Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Interview. Chris Johns talks about the Hayden Building, an H.H. Richardson structure in Boston that he restored

In 2014, I had the chance to sit down with Chris Johns to talk about one of his most exciting projects as a young architect, restoring the Hayden Building. 

The Hayden Building is a hidden gem in Boston's Chinatown, with a fascinating history. For one, it's an H.H. Richardson building though for years, people did not know it. Only after some excellent detective work did that come to light. 

Over the 140 years of its existence, the Hayden Building has also watched its neighborhood change as times have changed, from being a 19th century textile hub to the 1970s when this area was called the Combat Zone for good reason, filled as it was with peep shows, prostitutes and drugs. Today, it witnesses yet another transformation as tall buildings and high-end condos spring up all around it, an expression of 21st century wealth.

Chris took some time to give us his perspective on it all, and tell us what it was like as a young architect working on such a significant building. 

Chris Johns, thank you so much for agreeing to talk to us about the Hayden Building. Tell us about the building.

The Hayden Building is a building designed by Henry Hobson Richardson in 1875 in the edge of
Chinatown off Washington Street and Lagrange. It was not known for a really long time that Richardson designed the building. A story has it that it was designed for his father-in-law, as an off-the-books repayment. There is no exact documentation of it. It is clear that John C. Hayden, Richardson’s father-in-law did help him launch his practice.

It was the 1860s when this project probably got started. There was a large explosion on the site of a pharmacy that is now currently the Hayden Building so that paved the way for John C. Hayden to purchase that land and for Richardson to design this commercial office building. 

Do you know anything about the neighborhood at the time?

That part of Chinatown and the lower downtown Boston area was predominantly textiles, manufacturing, clothing stores, hats and coat stores. There were a number of those kinds of tenants in there records at the Hayden Building at the turn of the century, even up to the ‘30s and ‘40s and then the things started to shift a bit and in the '60s the Combat Zone era took place. So it became quite seedy and there were a number of adult entertainment establishments in the Hayden Building on various floors.

Tell me a little about the building architecturally. 

It’s signature Richardsonian architecture. Richardson established the Richardsonian style which is very massive, heavy looking buildings, big pieces of stone. The Hayden Building was built the same time that Trinity Church in Copley Square was being
constructed, which is also a Richardson building. And this is how historians figured it out because the brownstone on the Hayden Building comes from the same quarry at the same time that the brownstone was used for the Trinity Church in Copley Square.

Also the Norcross Brothers who were the contractors for Trinity Church were the contractors for the Hayden Building. It was not until they found there was a building permit pulled in 1874 for the Hayden Building, they saw that the Norcross brothers were the contractors on the building. Those stories thread together and make a lot of sense that this was done around the same time. It’s all the same players. 

The building itself was the precursor to the modern skyscraper in the sense that whole building blocks take up massive blocks in metropolitan areas. Richardson was known for his Marshall Field warehouse in Chicago and the Hayden Building predated that project. You can see a lot of the same proportioning. The building is about 65 feet tall. For that time that a tall building. It’s narrow. The Washington Street exterior is about 19 feet wide. The length along Lagrange is about 70 feet. 

He was restricted by the lot size. That property was

proportioned like that. There was very much an attempt to design a building that could continue
around the whole block. That’s where I think this building was a study of what he ultimately did at Marshall Field where he’s trying to create a wall. A building block makes a facade that’s a continuous wall around the entire block. Either side could extend, but you see it more on Lagrange, and you see the patterning of windows as they march along.

Talk about those windows briefly.

When we got into the building, we’d only seen it from the outside, but once we’d learned where the floor structure was for each floor elevation, we learned that each window is a different size and slightly different shape and its relationship to its floor is different.

The window sills on the second floor come all the way down to the floor line. On the third floor they are more standard, three feet sills above the finished floor. On the fourth floor, again they’re really low, but still they are about 12 inches from the floor. On the fifth floor, the pattern completely changes, much more repetitive, many more windows, smaller scale.

