BBAC Approves Project at New England Historic Genealogical Society

The Back Bay Architectural Commission (BBAC) approved the proposed work at 97 Newbury St. for the New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS) at its virtual meeting on July 13.

The project had previously come before the Commission for an advisory review in August of last year, and also recently received approval from the Zoning Board of Appeal (ZBA).

Architect Jon  Traficonte explained that the original building was constructed “around 1874 as one of four in a rowhouse set,” and three of the four rowhouses had been raised by 1928. The remaining building at 97 Newbury was used for retail, and NEHGS took over the building in 1964 and added the brick upper floors.

“What remains on the Newbury St. facade today is the mansard roof and dormer,” Traficonte said. “We are replacing it in kind in its current location.”

He said that repairs have been made to the building, but it has been “patched in terrible fashion without a lot of consideration for the design.”

Traficonte said the proposal includes the reconstruction of the building at 97 Newbury and aligning the floors with the building next door at 99-101 Newbury St. to increase public space.

Around 10,000 square feet of public space will be added to the NEGHS as part of this project, and the entire first floor will be dedicated to the public. A new public entrance will be created at 97 Newbury, and a small cafe will be added at the back that will serve coffee and other drinks, as well as pre-packaged food items.

Traficonte said that in the existing 99-101 Newbury St. building, NEGHS would like to have a Family History Discovery Center, which would be free and open to the public. The building will also include a new egress stair and elevator to connect all public floors in the buildings. Additionally, he said that 97 Newbury is the “only building on the block that doesn’t extend to the setback” in the rear, so the project includes extending the building as well.

Showing a sightline diagram, Traficonte explained that “there will be some view of the elevator override” from the Newbury St. side, but he said the override has been centered “as much as we possibly can.”

He also talked about some changes that have been made to the proposed design since the last time it came before the BBAC. He said that the plan now includes using cast stone “to match the historic brownstone” in place of the originally proposed limestone.

The mansard roof was originally proposed to be raised, but it will not remain where it is currently and the floors will “align at the darker horizontal window mullions” instead.

The entry arch has also been lowered to match the existing building, as has the signage band and door “to make it more pedestrian-friendly,” Traficonte said. The project also includes granite pavers, an entry with a granite block seat wall, and a “simple planter” for the existing tree.

The windows on the lower facade will now be punched windows and the storefront is proposed to be dark bronze.

Sue Prindle of the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay (NABB) Architecture Committee said that the committee was concerned “about how the first floor related to the upper floors. My concern was more with the depth of the entrance and how that related to the masonry, and whether there could be any detailing on the masonry posts” so it better relates to the architecture below it. Prindle also said she feels the project is now “vastly improved from where we were.”

Margaret Pokorny of the Garden Club of the Back Bay said “I think this looks great,” adding that she is “pleased with the rendering that shows the birch tree actually looking like a real amenity on that patio.” She did recommend that the birch tree and the street tree are treated and pruned.

Robert Shapiro called it a “really impressive plan” but said that he feels the “arch is much shallower than the adjacent buildings,” He suggested that the arch be made steeper to help It “look less like a garage or bank entrance.”

Tom High from backbayhouses.org said that “this has been a tremendously productive process. The end product was excellent.”

He added that he believes the team should “consider continuing the mullion pattern that is on the upper floors through the transom.”

Laurie Thomas of the Garden Club of the Back Bay said that “we hope that the birch will be protected during construction,” and said that there are ways to wrap it. While she also said that “I think it’s an amazing renovation,” she added that “I agree it’s very plain and stark on the bottom.”

In the end, the Commission voted to approve the project with the provisos that all details will be finalized by Landmarks staff, “including materials, colors, and storefront mullion configuration,” and that the Commission recognizes “that the elevator will be minimally visible from across the street and cannot be reduced in size or relocated within the roof footprint.”

545 BOYLSTON ST.

The Commission also approved a request from Smashburger at 545 Boylston St. to install string lighting at the outside patio.

Before the Commission heard the proposal, Boston Landmarks Commission Director of Design Review Joe Cornish said that “the Commission should consider adopting a policy regarding string lighting to address the current unapproved installations that have appeared throughout the commercial area of the district since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

He added that he spoke with BLC Chair Kathleen Connor, and recommended that a subcommittee be created for that purpose, as well as to “also address the issue of faux plantings and flowers that we’re seeing and hearing about in the district.”

The Commission has previously approved string lights in the district, notably at Life Alive Organic Cafe, also on Boylston St.

The steel post, which was removed per the Commission when Smashburger first came before the Commission for the patio, is proposed to be brought back as part of this project. There is seating located on both sides of the patio, so he wants lighting at each end.

Meek said that the proposal is to leave the lights up year-round, as the previously approved patio furniture is permanent and not removed during winter months. The six strings of lights are proposed to cascade down from the posts in a triangular pattern.

Meek said that the proposed posts are 10 feet tall, and Commissioner Traficonte Christiansen had some concerns about that height.

Commissioner Robert Weintraub said he likes the lights at Life Alive, as they are a “nice asset to the neighborhood. I see no reason we shouldn’t approve this.”

Christiansen said that “if it’s permanent, I think it ought to relate a bit more to the architecture.”

Meek said that the while the proposed sting lights will be white, they are more of a “soft white—not blue, more yellow.” They are LED lights, “but they are a traditional yellowish light so they’re not obnoxious,” he said. They are not on dimmers, but he said this is something that could be done if the Commission requested it.

BBAC Chair Kathleen Connor said that she wants to ensure the light strings “stay suspended at a similar level” and do not sag, which will be a safety issue. She suggested that making the lights more “linear” and locating them around the perimeter of the patio would be better.

Meek said that sagging should not be an issue as the lights are on stainless steel aircraft cable so they should not sag.

No public comment was made on this proposal, so the Commission voted to approve it with the provisos that the applicant ensure the strings don’t sag, and are placed “symmetrically in a square pattern as opposed to a triangular pattern.” Additionally, all other details, including the pole height and the brightness of the lights, will be remanded to Landmarks staff.

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