Today marks the birthday of a locally influential architect, Benjamin Thompson (1918-2002) who was a founding member of The Architects Collaborative (TAC). In operation from 1945 to 1995, TAC was an architectural firm of eight architects who specialized in post-war modernism design. Thompson left TAC in 1966 due to creative differences and he established Benjamin Thompson and Associates (BTA) a year later. He also embarked on an interior design company, Design Research (D/R), which he owned from 1953 to 1970 when it then changed ownership. Thompson’s original store was located at 57 Brattle Street.
To celebrate Thompson’s birthday, we want to highlight one of his many projects. We’ve chosen his renovation work on a historic building here in Cambridge since it marks his efforts to combine his modernist sentiments with a conscious effort to retain older architectural design. The choice was further bolstered by Thompson’s personal connection with his client, Harvard University. Thompson was an instructor for the Harvard Graduate School of Design and from 1964 to 1968 he presided as Chair of the Architectural Department. Furthermore, the CHC possesses the Benjamin Thompson Associates Collection (CHC051), which contains booklets, images, and other formats concerning the work of the architecture firm and Thompson’s designs.
So what is the building? Boylston Hall, located at the southwest side of the Harvard Yard. But before we get into Thompson’s renovation, we’d like to give some historical background of the building.
Boylston Hall was designed and built by Paul Schulze (1828-1897) in 1858. Schulze was a German immigrant who moved to America in 1849. He had previously planned and constructed Appleton Chapel (built 1858) for Harvard University and the success of that venture motivated members of the Harvard faculty to advocate for his continued employment. One spokesperson was Erving Professor Josiah P. Cooke, Jr. who wrote a letter of encouragement to Harvard’s President Rev. James Walker. As part of the Chemistry Department, Cooke’s letter explained how his department was being inadequately serviced in the University Hall.
For some time, the Chemistry Department was held in University Hall’s basement. Conversations had begun the spring and summer of 1856 to search for alternative accommodations and it was decided that a purpose-built chemistry laboratory facility was the solution. It would be the first building of its kind in America whose construction was specifically dedicated to chemistry. Schulze completed and submitted his description of Boylston Hall on January 15, 1857.
Boylston Hall received financial patronage from Ward Nicholas Boylston (1747-1828) who posthumously donated a large sum to the University under the agreement that the new construction would adhere to his stipulations. Boylston required that the building would house an Anatomical Museum, a Mineralogical Cabinet, a Cabinet of Apparatus, lecture rooms, and a chemistry lab — the final component aligning smoothly with the University’s needs. To speed up the construction process, a subscription was raised to increase the building fund to $40,000.
Schulze, as part of Schulze & Schoen, constructed the 117’ x 70’ Boylston Hall. Designed in the Renaissance style, Boylston Hall has been labeled as part of the Boston Granite Style and this style became highly influential in Boston’s mercantile buildings and wharf structures, such as Mercantile Wharf, the Custom House Block, and Quincy Market. Boylston Hall has likewise been equated to Schulze’s contemporary and prolific Bostonian architect, Gridley J.F. Bryant, by architectural historians due to their similar material use.
Nonetheless, Boylston Hall exterior was of Rockport granite set in rough large blocks almost 2 feet thick. The building held curved windows with Italianate tracery and its entrance was centered. Contracted skilled workers included Ebenezer Johnson, master mason; Jonas Fitch, carpentry; Smith and Felton, ironwork; Thomas Haviland, plastering; and John Bates, painting and glazing. The interior was lined with brick and plaster and it was split into two stories of 17ft and 23ft tall. The first floor held the Public Laboratory, the library, the Anatomical Laboratory, and lecture and recitation rooms, which were connected by a central hall. The Anatomical Museum, the Mineralogical Cabinet, the Cabinet of Apparatus, and more lecture rooms were located on the second floor. At the time, the items in these exhibits were under the stewardship of Professor Jeffries Wyman but presently some are now housed at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.
Boylston Hall was part of a Harvard trend where buildings were situated in relation to the Yard. The front facade faced inwardly instead of toward Massachusetts Avenue or even University Hall, which was once the center of a campus design plan. Douglas Shand-Tucci states in Harvard University: An Architectural Tour, “Boylston Hall’s original role as one of the heralds of the New Yard” helped bolster this variant campus nucleus that countered the Old Yard” (151). It also became the site of great expansion to the Chemistry Department under the direction of Erving Professor Josiah P. Cooke, Jr., Professor Charles Loring Jackson, and Professor Henry Barker Hill.
