Unlocking Boston: 14 Must-See Sites at This Year’s Common Boston Festival


For the first time ever, Common Boston is adopting a new format for their highly popular festival of design and architecture in the city. Kicking off on June 4 and continuing through the weekend, Common Boston will “unlock” the doors to dozens of architecturally, culturally and historically significant sites in and around Boston.

Architecture and design enthusiasts rejoice as more than 50 historic sites will be opened to the public, including GrandTen Distilling, Old North Church and Hibernian Hall in Roxbury.  Need help deciding what to see? I’ve picked 14 of some of the best sites to see during the Common Boston Open House Festival. Plan your visit carefully since many of the buildings are only open either Saturday or Sunday, however, many are open on both days.

1. Lunder Arts Center, Lesley University

Lunder Arts Center Bruner Cott

Lunder Arts Center at Lesley University, Cambridge, MA. Photo Courtesy of Bruner/Cott & Associates. 2006 Invited Design Competition; building completed in 2015.

If you only have time to see one building, make it the Lunder Arts Center at Lesley University. Completed in 2015, by local architects Bruner/Cott & Associates, the building won the 2015 Preservation Award from the Cambridge Historical Commission for beautifully re-using the 1845 Greek Revival North Prospect Church and integrating it with the new terra cotta brick and glass building on the same site.

2. MassArt, Treehouse Residence Hall

MassArtStudentResHall ADD Inc

MassArt Tree House Student Residence, ADD Inc. Exterior Photography by Chuck Choi and Peter Vanderwarker, Courtesy of ADD Inc.

This residence hall at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design is destined to become winner of the Harleston Parker Medal for Most Beautiful Building in Boston. The “treehouse” as it is affectionately known, was completed in 2013 by local architects ADD, INC. and was inspired by Gustav Klimt’s Tree of Life. The treehouse is arguably the single-most interesting building in Boston since the new Boston City Hall.

3. Boston Public Library, Honan-Allston Branch

Honan Allston Library Machado Silvetti

Boston Public Library Honan-Allston Branch completed in 2001 by Machado Silvetti. Photo Courtesy of Machado Silvetti.

Completed in 2001 and designed by the firm of Machado Silvetti, this neighborhood branch of the Boston Public Library features slate shingles and blocks, woods, and natural-finished wood windows to create an inviting interior filled with light. Please note that the building is only open for visiting Saturday June 4, from 9:00am-5:00pm.

4. Boston Public Library, East Boston Branch

East Boston Public Library William Rawn Associates

Boston Public Library, East Boston Branch by William Rawn Associates. Completed in 2013. Photo by Robert Benson Photography, courtesy of William Rawn Associates.

Completed in 2013, the East Boston Branch of the Boston Public Library is designed in signature William Rawn-style—spacious, gloriously lit interiors, beautiful light wood and colorful accents that rejuvenate all the senses. The LEED Gold Certification is just the icing on the cake. Please note that the building is only open on Saturday June 4, from 9:00am-5:00pm.

5. Boston Public Library, Mattapan Branch

Mattapan Library William Rawn

Boston Public Library, Mattapan Branch by William Rawn Associates. Completed in 2009. Photo by Robert Benson Photography, Courtesy of William Rawn Associates.

Just one of seven library branches in my neighborhood of Dorchester, this is also another building designed by William Rawn Associates. Completed in 2009, the building is one of my favorites of the firm’s libraries because it seamlessly blends the interior and exterior, inviting users to take advantage of the courtyard on nice days or admire from the comfort of your seat, the evergreen plants on bitter cold winter days. Please note that the building is open on Saturday June 4 from 9:00am-5:00pm.

6. Cambridge City Hall

Cambridge City Hall HABS

Cambridge City Hall, Cambridge, MA. Photo Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division – Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record/Historic American Landscapes Survey

Often mistakenly attributed to the great architect Henry Hobson Richardson, Cambridge City Hall was designed by Longfellow, Alden & Harlow in the “Richardsonian Romanesque” style, a style named after Richardson himself. Please note that Cambridge City Hall is only open on Saturday June 4 from 10:00am to 3:00pm.

7. Church of the Covenant

Church of the Covenant

Church of the Covenant (1865-1867), Boston, MA designed by Richard M. Upjohn. Photo Courtesy of The Church of the Covenant.

Designed by the noted architect Richard M. Upjohn (the son of Richard Upjohn), the Church of the Covenant (1865-67) also features a sumptuous interior by the Tiffany Company. If you visit, you’ll see 42 stained glass windows by the Tiffany Company and the original chandelier from the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The church was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2012. Please note that the church is open Saturday from  11:00am to 3:00pm and Sunday from 12:30pm to 4:30pm.

8. Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site

Fairstead HABS

Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site, Brookline, MA. Photo Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division – Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record/Historic American Landscapes Survey

Located in Brookline (not far from his friend and frequent collaborator, Henry Hobson Richardson’s house), the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site is a must-see for anyone interested in the roots of American landscape design. The house and landscape were recently restored to a 1930 appearance. Please note that the site is open Wednesday through Sunday from 9:30am to 4:00pm and guided tours will be offered at 10:00am, 11:00am and 1:00pm, 2:00pm, 3:00pm both on Saturday and Sunday.

9. Metropolitan Waterworks Museum

Metro Waterworks Museum

Metropolitan Waterworks Museum, Chesnut Hill, MA. Photo by Flickr user used under the Creative Commons License.

#GetPumped at the Metropolitan Waterworks Museum during the Common Boston Open House Festival. A building designed by Arthur Vinal in the Richardsonian Romanesque style, this pumping station was built in 1886-87 in response to the city’s increasing demands for clean water. Learn about the landscape, architecture and walk away with a deeper appreciation for the engineering marvels of 19th century Boston. Please note that the museum is open on both Saturday and Sunday from 11:00am to 4:00pm.

10. James Blake House, Dorchester Historical Society

James Blake House HABS

James Blake House, Dorchester Historical Society, Dorchester, MA. Photo Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division – Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record/Historic American Landscapes Survey

The oldest house in Boston. Enough said. Do not miss this house built in 1661, one of “a relatively small number of its type – the post-Medieval, timber-frame house – surviving anywhere in New England.” Open Saturday only. For more information, please click here.

11. Ayer Mansion

Ayer Mansion

Ayer Mansion, Boston, MA. Designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany. Photo courtesy of McGinley Kalsow & Associates Inc.

Located in swanky Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, the Ayer Mansion is a rare surviving example of the residential work of designer Louis Comfort Tiffany. The house is one of three surviving houses with interiors designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany and features stunning interior and exterior mosaics as well as stained glass windows. Please note that on Saturday, June 4, 2016, visitors are free to view just the first floor without a tour from 2:30 to 5:30 PM.  Guided tours are offered at 2:30 PM & 4:30 PM.

12. Boston Public Library, Central Library

Boston Public Library by McKim, Mead and White

The Boston Public Library by McKim, Mead and White. Photo by the author.

McKim, Mead and White’s Palace for the People. While you’re free to self-guide anytime on Saturday and Sunday, I highly recommend one of the library’s guided tours. Tours are held on Saturdays at 11:00 a.m.
and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Bring your lunch and enjoy the courtyard.

13. The Vilna Shul, Boston’s Center for Jewish Culture, Inc

Vilna Shul

Photo by the author.

I had the opportunity to tour this inspiring building in 2010 with some members of the New England Chapter, Society of Architectural Historians. Built by the only Jewish architect in the city, Max Kalman, the Vilna Shul is a building worth seeing. Admire the decorative murals and learn about life in Beacon Hill before the re-development of the West End. Please note that the building is closed on Saturdays, so your chance to see the building is on Sunday June 5. There is a guided tour at 2:00pm and 4:00pm.

14. Otis House, Historic New England

Otis House HABS

Otis House, Historic New England, Boston, MA. Photo Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division – Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record/Historic American Landscapes SurveyFrederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site, Brookline, MA. Photo Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division – Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record/Historic American Landscapes Survey

Here’s your chance to see some of the most colorful Federalist interiors in Boston. The Harrison Gray Otis House was designed by noted architect Charles Bulfinch for Harrison Gray Otis, a Massachusetts senator and third mayor of Boston. This 1796 house is considered to be one of the finest and grandest Federalist houses in the city. The house is owned by Historic New England and is open to the public for viewing with tours every half hour. Last tour at 4:30 p.m.

Which sites will you be visiting? Report back on your visit via Twitter, Instagram or Facebook using the hashtag #CB16. 

Marcelo Ment Brings a Bit of Brazil’s Sunshine to Dorchester


Marcelo Ment in Dorchester, MA. Photo courtesy of Erica Mattison

Internationally acclaimed street artist Marcelo Ment recently spent a couple of days in Dorchester to paint a new mural along one of the neighborhood’s main streets. Ment—who generously contributed his time and talent to help Greater Ashmont Main Street’s (formerly known as St. Mark’s Area Main Street) efforts in beautifying Dorchester Avenue—just wrapped up a three-week residency at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts.

A member of the first generation of graffiti artists in Rio do Janeiro, Marcelo Ment’s work has been widely published in books and catalogs. Ment’s murals can be seen on the streets of many cities around the world, including those of Rio do Janeiro, Los Angeles, Miami and now Boston. Ment’s residency at Brandeis was part of “Graffiti Week” at the school which was sponsored by the Louis D. Brandeis 100: Then and Now Centennial, the Latin American and Latino Studies Program, and Afro-American and African Studies Department at Brandeis.

