Instagram Tour: Final Phase of the Boston Public Library’s Johnson Building Renovation

The Boston Public Library has completed the second and final phase of renovations to the 1972 Philip Johnson building. The second phase renovations, which was completed by the Cambridge firm of William Rawn and Associates, includes updates to the interior design and exterior landscaping, new and very cool digital elements, stunning and invigorating new spaces for studying and reading, updated collections, and an enormous Tech Central with many new public computers.

In typical William Rawn fashion, the Johnson Building is colorful, brighter and welcoming in contrast to the dark and overwhelmingly depressing (but functional for its time), granite building completed in 1972. Rawn, who has designed several libraries in the Boston area—including the East Boston and Mattapan branches of the Boston Public Library—has also visually opened the Johnson building to the street, inviting the people of Boston into their library.

I’ve been a user of the Central Library since I was eight years old and Philip Johnson has never looked and felt this good. While this addition to the McKim, Mead & White Beaux Arts building isn’t one of Philip Jonhson’s best works, it’s an important building in Boston nonetheless.

What follows in this post is an Instagram tour of the final phase renovations (I Instagrammed the first phase of the building back in March 2015).

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The Welcome Center features new books, plenty of seating and digital screens listing information about programs and events at the library. The screens also serve as an opportunity for people to browse the Boston Public Library’s digital collections.

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The Boston Public Library has stepped into the 21st century with this renovation. A new 6,000 square feet Digital Services department and digital imaging studio has been created in the lower level of the building, directly across the Kirstein Business Library and Innovation Center. This new space will also be used by the BPL’s digital partners, Digital Public Library of America and Internet Archive. Welcome to the Boston Public Library, the library of the future.

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The Kirstein Business Library and Innovation Center will offer many courses including video editing, production and audio.

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An updated theater, new classroom and community gathering spaces are also found in the lower level.

Check out the very cool balloons that serve as collection markers.

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Many objects from the BPL’s extensive art collection are currently on display throughout the renovated building (and many more will be on view in the Fall in the new, museum-quality exhibition space).

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And colors to complement every single one of my many sneakers.

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What do you think of the newly renovated Johnson Building?

Facing an Uncertain Future, A Petition is Launched to Save Boston’s Iconic Citgo Sign

Workmen Repair CITGO Sign in Kenmore Square Boston

Spencer Grant, “Workmen repair Citgo Sign in Kenmore Square, Boston,” 1974. Boston Public Library, Spencer Grant Collection. © Spencer Grant.

Lauded by architecture critic Robert Campbell as a “masterpiece of urban commercial art[1]” and as “one of the great works of public art in the city,[2]” the Citgo sign is without a doubt one of the most recognizable landmarks in Boston. Located in Kenmore Square—roughly three blocks away from historic Fenway Park—the Citgo sign has been part of Boston’s skyline since the mid-sixties. The bold red, white and blue 60’ by 60’ sign was designed in 1965.

And here’s a shocker: as with anything that is of great and bold design in Boston (cue Boston City Hall), the Citgo sign wasn’t always loved by the people. I hope this isn’t the case now, but I may be wrong.

During the energy crisis of the 1970s, the sign was shut off, which prompted many letters to the editor of the Boston Globe, both praising and condemning the action. If that wasn’t enough, in 1982 the sign faced demolition’s wrecking ball until Bostonians—including Robert Campbell—urged the City to take a closer look at the sign. After much uproar, the Boston Landmarks Commission halted the demolition order and held a public hearing, but it decided in January of 1983 not to designate the Citgo sign as a city landmark, stating “that it didn’t want to subject the sign owners to cost of keeping it functioning.[3]” The already iconic sign remained on top of 660 Beacon Street, but not without being the target of insults (Hugo Chavez in 2006) or catching on fire in 2008. The sign was restored in 2010 and its lights were replaced with more technologically advanced and environmentally friendly ones.

And everyone lived happily ever after.

Not so fast.

The sign is back in the preservation spotlight.

Its current owner, Boston University, announced in January that it intended to sell the building on which the sign sits on “with no stipulations that the sign remain,” according to the Boston Preservation Alliance. The organization has launched a petition asking the City of Boston to grant landmark status to the Citgo sign, so that it will be permanently protected.