By 1870, the Chemistry Department required more space, and so a mansard roof, incorporating a new third story, was added to accommodate a new laboratory. Peabody and Stearns facilitated the extension and the work was completed in 1871. However, after another twenty years, in 1895 there were again remarks about the space being too cramped for the department’s growing needs. In 1902, a 85’ x 35’ laboratory was adjoined to the basement. According to a Harvard Crimson article, the addition included 8 double benches, 2 single benches, and 14 sinks. Boylston Hall served the Chemistry Department for another twenty years.
In 1929, the Hall was remodeled to house the Harvard-Yenching Institute, an independent public charitable trust founded in 1928 by the Charles M. Hall estate. Still active today, the institute is committed to advancing higher education in Asia in the humanities and social sciences. However, it is no longer headquartered in Boylston Hall; the Institute left in 1958 before another renovation.
The 1959 renovation to Boylston Hall has been lauded repeatedly. It was the work of the TAC with Benjamin Thompson as principal-in-charge. As mentioned earlier, Thompson was concerned with “adapting spaces to conserve the best qualities of traditional architecture,” as quoted from a booklet available in our CHC051 collection. Coined as “recycling” and cited as the first of its kind in the area, Thompson’s design took great pains to retain the original Boylston Hall. For instance, the new arrangement placed fixed glass sheets in the curved windows. This was intended to improve the visual appeal priorly inhibited by wooden mullions. The new version of glass set in bronze would offset the granite and impose fewer interruptions. Additionally, Bainbridge Bunting stated in Harvard : an architectural history that “the detailing of other new elements, such as the arched metal vestibule at the main entrance, enhances the sense of strength conveyed by the granite masonry” (51). However, the fixity of the windows would prove to be a problem in the future.
Nevertheless, Thompson’s main task for the renovation was to accommodate more office spaces. Over the course of the project, Boylston Hall went from 39,206 sq ft to 53,300 sq ft, allotting 40% more floor space. This was achieved by remodeling the interior by adding a mezzanine between the first and second floors and another floor, making 5 levels total. The project cost about $880,000. Additional interior images can be seen in the items of the CHC051 collection.
Years later, in 1992 upgrades were issued to the exterior granite and six years after, a major renovation occurred. The 1998 project cost $8.3 million and was completed by Robert Olson and Associates, who were tasked with updating Boylston Hall for its current inhabitants.
The space was now occupied by humanities departments as part of a larger strategic plan that made a Humanities Arc from Quincy Street to the Yard. Departments included Classics, Literature, Comparative Literature, Linguistics, and Romance Languages. Robert Olson and Associates addressed many of their particular concerns, including making the windows functional to improve air quality.
The firm also achieved brighter, more open corridors by installing glass partitions. One of the most notable themes of the renovation was the emphasis on social spaces. Boylston Hall now sported a mezzanine cafeteria (C’est Bon cafe), common spaces and meeting rooms (Ticknor Lounge), and a 144 seat stadium-style auditorium (Fong Auditorium).
On the first floor, two prior large classrooms were split into three more usable classroom sizes. Although the redesign was applauded by most, not everyone praised the changes. News articles quoted people remarking on inferior workmanship and the loss of office space– it seems Ebenezer Johnson and the other contracted skilled workers of the first build were greatly missed! Additionally, as we’ve moved to the twenty-first century, the glass partitions between classrooms have caused logistical problems with audiovisual equipment due to the presence of glare. Nonetheless, Boylston Hall’s exterior has retained most of its visual integrity. Today, the building still serves the Departments of Classics and Linguistics but also Women, Gender & Sexuality.
- Bunting, Bainbridge. Harvard: An Architectural History. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1985.
- Cambridge Chronicle. 24 August 1895.
- Eliot, Charles W. Harvard Memories. Cambridge, 1923.
- Harvard Crimson. 25 September 1902.
- Harvard University. “About: Boylston Hall.” https://rll.fas.harvard.edu/pages/boylston-hall
- Harvard University Gazette. 12 March 1998.
- Henry, Stephen G. “A Brand New Boylston.” Harvard Crimson. 30 October 1998.
- Powell, Alvin. “Boylston Hall Gets a Facelift.” Harvard University Gazette. 17 September 1998.
- Shand-Tucci, Douglas. Harvard University: An Architectural Tour (The Campus Guide). Princeton Architectural Press, 2001.
- Thirty-Second Annual Report of the President of Harvard College to the Overseers, Exhibiting the State of the Institution for the Academical Year 1856-1857. “Letter of Professor Cooke to Rev. James Walker. December 24, 1857.” Cambridge: Metcalf and Co, 1856.
- Image from Thompson, Benjamin. “Let’s Make it Real.” Available in CHC051 Collection.