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Building for the Long Haul
Shepley Bulfinch Richardson & Abbott's reputation is based not on a Boston-Brahmin architectural pedigree, but on a skill for meeting its client's needs.
Few architectural firms can claim a continuous practice of more than a century, and even fewer can cite the illustrious lineage of projects and principals that lead up to today's Shepley Bulfinch Richardson & Abbott. From its beginnings in the studio of legendary architect Henry Hobson Richardson, this Boston-based firm has been the guiding architectural force behind hundreds of acclaimed buildings since 1874. In 2006, the firm moved to new offices in a building of its own design—a tradition the firm had maintained since 1892. Says Principal Thomas Kearns, AIA, LEED AP, "Everyone who works here has been blessed; we've been given the baton to carry for a while and pass on."
Perhaps it helps to have both the experience and perspective of a firm like Shepley Bulfinch to wrestle with some of the seminal issues of traditional buildings—such as, how to take historic spaces and forms and adapt them to meet the needs of the 21st century? While the solutions aren't always simple, it's a sure bet you won't find the answer—or get to be 135 years old—by simply regurgitating the past.
Springing From Romanesque Arches
Shepley Bulfinch has auspicious origins in the office of one of the most original and influential architects of a young United States, Henry Hobson Richardson. Just the second American to attend the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, Richardson is best known not only for the powerful arches and extroverted masonry of the style that bears his name—Richardson Romanesque—but also as architect of some of the most innovative and beloved buildings in the last 300 years, starting with Boston's Trinity Church.
This would be accomplishments enough for most careers, but Richardson is also responsible for designing houses that launched the Queen Anne style and Shingle style, as well as becoming a seminal master of then-new building types such as large hospitals (as in the Buffalo State Hospital in Buffalo, NY) or institutions (like the Allegheny County Courthouse in Pittsburgh, PA).
Many of Richardson's public buildings are recognized instantly by their monumental massing and masonry—"My God, he looks like his buildings," was painter Hubert von Herkomer's quip about the heavy-set architect. However, behind the time-honored construction materials and historical decorative vocabulary, Richardson was a brilliant pioneer of design concepts like open plan interiors, and an architect with a thoroughly modern take on how an architectural practice could be marketed and run.
However, the firm that grew from Richardson's career never rested on his laurels. When Richardson passed away at the untimely age of 47 in 1886, he had barely a dozen years of his own Boston office under his belt and, probably, his peak creative years ahead of him. Fortunately, the young assistants he left behind—George Foster Shepley, Charles Allerton Coolidge and Charles Hercules Rutan—did not lack dynamism either. As these three took the helm of the firm, they expanded its scope of activities both architecturally and geographically—literally across the country.
In 1888, Senator and Mrs. Leland Stanford commissioned the fledgling firm of Shepley Rutan and Coolidge to collaborate with landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted in planning the original campus for Stanford University in Palo Alto, CA, among the first colleges to be entirely designed and built as a complete project. No less of an opportunity were the competitions for designing the 1893 World's Columbian Exhibition in Chicago, IL, the fair that set the course of civic architecture well into the 20th century.
When Shepley Rutan and Coolidge won the design competitions for two major buildings—now known as the Art Institute of Chicago and the Chicago Public Library—they catapulted the firm to the top ranks of the profession, not only in Chicago but across the nation. Charles Coolidge moved to Chicago for eight years to open their new Chicago office and oversee the two commissions.
Following the deaths of George Shepley and Charles Rutan, in 1915, Charles Coolidge offered a partnership to staff architect George Shattuck, and the firm became known as Coolidge and Shattuck. During this period, the firm completed the Peking Union Medical College in China and the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in New York City.
In 1924, the firm entered a third phase as Coolidge Shepley Bulfinch and Abbot, when Francis Vaughn Bulfinch (a civil engineer), Lewis B. Abbot, and a young Henry Richardson Shepley (son of George Shepley and grandson of H.H.) joined Coolidge as partners. While they continued to work with educational institutions—adding to a long list of commissions at Harvard—the firm also took on the New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center, its largest project to date, and expanded into laboratories with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod.
In the 1930s and '40s, European Modernists were starting to grab the attention of American architects with the Bauhaus and International styles, and Henry Shepley was among them. "In fact, Shepley was fast friends with Walter Gropius," notes Kearns, "and it was he who sponsored Gropius' application for U.S. citizenship after Gropius immigrated from Nazi Germany."