In 1982, the sign was considered one of the “Magnificent Seven” landmarks in the City of Boston by Robert Campbell, who called it a “magnificent illuminated sign.”[4] Campbell went on to say that the Citgo sign “pulsed like an electric heart in the night sky over Kenmore Square, its blue and red reflected in the Charles River basin. But it was turned off—in 1979—a purely symbolic response to the energy crisis. Now the sign is deteriorating.”

“Many people feel snobbish about the great signs, but surely the monuments of our automobile era are as legitimate as those of any other time. And the Citgo sign in the best symbol,[5]” Campbell continued.

“The Citgo sign is good design. It may be a symbol of a bygone era in its association with energy and affluence, but it’s a symbol of a new era in design, one which promises to enhance our cities instead of disfiguring them,”[6] wrote Joe Selame in a letter to the editor of the Boston Globe published on June 15, 1980.

I could go on and on quoting all the letters published in support of a landmark designation for the Citgo sign, but I think you get the point: good design is easily recognizable and the Citgo sign, is good design.

It’s hard to imagine Boston without the Citgo sign. Like the 1954 Prudential Building by Charles Luckman Associates and the 1976 John Hancock Building designed by Henry N. Cobb of I. M. Pei & Partners, the Citgo sign has served as another landmark by which many of us Bostonians orient ourselves on a daily basis. In a city as architecturally conservative as Boston, the Citgo sign represents a departure from the banal and we’ll be better off  by saving it for future generations of Bostonians to enjoy. I love the sign and I know many of those who love Fenway Park, do too. It’s hard not to associate the Citgo sign with baseball in Boston—they seem to go hand in hand.

Cover Image Courtesy of Jesse Haley of South End Textiles

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[1] Campbell, Robert. “Architecture.” The Boston Globe 26 December 1982: A35. Print.
[2]  Campbell, Robert. “IN THIS CORNER: A Fossil, It Sits There, A Sign of Its Time, And, Sadly Ours.” The Boston Globe 21 June 1982: 1. Print.
[3] Ball, Joanne. “It’s No Go for Citgo ‘Landmark.” The Boston Globe 26 January 1983: 17. Print
[4] Campbell, Robert.  “A Magnificent Seven.” The Boston Globe 22 August 1982: SM13. Print.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Selame, Joe. “Letters: The Citgo Symbol.” The Boston Globe 15 June 1980: G4. Print

The Evolving Critic is Runner-Up in Boston A-List’s Best Local Blog Poll

Just a quick update on the blog’s nomination as Best Local Blog by the Boston A-List and City Voter. Winners were announced on June 20, 2016 and I’m happy to say that The Evolving Critic is 2016’s Runner-Up in the Best Local Blog category. Thank you to all of you who voted for the blog and thank you for the support you’ve given me through the years. I also wanted to extend my congratulations to the music blog, Sounds of Boston for winning the top spot this year.

Exploring the Landscapes and Structures of Boston with Common Boston

As I wrote last week, Common Boston held its first “open house” festival in Boston this past weekend and I had to take part in it. The format for this year’s festival was different than anything the organization had ever done before and while I had seen all but three of the buildings on this year’s list, I still opted to explore buildings and the landscapes I was already familiar with. I wanted a fresh take on the landscapes that have come to define the cities of Boston and Brookline, especially those landscapes designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and his firm.

From Dorchester where I live—just two blocks away from Olmsted’s crowning jewel in Boston, Franklin Park—I boarded two buses and a Green Line trolley and walked up a hill in a neighborhood of Brookline once part of Boston. Walking up Cypress Street and Warren Street in the Green Hill section of Brookline, I was reminded of how important the elements of anticipation and surprise are in the landscapes designed by the Olmsted firm. While those streets mentioned above with their Colonial Revival, Shingle Style and Arts and Crafts houses were not designed by the Olmsted firm, their picturesque vistas definitely contribute to the anticipation and eventually, the grand reveal of Fairsted, the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site.