And what do you take from all that? Is that a Richardsonian thing? 

This is a further clue that he was more concerned about the exterior facade and the proportions of the way the facade reads from the street as opposed to any kind of interior relationship of the floor to the window, not necessarily the occupants relationship to the window. However doing a lot of research in his residential work, he was very concerned about the occupant inside and the occupant's relationship to the window and how that mediates the outside.

How old was Richardson when he designed this building? 

He was in his thirties. He died at 48. He died very young but he was very prolific. He did tons of projects particularly in the Northeast. So I think he was in mid-30s.
H.H. Richardson

Let’s pick up the story around the time you get involved with the building. It had a modern, recent history. What was that history? 

Our client was Historic Boston Incorporated. Their mission is to enhance neighborhoods through the preservation of historically significant buildings and urban fabric. They've been in existence for a long time, I think 52 years now in the city. They’ve been a player in that area for a while. They purchased the Hayden Building and its adjacent building in the early 1990s because at this time now everyone knew it was a Richardson building. They applied for the building to be nominated for the National Trust of Historic Places. 

A fire had vacated the building in the late 1980s so the roof was left open. It was falling into disrepair and was taking a beating by the elements. So their initial efforts physically with the resource was to try to stabilize it, put a new roof on it, make sure the windows were closed up. They did some structural things inside to fortify the building. It was starting to slump. The long facade along Lagrange street was starting to bow out. There’s no reinforcement. It is all heavy stone and so it was showing quite a bit of wear. At that point it was about 120 years old.

Was it burned out clear to the sky? 

There were still floors. The second and third floor were relatively intact. The fourth floor had some damage. The fifth floor had some damage and the roof was opened by the fire. There was a big gaping hole in the roof. So water and rain got in and you can see the sky when you looked up. They did a fair amount of work then, just to get the building closed up. That was in the 1990s. 

Ten years passed or more. They looked at different strategies, whether developing it as speculative commercial office again which was its original use. They looked at trying to do housing in the building at various of points but it had a number of challenges with egress. There was only one staircase in the building. The fact that it was so narrow made it very challenging to develop as housing and the structural modifications or fortification that they did in the '90s with these steel brace moment frames and braces within the building chopped it up and that again provided another hurdle in terms of redeveloping the interiors of the building for housing.

How did you show up on the scene in this case?

I met my two business partners, founders of Cube Design and Research at a small junior college in Florida. We matriculated through school together. In different ways we ended up in the northeast in Boston at MIT. All three of us were roommates at MIT. Jason Hart and Aaron Malnarick. We were roommates when Jason’s father asked us to design a beach house for him while we were still graduate students, all about 24 years old. And so we designed the beach house during the final couple of semesters at MIT.  His father built the house we designed. We submitted it for design awards. We won a custom home design award for the house and it was published in a national magazine. Here we were, we thought were hot stuff and maybe we should start a firm together. We were quite naive and in some ways that’s a good thing. 

The Paul Rudolph building in question
We launched the firm however we were in no position to make a living at it. We continued to work for other firms. I had a stint in San Diego and we worked collaboratively nights and weekends working on projects for friends and for things that were interesting to us, one of which was a particular project that was going on here in Boston that the papers were calling it the Menino Tower. It was a development that was going to take place on a site that was a Paul Rudolph building called the Blue Cross Blue Shield building on Federal Street, in the heart of the financial district. 

Paul Rudolph was another well-known architect of mid-century prominence. He is know for his brutalist work. City Hall is not his, but the other municipal buildings on Cambridge Street are. He’s done some educational building on the outskirts of Boston and a church near
Paul Rudolph
Copley Square. A lot of architects and preservationists in town were upset that this Paul Rudolph building was going to be torn down to be replaced by this modern tower designed by Renzo Piano.