“It was magical to see an ordinary parking lot transformed into a fun, welcoming, interesting, beautiful community space, as artist Marcelo Ment created a large mural on what had been a blank wall along Dorchester Ave. The reactions from passersby were priceless, as their faces lit up and they let out sounds of awe at the sight of this new art dressing up their neighborhood,” says Dorchester resident and Greater Ashmont Main Street Board Member and Beautification & Public Space Committee Co-Chair, Erica Mattison. “Greater Ashmont Main Street is grateful to Marcelo for engaging community members in the process of creating this artwork and for contributing a piece that will enhance the neighborhood for several years,” added Ms. Mattison.


Marcelo and Erica Mattison. Photo by David Mooney. Courtesy of the Greater Ashmont Main Street.

The mural is located at 1720 Dorchester Avenue on the side of The Modern Dog and the Maneikis Companies building. Considered one of the “city’s greatest boulevards” according to the Boston Redevelopment Authority’s website, Dorchester Avenue has been the focus recent studies looking to spur revitalization in a section of a neighborhood left in the shadows of many of the city’s planning efforts.

As far as more murals in the neighborhood going up, Ms. Mattison says that Greater Ashmont Main Street is “looking forward to working with many local artists on additional community projects this year and beyond.”

UPDATED: the post originally stated that the artist had donated his time; he was compensated for his work. We regret the error.

Pro-Selfie Just Not Pro-Selfie Stick: The Gardner Museum Changes Their Photo Policy

Gardner Museum Courtyard in January. Instagram taken by the author.

In a surprising turn of events, the Gardner Museum has changed their photo policy to allow photographs throughout the museum. In a recent blog post, I urged the Gardner to consider simplifying or clarifying their confusing new photo policy. As you may recall, the museum changed their policy this year to allow photographs of only the first floor—basically the courtyard and its surroundings, prompting visitors to take photos of the courtyard from the upper floors, but coming to find out these were not allowed when approached by the museum’s security guards.

The policy, effective on March 10 now allows photographs throughout the museum with the usual restrictions: “The use of tripods, monopods, and selfie sticks is not permitted. No professional photo shoots for personal or commercial use or large group photos is allowed.”

While lighting is an issue at the Gardner Museum, there’s nothing a good Instagram filter can’t fix.

Tweeting in response to a visitor question, the museum said, “We’re excited about it, and hope our visitors enjoy!”

This is fantastic news and I know museum goers can’t wait to share their experience with their friends and followers on social media.

Congratulations Gardner Museum on embracing change and enhancing the visitor experience. Well done!

UPDATE: To give credit where credit is due, the “pro-selfie just not pro-selfie stick” is taken from this FastCompany article in which the Met Museum’s Sree Sreenivasan talks about how the museum is staying relevant in the age of the smartphone.

Broken Record: On Museum Photos, The Gardner Museum and Their New Photo Policy

I often go to museums and share my experience on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. What I’ve learned in the almost six years I’ve been on Twitter, is that there are museums that make it very easy for visitors to share their experience and then there are others that don’t. Those that do, even go as far as encouraging the use of specific hashtags as well as taking photos in the galleries. For someone like me and the thousands of fellow museum-goers part of the worldwide #ITweetMuseums community, these museums represent a sliver of what heaven must feel like.

In the months of January and February, I visited the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum three times. On a couple of my visits, I tweeted a bit and on one occasion, I didn’t even look at my phone. On my first visit, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that visitors were not only allowed to take photos in their marvelous Carlo Crivelli exhibition in the Renzo Piano addition, but also in the first floor of Fenway Court—the original Gardner building. This caught me by surprise knowing that I was at the Gardner Museum, an institution with a very strict no-photos policy. “Awesome!” I actually said out loud, thinking that this was a great first step for the museum to let loose a bit and start embracing change.

After learning of the change in their photo policy, I visited two more times. While looking around in the Titian Room, I began to quietly observe visitors and their interactions with the museum guards. What I witnessed and heard, was something very uncomfortable, I even tweeted about it.

