ONE MEMORIAL DRIVE, CAMBRIDGE, MA 1985

While Riverview was in its design phase, The Congress Group secured the right to buy the headquarters site of the Electronics Corporation of America.  At the bend in the Charles River with panoramic views of downtown and the Back Bay, this prime site was ripe for redevelopment. Building on the momentum of the East Cambridge Riverfront Plan, Ed Barry and Dean Stratouly set themselves up with this key development parcel.

Continuing the relationship that started with Riverview, Dean asked Huygens and DiMella for some initial studies to renovate the existing flat iron shaped warehouse on the site. It quickly became clear that a new building would generate the best return.  With the City of Cambridge’s blessing to foster redevelopment, the water sheet was included in the site area, which allowed an increased Floor Area Ratio (the number of square feet that could be built per the zoning code). According to Project Manager, John Becker, the design was initially sketched at 23 stories in height. During the entitlement process, Macomber, the developer of 101 Main Street across the street, became aware of the proposed design and filed an appeal to challenge the height of the tower and the blocking of views from its building. The two developers entered into negotiations and relatively quickly reached a compromise on reducing the height and slightly reshaping the tower to address the objections Macomber had raised. This was accomplished by allowing the lower three floors to grow into large floor plates covering most of the site area, thus pulling square footage out of the tower. John commented that Dean Stratouly was ahead of the curve in realizing that some of the new technology tenants would want large floor plates that were rare in the local market place.

Early sketch showing potential height adjustments

Early sketch showing potential height adjustments.

THE DESIGN

The tower’s plan geometry is shaped by overlaying grids perpendicular to the two streets, Memorial Drive and Main Street. The resultant grids are at a 30 degree angle to each other, this forms the floor plan area optimized for the core to the glass dimension. The resolution of the grids is used to create corners for 12 offices, helping to market the building at a time when the number of corner offices was a desirable feature for law and financial firms with lots of partners.

Site Plan and Typical Floor Plan

Left:  Site plan showing flat iron shape & riverfront café space   Right:  Tower typical floor plan

Last week we talked about the horizontal emphasis used for the top of Riverview. In designing this second tower, the firm quickly learned that tall buildings are enhanced by expressing their verticality, and here, glass bays are held between stone cheeks separated top to bottom, giving a vertical proportion to the facade. Punched windows in the stone walls are arranged in a relatively neutral grid pattern, while the curtain wall areas are horizontally divided and stacked vertically. The stone walls meet the sky without a cornice in contrast to the glass bays which have visor-like caps.

Vertical expression of glass bay and stone cheek walls

Vertical expression of glass bay and stone cheek walls

The color was an important choice. The design team was able to convince Cambridge city officials including Dennis Corlone, the Design director of the East Cambridge Riverfront Project, that since the building was on the south side of Main Street, it should relate to the stone buildings of MIT rather than the brick context of East Cambridge. A buff-pink stone was chosen to relate to the Institute’s buildings. Seen from Boston, the tower “punctuates” the long line of campus building along the river. Interestingly, the recent completion of the new MIT Sloan School building on the adjacent site, (seen in the photo at the top of the post), makes the original concept even stronger by using similar colors for the glass and stone to those used in the tower.

SOPHISTICATED CONSTRUCTION TECHNIQUES

Sitting in close proximity to the river, the building required sophisticated construction techniques to hold back the water. Slurry wall construction was used to create a bathtub for the excavation of the lower levels of parking. The slurry walls were braced by the parking floor slabs as the construction team utilized top down construction to resist the horizontal water pressure on the below-grade walls. Once this bath tub was completed, it then acted like a boat and the hydrostatic below-grade water pressure wanted to float it up out of the ground. There was an enormous amount of concrete poured in thick mats to create the necessary weight to hold the building down. John Becker remembers seeing 110 concrete trucks lined up on Main Street preparing for the day’s pours during garage construction. The tower was also carefully located to add its weight to the optimum place on the irregular foundation to counteract the uplift. The structure was designed by Minhaj Kirmani at Weidlinger. John credits Vinnie Chiozi of The Congress Group with being the master organizer, an Owner’s Project Manager (OPM) before OPM became a common term of the construction process. Fondly remembering the contractor staff from Morse/ Diesel, John called it the most collaborative construction project he ever worked on. However, the team’s collaboration would soon be tested.

COULD IT BE CONDO?

As the building was coming out of the ground and approximately up to the third floor where steel erection was just beginning, MIT approached The Congress Group and said they were looking for a  building to use for graduate/faculty housing. The design team quickly generated a floor plan option for residential use (see below).

Without missing a beat, the contractor began installing sleeves in the slabs to allow for mechanical and plumbing lines for the units and added operable windows to the curtain wall (a code requirement for residential use) and continued apace with construction.  Simultaneously, Ed and Dean worked with MIT to reach a deal. Word of the up and down negotiations would reach the site on an almost daily basis and after a few weeks, the subcontractors showed up in t-shirts that said “One Memorial Drive, What are we building today?” The positive collaboration of the team allowed everyone to have good laugh.

The deal with MIT was never finalized and One Memorial Drive opened as an office tower in 1985. Huygens and DiMella would continue to do tenant work in the building and EF, the Swedish educational company and Babson Financial were among the first tenants. Microsoft currently makes its Boston headquarters in the building.

An office building is often viewed as an asset and judged more on the financial return for the owner than on quality of its architecture. Here the architecture that takes maximum advantage of an outstanding location has added value that has continued to pay dividends to its various owners over the years. Even this interior rendering of a conference room during the marketing phases emphasizes the view. Take notice of how carefully Terry Cracknell captured the Back Bay skyline, including Rem’s favorite leather conference chairs and asymmetrical wood edge banding on the table.

Thirty years later, this year’s January 15th issue of Bisnow’s Deal Sheet highlighted the long term value created by One Memorial Drive by recognizing its recent sale for the highest price per square foot paid for an office building to date in this region.

One Memorial Drive

Cambridge, once known for left wing politics and long-haired academics, is now recognized for having the most valuable office asset inch-by-inch in the region. Oxford Properties Group of Ontario paid the Blackstone Group $1,148/SF ($405M) for the 352K SF, 17 story office on the banks of the Charles that’s 98% occupied and includes a long term Microsoft lease.

Every year the Fourth of July fireworks celebration highlights the building’s outstanding location at the bend of the river with its light stone cladding catching the reflected light of the celebration. If you ever get invited to see the fireworks from a Beacon Hill rooftop, it is not to be missed. Seeing the entirety of the Charles River Basin during the show and avoiding the crowds is the best. As you can also see since all the lights are on, this building is also a great place to have a party and watch the show. It is just one more way that you are reminded that as an asset, One Memorial Drive is clearly at the “Head of the Charles.”