This is in 2006-07, and we’re still working on other things. We got to thinking that no one’s talking about the middle ground. You have the preservations who are saying no you can’t build the tower, no you can’t tear down the Paul Rudolph building, it’s precious, there’s nothing wrong with it, why would you do it, and then have the developers who are trying to make a big tower, economically change Boston. No one was looking at the middle ground.

What is the middle ground? 

What are the alternatives? Maybe there’s a way to incorporate the Paul Rudolph into the base of this tower that’s 100 stories tall. Is there a way to dismantle or deconstruct the Paul Rudolph building so that we could still use it in situations or repurpose it in a way that continues its life in some form.

Why should we care? 

What we’ve tried to do is — the contrast of new and old together makes you more aware of each as opposed to just trying to hold back something stuck in the past. There are obviously cases where that makes a lot of sense. But with these buildings that are a little more generic, in the sense of the Hayden Building was a speculative commercial building, it wasn’t designed for anyone specific. The Paul Rudolph building downtown was a commercial building. It had some significance architecturally with some of the way it was detailed and thought about but in terms of its place, it could have been anywhere.

And how old are you at this point?

We now into our early 30s.

So how did you approach the Hayden Building as a project?

We did a feasibility study for very little money and we went all out. We wanted to impress them, we wanted to get the full building commission to the whole design project, and there were no guarantees. 

Once you got the project, what did you think?

We were elated. We realized they were taking a big risk on a very young firm in a city that is an Old Boys Network. There were a lot of much more experienced firms that were more than capable. They took a risk with us and we appreciate that. 

Talk about some of the solutions you came up with.

We did a lot of research on the history of the neighborhood, on the history of the building, trying to synthesize a lot of things that were going on at the time with Richardson. We looked at a lot of Richardson buildings to try to understand what he was doing, what he was thinking.

What did you derive from all of that?

We were reshaping this building for this century and giving it a new life, but we also wanted to bring to light the ideas that originally shaped the building. What were Richardson’s ideas and how can we bring those to the surface so people can begin to understand what he was doing as an architect at the time? Richardson was no theorist. He wasn’t one of those architects out there saying, “This is my theory, this is what I’m doing in my practice.” He just made buildings and he had a way of making them.

In the residential work he did, he was very concerned with people’s connection to the outdoors, the way material was used on walls, he often used a horizontal datum within spaces, the common wood panelling or wainscoting that you see in that period of homes. And windows were treated very importantly. I think he was trying to contrast with the Beaux Arts style.

He was very intrigued with this notion of a monotonous facade, homogeneous material but playing with the fenestration and the patterning of the windows to bring the building down to a human scale, down to a scale that you can understand as you move along that building. The windows at the base are larger, the windows near the top are smaller and there are more of them. There is a kind of extension of the way the building looks as you move up the facade. He’s grouping windows together in certain patterns. 

What did you find out about the neighborhood. What did you find out about the layering of the history of the building?

When we came into the project, in early conversations Historic Boston had tuned us in to a lot of the history because as a historic preservation group, they are very interested in those kinds of stories. 

The Hayden Building is on the corner of Washington and Lagrange. That corner had a number of burlesque theaters adult entertainment theaters. Some of those are now gone, one in particular across the street has been repurposed. There were discoveries of films that had been left behind, 8mm films, in the Hayden Building. They had stacks and stacks of films.

These are porn films. This was because this was a vacant building and these films may have been collected from some of the other theaters and the Hayden Building was the last one standing that wasn’t being renovated or torn down.

This building stood right in the heart of the Combat Zone, and the Combat Zone was what exactly?

From what I understand from the photographs, it was a place where young men would come and drive down the street and talk to prostitutes and pick up prostitutes. There were all kinds of peep show facilities, bath houses, bars. It was the Red Light District.

We looked in the old phone books and we discovered all the tenants over the course of the century. That’s how we found out there was a dentist there and a doctor’s office and an Army-Navy store and so-and-so’s hat shop and all these different things.