So I thought, if I’m allowed to take photos of the first floor, which includes the luscious courtyard, the Chinese Loggia and the Spanish Cloister and its exquisite painting by John Singer Sargent, then it must be okay for me to take a photo of only the courtyard, looking down at it from the upper floor windows. Makes sense to you, right? Well, it made sense to me and to the handful of visitors who were caught by the museum guards taking photos of the courtyard. I do confess that I did take a couple of photos of the courtyard from the upper floors on a separate visit, but did not get caught. While I felt a bit embarrassed for those visitors who got caught when I was there, I attribute my luck and discreetness to my experience visiting dozens of museums and historic houses throughout the country. At some point in my museum-going experience, I got fed up with being yelled at for taking photos (to be clear, not at the Gardner), so I sneaked in some photos whenever I had a chance. Nowadays when I go to the admissions desk at any museum, I ask about the museum’s photo policy and gladly comply with whatever the policy is. This impacts whether or not I share my experience with followers, regardless of how pleasant my visit is. By asking at the Gardner on my first visit in over a year, I learned I could take photos in the Crivelli exhibit. That change in policy allowed me to share some really stunning works with my followers on Twitter and Instagram.


Before I continue, I want to clarify that this post is not about making the Gardner Museum look “bad,” but rather to keep bringing attention to an issue that many museums continue to grapple with in 2016: allowing photography in their galleries. It so happens that the Gardner Museum is currently in the midst of some changes in their photo and communication policies. I want my opinions to persuade and better inform the staff and decision making process at museums and historic houses I visit. I want to underscore that I’m not asking that the Gardner Museum change their photo policies immediately, but rather to clarify it for visitors, myself included. At the end of this post, I have a separate comment on the bending of this new policy at the Gardner Museum.

Embracing change takes time whether it’s at museums as old and grand as the Gardner and the Museum of Fine Arts or as “new” and not-so-big like the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston. That said, many of the museums I’ve called out and even praised for their outstanding/not-so-outstanding work have begun to embrace social media and even change their photo policies. Of course, I don’t take credit for all or any of these changes, but when a museum hears how their visitors feel when confronted with one of their policies, especially if it’s a silly no-photos policy, museum staff begin to engage in conversations with top decision makers at their museums, eventually causing change to happen. At least, this is what I hope goes on behind the walls of every museum.

After years of not allowing photography in their galleries, the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston now allows and even encourages their visitors to explore the art on view throughout their very active social media accounts. On that same note, the Peabody Essex Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts, deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum as well the Harvard Art Museums have also embraced their social media by not only interacting with their followers, but also encouraging their visitors to take photos, share them on social media using specific hashtags and even hosting #instameet nights where their followers are invited to take photos of either a special exhibition or of the museum in general and share on Instagram. (Both the Peabody Essex and the Harvard Art Museums have organized these #instameets, I’m honestly not sure about the other museums, I list here) Anyone, regardless of who you are, is invited to attend, as it should be. (In the case of the Harvard Art Museums, all the university student were invited to attend)



The Gardner Museum recently announced on Instagram that they’ve partnered with @IGERSBOSTON—an Instagram account “made up of photographers and artists inspired by our beautiful city,” with almost 63,000 followers. The museum is organizing an #InstaMeet and they’re calling it “GardnerOffTheWall with the assistance of @IGERSBOSTON. In the museum’s own words, this would be an “exclusive event” that “will offer the museum’s guests the opportunity to experience the museum like never before. For two hours and while closed to the public, the Gardner will offer guests exclusive access to tour the museum and the ability to photograph its galleries and exhibits,” reads the caption under the photo below.


Sounds incredible, right? Indeed, everything sounds incredible until you realize that this is not what you think it is. Let me get this straight, in order for me to win an opportunity to experience the magic of the Gardner Museum and take photos to share with my followers (luring some of them to pay full admission if they ever visit in person), I have to go over to the @IGERSBOSTON account, comment on their post (which is a photo of the Gardner courtyard) and tell the staff what I love about the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum? That’s right, but after doing all that work, you then realize that only the museum’s favorite comments—five in total—will be chosen as winners.

To bring this to a close, here’s what I think about all this: I think this would have been an exceptional opportunity for the Gardner to allow photography throughout the museum for one day— call it a special once-in-a-lifetime-capture-the-allure-of-the-Gardner-Museum event or something along that line)—regardless whether you’re on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook or whether you comment on a post or not. Too often we see institutions operating in the 21st century, but deeply stuck in the 20th century because they refuse to change and get with the times. Why must we keep insisting on limiting access to museums, or giving exclusive access to an elite or handpicked group of people when those who need or can benefit from a museum the most can’t even get through the front door because their admission is outrageously pricey? I think there are many ways of building community, but this is not one of them.

We can organize clever marketing events like #GardnerOfftheWall and still be inclusive and engage with everyone in the community at-large. What’s a museum without the community that sustains and lives around it?

Unless you hold a membership and are invited to preview an exhibit or take photos of rarely photographed places inside a museum, that’s understandable because those perks come with that membership, but hand-picking members of the public has no place in community engagement, that’s if “engaging” your community is the ultimate goal of a museum. I think it should be, but not every museum agrees with this.