A good example of how this influence filtered through the firm's work at the time is the 1938 B.B. Chemical Building (later known as the Polaroid Building) in Cambridge, MA. A glass block-walled landmark on the Charles River (and now on the National Register), it anchors what might be called Boston's "Modern Row" along with its near neighbor, the 1949 Baker House dorms of MIT—one of only two American buildings by Finnish architect Alvar Aalto.
Shepley Bulfinch Richardson & Abbott was incorporated in 1972. Since the retirement of Hugh Shepley—the last descendant of H.H. Richardson at the firm—in 1990, the firm no longer had a direct connection to its founder, but its high standards and many world-class clients have remained a familiar constant. Today the firm continues to grow its core project base in the areas of health care, education and science, along with renowned work in campus master planning and corporate headquarters.
Morphing with Modern Uses
When Richardson was commissioned to design a new classroom building—Sever Hall—for Harvard University in the 1870s, he established an area of practice and a relationship that continues to be a cornerstone of Shepley Bulfinch to this day. From the original campus at Stanford University, to more than 120 projects at Harvard, educational buildings represent a diverse client base, and since campus architecture is part of an institution's identity—often its brand—that means the starting point is always different. "If the campus has a special style," notes Kearns, "we try to find out what makes it a special place." But he adds, "Our challenge is not just to reinforce how the institution got where it is but where it's going—to make that connection with buildings that both resonate and move forward."
Richardson himself faced this very conundrum with Sever Hall. His solution—a sleeping bear of a building with confident Romanesque curves in monolithic brown—stands clearly apart from its crisply pedimented, Georgian campus mates, but complements them without upstaging. No less an observer than architect Robert Venturi called Sever his "favorite building in America," and remarked to critic Robert Campbell, "I have come to understand the validity of architecture as generic shelter rather than abstract-expressive sculpture, and as flexible loft for accommodating evolving functions."
Indeed, the ability to design for "accommodating evolving functions' is another key to Shepley Bulfinch's particular skill with educational buildings and their clients. Principal Ralph Jackson, FAIA, notes that the firm works with institutions with incredible legacies and, "What's beginning to happen is that the kinds of projects they ask for express different aspirations internally—where they want a technologically informed community of shared interest—from the exterior character which anchors the building to a set of timeless values and ambitions."
A typical example might be the Collegiate Gothic lecture hall that is repurposed as a multimedia center. In fact, a few years back the firm compared a list of the known buildings it had designed over the past 100-plus years with a list of the buildings that had survived. Adds Kearns, "Turns out, the bulk of the buildings still in use were not those designed to the needs of the day, but ones that had a larger mission. What's more, many of the late-19th century structures with large, generic spaces—think libraries, museums and academic loft buildings—adapted well to new uses like computer labs."
The "personality split" between the exteriors and interiors of historic buildings is not limited to educational buildings either—or new ones. In 2001 Shepley Bulfinch won the esteemed Harleston Parker Medal for its restoration and renovation of the 1888-92 Boston Public Library (BPL), a multi-year project that included restoring the marble-clad main lobby and grand staircase, replacing all mechanical/electrical/ plumbing systems, bringing the lower level back from use as a storage space, and conserving the many artworks and paintings that decorate the space.
In designing the first major public lending library in the country, McKim Mead and White broke new ground by not only commissioning works from the best artists and sculptors in the country, but also housing them in vaulted rooms, halls and corridors of shifting character all within the layout of a Renaissance Revival palazzo. In working on this landmark of urban architecture, Jackson says they began to realize how eclectic a design tradition could be. "In places like the BPL, one could have an enclosing envelope with a relatively strong sort of coherence," he explains, "but then you could go internally and find an array of stylistic spatial types. Whether it's a classical reading room or a sort of medieval banquet hall, it might be next to a space that we could consider rather 19th-century industrial or Victorian." So, after working on historic projects where there is this kind of variation, room-to-room—especially like those in the BPL—the notion of external cohesion with a kind of internal diversity starts to make tantalizing sense.