And including a movie theater and a peep show called The Screen Room. There was a gay bathhouse on the upper stories. We found copies of notices posted on the doors to inform patrons of the place what happens when the police show up. We took a lot of this research and we made a number of layered glass panels of images and text that define these different eras and those are placed in the stairwell of the building.

What do you do with all that history in a building that has lived 150 years? 

Ultimately, with the architecture itself we tried to reveal aspects of the building that show you the
bones and the life and the scars of time. We had some restrictions because it was a federal and state funded project with historic tax credits and so there was only so much of that we could do given the allowable aspects of the construction and the building code but we did try to reveal some of the physical scars.

What’s your personal attitude about all of that?

It gets back to the bigger argument of these projects that get held up in these contentious debates about what to do with them. It isn’t that helpful when you have a place like Boston that's in a major shortage of housing, there are these run-down warehouse that have good bones that can be repurposed and reused to help move us forward and to alleviate some of the pressures that we have living in a city like Boston and if we’re stifling that development because of some reason that Joe Schmo lived there and he made watches. We need to think about how can we carry that cultural history forward but still redevelop this building so that it’s useful today. 

What do you think about this - when that building was built it seems like it was one of the tallest buildings in the neighborhood but now it is one of the shortest?
Now it's one of the smallest buildings on the block

What is going in that neighborhood today is that the Hayden Building is on the edge of Chinatown which is a very fine-grained 3-4 story scaled building, lots of street life, lots of vendors on the street, very vibrant, lots of activity. There is a lot of pressure coming down on Chinatown from all directions and that is being seen with a lot of tall residential towers including the Hayden Building. The Hayden Building is going to be this brownstone gem among this very flat, monolithic glass and concrete buildings.

How should we think about that change?

There’s something to be said about having the mix of new and old sharing the same space and being able to understand the historic context of a place. This may be a neighborhood where there may not be enough of this historic fabric to understand what was there. That’s unfortunate, but at the same time given the pressures that we have in Boston with lack of residential units, there’s got to be a balance somehow.

A Richardson building has some design intent there, but some of the buildings don’t have anything near design intent, correct?

There’s been a big push in the last couple of years to get a number of buildings and projects through and I’m not going to criticize our local government — I think there’s enough criticism to go around — needless to say, there’s been a number of not so great buildings constructed. With a little more investment and a little more care and a little more thought, it could have gone a lot better, particularly in the area around the Hayden Building but urbanistically a building like the Hayden Building — and there are plenty of other examples in Boston — they have a certain presence even though they are going to be completely out of scale and swallowed up by all the other towers, I think they have a certain street presence that people will notice.

What’s next for you? Where do you take these thoughts and observations?

We were very blessed to be a part of the aligning of the stars to be a part of this project. There may not be anything else like this down the road. This one had a very special life and very unique history and various players involved over the course of time and attempts to redevelop the building and we just happened to be at the right place at the right time. 

Going back to the question of history - How do you deal with the past and the future? That is a fascinating tension. There are plenty of reasons to preserve the past. At the same time, we have to have a future. What’s your take on this question? You dealt with a very historic building and with very famous American architect. You had to manage that somehow and yet it's a neighborhood that’s changing radically and quickly for lots of potentially good reasons but it’s also becoming sanitized, where you lose something in that as well. As a guy in his 30s who’s thinking about this stuff, how should we make sense of all that and make choices within that?

It begins with understanding the history and the past. That’s where we begin our projects. We want to understand the history of all the writings and erasures that have taken place on that building or that site, so that as we move forward, that’s informing us. Whether it’s a reinterpretation of the history or it’s a way to clearly document that history and make it event in this new life of a building, that’s something that we want to do. It’s personal and it’s important to us. I don’t think all architects and urban planners and designers necessarily think that way. It may be becoming more prominent particularly in a city like Boston where you’re having to deal with so many existing conditions and historically significant existing condition. So long as we practice in a city like this, we are going to be faced with that challenge and so we want to embrace it, we want to be informed by it.