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Yvonne Abraham

Smashing a jewel

By Yvonne Abraham
Globe Columnist / November 26, 2008
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It looks as if the old Shreve, Crump & Low building is history.

Developer Ron Druker plans to raze the 104-year-old limestone building at Arlington and Boylston streets, kitty-corner from the Public Garden. He says he is going to replace it with a couple hundred thousand square feet of luxury office space and amenities.

And in the process, he is going to wreck one of the city's loveliest intersections. He is planning to level a distinctive building - in a city that needs more of them - in favor of nine stories of corporate glass and stone.

The eclectic former Shreve flagship (officially, it's the Arlington Building) might not be perfect, but it's lovely all the same. Its ornate copper cornice, classical pilasters, and floral motifs give the neighborhood a quirky elegance. And it's right for that history-rich corner, across from Arlington Street Church and the statue-lined south side of the Public Garden.

But according to the Boston Landmarks Commission, the Arlington Building isn't valuable enough to protect. Twice, the commission decided the building is not sufficiently architecturally significant beyond its neighborhood. This in spite of the fact that Boston is a city of neighborhoods, and of the jewelry emporium's storied past, and of its location at the center of a historic district that is one of the city's most valuable assets.

Preservationists and some Back Bay residents are beside themselves over the demolition. One of the building's champions is suing to reverse the decision, but it's unlikely the Arlington Building will get a reprieve.

Which brings us to its replacement.

Zzzzzzzzzzzz.

That inexplicably moribund block of Boylston Street, between Arlington and Berkeley, definitely needs developing. And Druker has done some nice buildings in Boston - Atelier 505 at Tremont and Berkeley, for example. But the Cesar Pelli design he is planning for this site isn't shaping up to be one of them.

Blocky and dense, the renowned architect's proposal is singularly unspectacular. Like so many buildings constructed in the last two decades, it gestures awkwardly toward the city's history instead of moving in a new direction, its enormous bay windows and its segmented façade echoing a row of brownstones. It's incredibly tame, unlike Pelli's other models.

If you're going to break people's hearts by erasing a beloved building rather than incorporating it into a new development, then for heaven's sake, propose something truly spectacular in its place.

But this keeps happening. While they seem to be getting the hang of edgy design on the other side of the river (bless you, MIT and Kendall Square), Boston's streetscapes keep collecting generic genuflections to 19th-century architecture and samey glass towers.

Rarely, something amazing gets through - the ICA at the Seaport or the Apple Store farther up Boylston - but they're exceptions that prove the rule.

Much of what happens to Boston's skyline has both preservationists and design devotees wringing their hands in despair. Of course it's not practical to preserve every one of the city's historic buildings. Some of them could even do with a good knock-down.

But there seems to be no ambitious citywide vision for what gets leveled and what replaces it. The Boston Redevelopment Authority, which should be laying out an independent plan for the city, is so tightly controlled by Mayor Thomas M. Menino that what gets built often depends on which developers have his ear. And the mayor, never shy about sharing his design preferences, tends toward somnolent safety. Developers eager to get projects off the ground anticipate the objections and play it too safe.

Boston is special, but no matter how much we try, we can't re-create the 19th century. That approach guarantees only that we'll end up with a second-rate version of what we already have.

We need higher standards. We need more creativity. We also need something else: to be brave.

Yvonne Abraham, a Globe columnist, can be reached at abraham@globe.com.

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