RIVERVIEW, CAMBRIDGE, MA 1985

I can imagine when one first sees this view of the Cambridge skyline, he might wonder about the building with the hat. I know I did. To understand the building, one needs to know about the 1978 East Cambridge Riverfront Plan (ECRP), the East Cambridge context at the time, and a firm’s first design for a tall building.

The 1978 East Cambridge Riverfront Plan laid the groundwork for the major moves we see today in East Cambridge. Based on the open space framework in Charles Eliot’s turn of the century scheme, the plan suggested removing the Cambridge Parkway from its location along the water and turning it into a two-lane access road, and widening the road behind the buildings to four lanes, making the waterfront more pedestrian. The cleanup and refurbishment Lechmere Canal, surrounding new open space with housing, and making Binney Street into four lanes for the east-west circulation were also components of the plan. The plan advocated for a regional shopping center south of the canal and for the preservation of the endangered Bullfinch Courthouse complex. The recently constructed 20-story Middlesex County Courthouse had given the neighborhood serious misgivings about urban renewal, so the plan was an effort to get out in front and set expectations for development going forward. From the preface to the report:

“This publication’s purpose is to inform developers, businessmen, landowners, governmental agencies and concerned citizens of Cambridge’s proposal to transform a blighted largely vacant industrial area of the East Cambridge riverfront into a dramatic new urban development. This 40-acre site is planned to be a mixed use development of retail, residential, office and institutional uses, enriched with numerous public amenities.” – Dennis Corlone-Director of Design, East Cambridge Riverfront Project

At the time, almost two thirds of East Cambridge was zoned industrial and this zoning had very few dimensional restrictions. In fact, the only thing it restricted was housing. As evidenced by the East Cambridge Development plan shown below, it was still largely an area dominated by smaller scale industrial buildings south and east of Third Street with some large parcels under single ownership. By 1983, significant planning was underway and some ideas were starting to take shape. While the Cambridge Gas Company site was still a large fenced-off vacant parcel and Lechmere was an electronics store, some of the larger development companies had completed or initiated plans for projects we know today. The American Twine Mill Building had been renovated into offices. The Nicholson Building, another brick mill on First Street had also become offices. The Royal Sonesta Hotel, Riverside Place by Cabot, Cabot, and Forbes, and the Rowland Institute lined the east riverfront. Unihab was planning housing and offices around the Lechmere Canal that had been cleaned and rebuilt by the city. Graham Gund was planning to redevelop the old Bullfinch Courthouse for his offices and the Athenaeum Group did an adaptive reuse on the historic Athenaeum Press Building. A significant part of the context was brick industrial buildings of 5 stories or less, some of which were being converted to the new economy.

East Cambridge Riverfront Development Plan. (Click to enlarge)

Huygens and Tappe’s office move to Russia Wharf in 1978 would put them in contact with The Congress Group, a development firm headed by Ed Barry and Dean Stratouly that was also located at Russia Wharf and owned the building. The $0.50/sf rent (now it’s probably 100 times that) was a major enticement for Rem and Tony to move the office from Boylston Street in the Back Bay to the waterfront. Ed and Dean had redeveloped the Carter Ink Building and were now looking to add an office tower in a second phase.  Frank DiMella remembers Dean Stratouly coming to the office and asking if the firm was ready to do an office building.

The Congress Group was just finishing the Carter Ink Building and had been in recent discussions with the City of Cambridge about the character of new buildings. 101 Main Street, designed by Cambridge Seven, had just been completed about the same time the design for Riverview was starting in 1983. While it had adhered to the city’s concept of utilizing brick facades north of Main Street, its use of ribbon windows, and its lack of details and cornice had led some to call it a “suburban building in the city.” The city, through Director of Design of the ECRP Dennis Corlone, encouraged The Congress Group and Huygens and DiMella to avoid ribbon windows, add detail and consider how the building meets the sky. Subsequent to the early meetings with the city, Frank recalled that “the design came quickly. I think in about two weeks. Rem sketched the end elevation including the large circle for the parking garage.”

Early rendering of the north elevation.

This was the first tall building for the firm, and like for many firms that have worked extensively at the residential scale, it takes concentrated effort to make the leap to tall buildings. The first instinct is to use the devices that are familiar to you, for example, the gabled roof and the cooling tower encased in a chimney-like form. The building addressed the city’s goals for the architectural design, but it was still a bit curious to me that the building had such a horizontal expression at the top. However, it all became clear when I came across the picture below which clearly illustrates the “contextual composition” that is the idea behind the building. In the foreground is the gabled entrance of the Athenaeum Press Building, a National Register Landmark Building next door, with a statue of Athena gracing the pediment. Riverview relates to the turn-of-the-century industrial context by emulating its coloring, punched windows, rusticated base, gabled form and copper cornice.

The most interesting element of Riverview for me is the treatment of the parking garage on the street side. The large circle meets the requirements for ventilation while allowing the building to have a solid base. It solves the design problem of putting a building on top of a garage in way that avoids the awkward composition of a solid mass sitting on a visually weak base. The circle is strong and exquisitely detailed, nicer than the building above it, which is appropriate because one’s close-up view is captured at the street level. By the time the building was constructed, the stone base in the rendering had given way to brick, but it was still rusticated and detailed in such a way that it organically grows out of the base. It is trimmed in a bull-nose brick set off by a recessed course that articulates a soldier course keystone at the top. This one detail of the building conveys quality in the craft of the masonry and cast-in-place concrete, giving gravitas to building as a whole.

Riverview’s rusticated base revealing the concrete parking structure inside.

FUN FOOD FACTS FROM RIVERVIEW

The other major design element of the project was an atrium that connected the tower to the Carter Ink Building to improve its perceived address. A part of the atrium space was programmed for food service and The Congress Group was able to convince Michela Larson to open a northern Italian restaurant in the space called Michela’s. The executive chef was 25-year-old Todd English, who would go on to restaurant fame with Olive’s in Charlestown, among many others. He hired Barbara Lynch as chef for the café’, who would leave with him to open Olive’s and who now runs No.9 Park, Menton, and Sportello. Michela then brought in Jody Adams, who herself has reached acclaim as a chef at Rialto and Trade. This first restaurant in the atrium was a training ground for chefs who created many of the dining concepts we enjoy today.  On a web page (http://restaurant-hospitality.com/risingstars/Jody-Adams) covering the restaurant and hospitality industries, it was noted that [Michela’s] “taught Boston area diners just how good earthy, sophisticated Northern Italian cooking can be.”

Left: Ground Floor Lobby showing restaurant space. Right: Michela Larson in the restaurant.

Shortly after beginning design work on Riverview, The Congress Group would purchase the site of the Electronics Corporation of America on Memorial Drive and asked DiMella Shaffer to study the site for a new development. Next week we will see how that design unfolded just a few blocks away with an entirely different set of constraints.