make a lot of these changes.”

Commissioner Jim Berkman said “I do appreciate the programmatic goals in the interior,” but added that he “would hope you could do your internal programming without as extensive a facade change.”

Commissioner John Freeman said he agreed with Weintraub, saying that he believes the building ”should stay brownstone.”

He said that the proposed “width of the opening is just too grand. I agree that the windows should relate to the windows along the adjoining facade. If they don’t align with the floors, it’s better for the street in my mind.”

D. Brenton Simons, president and CEO of NEHGS, said that they do not “want to be boxed in” to a certain style, as they are looking ahead to the future and want to be innovative with their programming, so they want the building to reflect that.

“You are progressive, you want to be open to the public, but you also have roots in history,” Berkman said, adding that the facade will reflect those roots.

“You can keep much of this facade,” he said, including the scale, “and give yourself a slightly more modern look.”

Meg Mainzer-Cohen of the Back Bay Association said she likes the different options presented to the Commission, and called the NEHGS a “stakeholder in the Back Bay” and a “huge draw” for many. “It’s a very important part of our neighborhood.”

Tom High of backbayhouses.org said that “with respect to the front, I think that the approach that’s being recommended by most of the Commissioners…of trying to have this building remain as a standalone distinctive building…is an excellent one…” He suggested the use of a cast stone “to distinguish it,” as “keeping the scale of that storefront would be very desirable.” He also advised against an addition taller than two stories in the rear.

Sue Prindle from NABB said that she believes “the direction is really good.” She provided comments regarding the windows and arch, and said she is “concerned about the setback in the back and I am concerned about size fo the shaft in the front.” She expressed concern for the residents behind the building.

Laurie Thomas of the Garden Club of the Back Bay commented on a tree in front of the building, saying that “we only talked about moving the location of the tree if the tree dies.” She said that Margaret Pokorny of the Garden Club said that the tree does need work, but it is not beyond help.

Thomas said that it needs pruning and root treatments, and a portion of it is even dead, but it should not be moved. “It’s a bit of a landmark so I hope it can get some of the care it needs,” she said

“I’m very fond of this building,” Thomas said, adding that the “contrast it makes with its neighbors is important. I think that if it had a more welcoming and human-scaled entrance, it would be a much more welcoming and less intimidating entrance. I hope that the design can continue moving in that direction.” No vote was taken on this proposal as it was an advisory review, but the project proponents received all comments from the Commission and are expected to come back with a revised proposal.

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