What, as they say, do you do with this information? "This gives us an idea about being able to use technology to create a dynamic sense of diversity, sort of broadening the spaces repertory, what might seem like contradictory program elements all within the same space," says Jackson, "a broadness to its agenda that helps the space fulfill a larger communal role, a new kind of civic responsibility." For example, using lighting controls, one day a space in the BPL could be lit almost theatrically for a public function, then another day the lights could be brought up for a tour of the space or to further enhance people's appreciation of the building. "Or, in, say, the former card catalog room," adds Jackson, "you have lighting controls that on one day, allow it to be used as a reading space, then you can turn around and use it as a dining room." The idea is that a historic library like the BPL can have all kinds of stakeholders. "People can come there not just for research," says Jackson, "but also for a vast array of cultural rituals, including community interaction, tourism and entertainment."
On a Smaller Scale
While heritage work on public buildings is part of the mix at Shepley Bulfinch, such projects don't have to be on a grand scale. A good example of a much smaller canvas is the renovation and expansion of the Elizabeth B. Hall Chapel at Concord Academy in Concord, MA. Built in New Hampshire in the early 19th century as a meetinghouse, the chapel was relocated to the campus in the 1950s, where it had become a beloved space—almost too beloved.
The trouble was, by the 1990s the 1,000-sq.ft. sanctuary was no longer able to accommodate all the members of the academy, so Shepley Bulfinch was called in to find a way to grow it. Sensitively adding on to small buildings is no small feat; how do you make a wing work when there's no large main mass? The puzzle was even trickier with this addition, which effectively doubled the space. To meet the challenge, first the Shepley Bulfinch team turned to creative design elements, such as a curved geometry (echoed by an eyebrow eave) that visually attenuates the massing of the addition. Then they worked with a palette of matching historic materials, such as recovered virgin-growth timbers that continued the tight grain and patina of the roof trusses that were already part of the charm of the existing chapel.
At the same time, they addressed the contemporary needs of a modern educational institution by upgrading the heating, lighting and life-safety systems. From vintage timber to sustainable building products, Shepley Bulfinch is "very focused on materials" according to Kearns. "Copper, for example," he notes, "is an excellent example of a material that is beautiful, durable, and speaks to many eras." Moreover, it is the careful interplay between old and new—what Kearns calls a "tender balance"—that distinguishes the Shepley touch. "We're willing to practice in that grey area," adds Kearns.
Change as a Constant
What becomes clear is that Shepley Bulfinch has a long-term view of not only their own business, but also of the breadth of experience they can offer their clients and the built environment. "We're not a one-generation firm," explains Kearns, "and we're not doing the kinds of buildings that an owner might flip in 20 years." What is also clear is that, from a design perspective, this view is less about building on the past than anticipating and charting the future.
When asked if Shepley Bulfinch is seeing the dawn of any new building types, as was the case when the firm began in the late 19th century, Jackson observes that we're moving deeply into a time where buildings are becoming much more than just building types. As he explains, "A traditional notion of building type would be that a library is a library, a hospital is a hospital, and so on. Now we're finding that buildings are transforming, morphing, so that a library is not simply about storing books, it's about creating an environment where all of the stakeholders—users, visitors, staff, administration—feel the building working for them." This perception goes hand-in-hand with the reality that the uses of building are becoming more interdisciplinary, so that the ideal facility is one that provides people from different disciplines with places and spaces to interact.
What's the flip-side of this phenomenon? Says Kearns, "Buildings that came out of the 'machine for living' ethos of the mid-20th century can be so tightly composed that when their use or site changes, they're functionally obsolete." It's a particularly poignant observation for historic buildings in a new economic age when the costs of maintaining a building as a historic artifact are untenable. Vintage structures have to earn their keep and be useful—indeed, it's better overall for the building.
The point really becomes pivotal here in the early 21st century because the rate of change is now so fast. The ability to anticipate and accommodate change is, in fact, part of the service Shepley Bulfinch offers, with an entire practice area devoted to master planning. Universities are something of a specialty, whether it's projects like the birth of Stanford University in the 1890s, or the next generations of Bucknell University in 2008, which included a 70-year land-use plan. "Clients expect a building that is part of a master plan, a vision," says Kearns, "and clients look to us for this. If you have some sort of course laid out, change—which is inevitable—comes easier."
Gordon Bock, longtime editor of Old-House Journal magazine, is a writer, architectural historian, lecturer and technical consultant who shares information about historic buildings on his blog at www.bocktalk.com.
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