The last time I visited Fairsted was in 2009 and the landscape and the 1810 farmhouse were undergoing an extensive restoration. I didn’t get to see as much as I would have liked, since my visit was part of a class I was taking at that time at Boston University. As of 2014, the home and studio of one of the country’s most influential landscape designers is once again open to the public with guided and self-guided tours that offer a fresh perspective on the work of Frederick Law Olmsted.

Rather than take a left on Walnut Street as my Google Maps app instructed me to, I took a right to see the Principal Gatehouse—a two-story Renaissance Revival structure flanking the northern-most point of the Brookline Reservoir. The reservoir was constructed in 1848 by the City of Boston as part of its public water supply and the structure has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Its stonework—according to the nomination report for designation as National Historic Landmark—recalls the work executed under architects Solomon Willard, Alexander Parris and Gridley J. F. Bryant.

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Principal Gatehouse in Brookline, MA. Photo by the author.

After spending a few minutes looking at the Principal Gatehouse, I headed back up Warren Street on my way to the Olmsted National Historic Site. After a ten-minute walk and after much anticipation, I came upon Fairsted. Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr. purchased the 1810 farmhouse in 1883 and moved from New York City to Brookline, at the recommendation of his friend and frequent collaborator Henry Hobson Richardson—the famed architect behind Trinity Church in the City of Boston. A rustic arch welcomes visitors to Fairsted and hints at what lies ahead, by framing not the house and studio, but a turn-around for carriages. This leads to not only the house, but to one of the more prominent features of the landscape: the rustic scenery that extends as far as the eye can see. Depending on the direction one takes, either the house is revealed first, or the Hollow (more on this in a bit), the Rock Garden or the South Lawn.

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Fairsted, The Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site, Brookline, MA. Photo by the author.

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Fairsted, The Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site, Brookline, MA. Photo by the author.

If one bears right after passing through the rustic arch and walks down the steps on the far right, one enters a part of the landscape known as The Hollow—a sunken corner that is “a miniature version of the lyrical and naturalistic ‘secret gardens’ Olmsted used in his designs for larger parks.”

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The Hollow. Photo by the author.

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The Hollow. Photo by the author.

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The Hollow. Photo by the author.

Other parts of the landscape at Fairsted include a Rock Garden located in a shady, secluded woodland and the South Lawn, a broad meadow that was once an apple orchard when Olmsted purchased the property. On that same section of the landscape was a barn, which was moved in order to reshape, grade and replant the space to how we experience it today.

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The South Lawn. Photo by the author.

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The South Lawn. Photo by the author.

As a #HistoricHouseCrush fanatic, the wallpaper caught my eye:

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Instagram photo by the author.

After the Olmsted National Historic Site, I meandered down Warren Street and to the Back Bay Fens, specifically, the Fenway Victory Gardens.

The Fenway Victory Gardens are one of my favorite spots in Boston to walk around and admire the many plants and flowers grown by almost 500 community gardeners that have a plot here. Part of Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace, this landscape features several structures of historic and architectural significance like the Boylston Street Bridge by Henry Hobson Richardson as well as a nearby pump house also designed by Richardson. The pump house has been rehabilitated and is now the visitor center for the Emerald Necklace Conservancy.

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The Emerald Necklace, overlooking the Muddy River. Photo by the author.

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The Fenway Victory Gardens. Photo by the author.

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The Fenway Victory Gardens. Photo by the author.

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The Fenway Victory Gardens. Photo by the author.

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The Boylston Street Bridge, Henry Hobson Richardson. Instagram photo by the author.

Finally, after talking to some gardeners and admiring the many plants in bloom, I continued down on Boylston Street and stopped at the Boston Architectural College—one of my favorite Heroic buildings in the city. The College’s main building was completed in 1964 and designed by Ashley, Myer & Associates and even on a rainy day, it is nothing short of stunning. The design competition for both the Boston Architectural College and Boston City Hall were subjects of a terrific exhibition on view in the same building this past Spring.

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The Boston Architectural College, built in 1964. Ashley, Myer & Associates. Instagram photo by the author.

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The Boston Architectural College, built in 1964. Ashley, Myer & Associates. Instagram photo by the author.