NEW ENGLAND COLLEGE OF OPTOMETRY, BOSTON, MA 1991-2005

In choosing the fifty buildings to write about for this blog, I was forced to make some tough choices. But fortunately, once and a while one building is the key to another. That’s the case with this week’s post where our client for the Catholic Medical Center in Manchester took the President’s position at the New England College of Optometry (NECO), starting a twenty year relationship with a new institution.

BACKGROUND

Sylvio Dupuis, the politically active former mayor of Manchester, NH, is an optometrist who went to NECO. Sylvio was our client and became a friend when he was president of Catholic Medical Center. Our project at Catholic Medical Center (CMC) was the joining of two prominent hospitals in Manchester into a 364-bed acute care hospital and clinical laboratories. After the CMC project was completed, NECO was searching for a new president, and Sylvio was ready for a change and took the job in 1985.

Catholic Medical Center, 1974-81.

Sylvio called Frank DiMella to tell him about his new job and to say he was exploring selling the Beacon Street campus which the school had acquired in the 1970s and moving the school to the Showa campus in Brookline. NECO had a purchase offer for 418-426 Beacon Street from Bob Bowditch (MB Associates) and was, at that time, occupying the badly butchered buildings which they had bought from another school several years earlier. The 1989 collapse of the housing market caused the purchase offer to be withdrawn and the school remained on Beacon Street. President Dupuis later asked Frank DiMella to join the Board of Directors as he knew that at some point the college was going to have to do something about facilities and he intended to keep exploring various options. After a relatively short tenure, Sylvio returned to New Hampshire in 1990 (he had been commuting to Boston) and Larry Clausen, the Dean of Education, became the next president.

President Clausen urged the board to stop looking around and to start a multi-phased process of renovating the Beacon Street facilities. Larry had great admiration for the architecture of the buildings and fully supported the concept of simultaneously restoring them inside and out, while adapting them to the contemporary needs of the school. We completed a master plan that showed how the program could fit into the existing buildings and then began the first of several renovation projects. Randy Kreie recalled an early meeting this way, “the first meeting I went to was a brainstorming session with Larry Clausen, Terry Neylon, Frank DiMella and me.  Larry came in with a six pack of beer and my first thought was that this was going to be a fun client to work with!  While it was fun, the beer thing never happened again….” Larry too must have known that “Beer is a Wonderful Lubricant” as we saw in week 18.

THE CHALLENGE

The real success of the renovation of these buildings is in the balance of maintaining their historic integrity and accommodating the contemporary needs of the school. As you can see below, 424 Beacon had maintained its rotunda over the years while 422 and 426 Beacon had been stripped and altered in earlier renovations by previous owners. By assigning them one common address and combining the buildings with updated fire safety and egress improvements, we were able to open up the circulation between the buildings and utilize the soaring four-story rotunda as the symbolic center of the school.

Rotunda at 424 Beacon Street.

This work started in 1991 and included façade restoration, removal of the fire escapes from 426 and 424 as well as cutting connections between the buildings, installing an elevator and new administrative and reception areas. Another key to the success of the master plan was the layering of the users. Student spaces were kept on the lower floors, teaching and administration on floors 2 and 3, and lab/research on floors 4 and 5. This served to minimize up and down travel and to emphasize the horizontal connections between the buildings. This was contrary to how the previous school used the buildings, but facilitated more functional relationships for the college.

Left: 1985. Right: 2015.

Larry Clausen was always a positive force for doing the right thing and he kept the board focused on raising money, completing the master plan, doing high quality renovations, and supporting his educational initiatives. As the board and alumni saw how impressive the facilities became after the initial phases of renovation, enthusiasm built quickly and the whole community became excited about the college and its future. It was a time of growth for NECO.

The next major project would be a capstone project and that was the renovation of 420 Beacon where the library was located. This building, designed by Peabody and Stearns, was originally built for a prominent Boston family in 1894 and was the first “fireproof” building to be constructed after Boston’s Great Fire of 1872. We were asked to create a restoration plan for the old library and portions of the adjacent structures to house the new library program as well as academic and administration centers.

The challenge – and the key to success – was to maximize the usable area of the buildings while preserving the historic interior, improving accessibility, complying with the building codes, and adding information technology. The development of a new 8,000 square foot structure on the site of a former stable was a particular challenge, as it needed to provide adequate support for the new building loads on what had been an area of fill adjacent to the Charles River. The BRA had particular concerns about the river facing elevations of the Beacon Street buildings. The building site originally faced an alley that became waterfront property with the construction of Storrow Drive, and the BRA wanted the addition to take on the character and scale of an accessory building as would have been on the site and thus limited the height to one story. Prevented from maximizing the river view in the waterfront elevation, we approached the design of the addition as the original stable might have been. This was consistent with the BRA goal that the river elevations remain contextual. The fenestration appears as carriage doors on the alley side. A sky-lit space recalls the historic open courtyard between the original house and the stable, and the new addition was structured with sufficient capacity for a future roof deck to allow for expanded outdoor student space.

Skylit space between old building on the right and library to the left.

Garden level plan showing library addition to the north.

The removal of load-bearing walls at the garden level provided a new, unobstructed, functional library space. It was the goal of the library staff to move from a volume-based library to a state-of-the-art information center, and emphasis was placed on providing internet access at every seat (remember this was 1997). Shelving was condensed to increase the study areas. Designing flexible multi-use rooms also helped achieve the goal of maximizing the use of available space.  For example, the internet café can be secured within the library or can function as an extension of the dining facility when required.

In order to bring the library into the main traffic patterns of the atrium floors above, an adjacent structure was reconstructed at the first-floor level to allow for a new open stair directly from the student services area to the new library entry.  According to the library director, the improved access from the atrium level and the proximity of the café play a significant role in the library becoming a fundamental element of the college and a hub of student activity.

New stair to the lower level library in 422 Beacon, which had previously been stripped of its interior. Stairs and ramps were also used to access the different floor levels among the connected buildings.

The restoration of the leaded glass skylight and the original finishes on the main levels required intensive work. Craftsmen versed in textured wallpaper restoration, plaster repair, stained glass and woodwork all contributed to bringing the original character back to these rooms. Working with local officials, we were able to develop a plan which allowed much of the current structures to be restored through creative insertion of sprinkler, fire alarm, and smoke exhaust systems. Over the course of seven years, 60,000 square feet were renovated and prepared for the next hundred years. Improvements included façade restoration, new mechanical systems, classrooms, research labs, offices, and student life spaces.

Left: Leaded glass skylight before restoration. Right: Restored skylight.

Left: Restoration of wallpaper above fireplace. Right: Restored rooms serving as study spaces.

Library atrium during restoration.

Library atrium after restoration.

With the 2005 renovation of the original dormitory at 418 Beacon into offices, student organization space and a student lounge, Dr. Clausen’s vision of a revitalized school in historically significant well-preserved buildings was complete. Evidence of success was realized in receiving preservation awards from the Massachusetts Historical Commission and a Commendation from the Victorian Society in America. It is gratifying for all involved and appropriate for a school of optometry to “see their vision” realized through preservation.