Boston Architecture Workshop & Course Resources, Tools, Process
This unique course allows students to work hands-on with primary sources to uncover the rich histories of Boston’s neighborhoods. In previous years, students have explored the architectural and urban transformations that took place in Jamaica Plain and Brighton, with specific projects emphasizing the nuances of the residential, commercial, industrial, and civic developments in these areas. Balancing cultural readings of the neighborhoods with architectural analysis, primary sources, and field research, students have an opportunity to understand and narrate the rich history of the urban settlement right in BU’s backyard.
The following pages include a sampling of the original student scholarship completed for the Boston Architecture Workshop, including brief glimpses into the neighborhoods of inquiry. This work highlights the rigorous and multifaceted research methods that students employ within the course and the Historic Preservation Program at BU more broadly. Click through the below images to view the neighborhood research.
Course Resources & Research Tools
Boston University’s location in the heart of one of the United States’ most historically rich cities yields immeasurable benefits for students in the Historic Preservation program. Local resources are easily accessible and professors build them into the course of study. Additionally, the digital age brings with it the benefits of searchable information from a variety of historical sources that are either freely available online or through professional research databases students can access as members of the Boston University community. Below is just a sample of tools that students might employ when conducting research in the Boston Architecture Workshop, or any number of courses within the department.
- Bromley Atlases
- Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps
- Census Data from Ancestry Library
- Building Permits
- Original Blueprints from Boston Public Library
- Historical Maps
- Archival Photos from historical societies, including Brighton-Allston HS and Jamaica Plain HS
- Assessor Database
- ProQuest Historical Newspapers
- Registry of Deeds
- Organizational Archives
- Archdiocese of Boston
- Boston Archives
Brief overviews and building profiles tell only a partial story of the projects completed for this seminar course. Crafting these historical narratives involves careful research using a variety of tools, including, but not limited to, building permits, census data, blueprints, historical newspapers, city deeds, and assessor’s notes.
Closely examining the research process involved in one such project demonstrates how students might glean deep insights on the history of a particular building. Find out about Brighton’s atmospheric movie theater, The Egyptian, below.
This Brighton staple opened in October 1929–just two weeks before the stock market crash precipitating the Great Depression. The theater company NETOCO and primary financier Samuel Pinanski–a resident of nearby Brookline–spared no expenses to produce an exotic, fantasy theater with top-notch finishes that created a scenic atmosphere and incorporated the latest cinematic technologies.
Riding the wave of ‘Tutmania” of the 1920s, this theater came at the heels of Grauman’s Egyptian Theater in Hollywood (1922) and the opening of the Egyptian art and artifact collection at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. Both Pinanski and architects Eisenberg & Feer admit to having used local museum resources, as well as texts from the Boston Public Library, for design inspiration. And, with the similarities of subject matter and treatment of anything from the Winged King of Thebes over the proscenium to the statue of a seated Menkaura in the Grand Foyer, the careful attention to detail and faithful representation of Egyptian motifs are readily apparent.
- Building Permits Building permits offer a great place to start researching, as they often contain a wealth of information about a building’s history. What you might find here includes: the landowner; the architects; changes to the structure over time (such as demolition or additions); building materials; intended function; cross-listed addresses; and sometimes site drawings. Additionally, the permits may contain information on zoning, which underscores the political nature of local land use, and provide codes that help in the search process for original blueprints at Boston Public Library.In the case of the Egyptian Theater, we discover what changes to extant structures took place in 1927-1929–namely, the demolition of the Five Cents Savings bank, which had occupied this lot since 1887; changes to the marquee and other interior modifications, enhancing its visibility and expanding its concessions counter; and, after its vacancy in the 1950s, attempts to change the zoning for an auto garage and later a social club.Among the most drastic changes to the Theater after it closed its doors was the ultimate demolition of the “atmospheric“ theater and proscenium in 1966 to make room for additional parking. The somewhat awkward rear entrance to what is today an Elks lodge displays traces of the original function, with angular bricked walls that would have served as the transition between the grand foyer and the stadium seating. The image to the right, taken from a Bromley Atlas, shows the original footprint of the theater, whereas the blue outline highlights the sections that remain in use today.
- Bromley Atlases Another essential tool for preservation research is the set of atlases for the city of Boston produced by G.W. Bromley & Co. from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century. While those found at Boston Public Library may contain pasted addenda that represent changes to the built environment, digital reproductions capture snapshots of the land use and architecture over time. Using Bromley Atlases, we can determine the land use prior to the implementation of a city-sanctioned building permit system. In the case of the Egyptian, this central plot in Brighton Center had previously served as the home to the prominent 5 Cents Savings Bank (located in the center of the atlas image below).Besides identifying prior land uses, the atlases also bring context for surrounding structures and trends for development. This 1916 depiction of Brighton Center, for example, shows a neighborhood in transition. While there are many wooden structures (denoted by their yellow color) and agricultural buildings (such as the sheds with X’s), there are also various brick buildings (denoted by the pink color) springing up along the main thoroughfare of Washington Street. The inclusion of the transit lines also highlights the increasingly modern and urban nature of the neighborhood.
- Census Data This project did not rely heavily on census data, but one could certainly add a more human element by further investigating financier, Samuel Pinanski, or more general demographics of nearby Brighton residents. In addition to mapping the trends of residential development away from Brighton Center in the years following the Theater’s construction (in part due to increased automobile ownership and access to downtown Boston via Commonwealth Avenue’s rail line) other modes of inquiry supported by the census data could include changing populations, such as a relative decrease in nuclear families or a newly dominant immigrant community.
- Original Blueprints Though not always available, blueprints serve as an invaluable source of information. Especially for a demolished or heavily modified building, blueprints illustrate depth, perspective, and style in a way that atlases and building permits cannot.In this elevation view of The Egyptian, we see the striking lotus columns in the central Grand Foyer, the stadium seating, and the projection booth (just to the right).The image of the lounge (above right) brings further depth to the information found of the blueprints. The ceiling carries and interesting stepwise pattern which, without the blueprints, may seem like a simple stylistic choice. However, we see that the shape was informed by the rise of the stadium seating in the story above, and then carried over symmetrically to form a stylized arching tunnel. Blueprints for this building also elicited insights as to the location of ticket and concession counters, coat checks, the architectural details of the stage, its frame, the 2,400 seats, and the domed atmospheric ceiling. In the first iteration of the plans, the ceiling, which was meant to mimic the ambiance of a cloudy or starlit sky, covered the entire seating area. Due to height restrictions in the zoning bylaws, the necessary height of the dome would have exceeded the allowed 40′. Instead of cutting this essential element, they modified the ceiling to cover only the first twenty-four rows of house seating. All of this was done without the nuisance of columns punctuating the seating area and blocking views; instead, a modern systems of steel trusses supported the weight of the theater ceiling. The first iteration of blueprints is noteworthy for yet another reason: whereas the resulting building was heavily influenced by Egyptian styling, this is not evident in the original planning process. Instead, the building exhibited architectural elements more characteristic of Art Deco.
- Contemporary Newspapers For this project, newspaper coverage proved particularly rich for contextualizing the development and use of the Egyptian Theater. Everything from the costs of production and accounts of opening night, to promotional events and weekly showtimes can be found in hundreds of historical newspapers between 1928-1954. Not too far removed from contemporary review culture, an article of the opening gala labored through even the most minute details to foster intrigue and excitement over the new local leisure space, dissecting everything from the hand-carved lion heads on the lounge chairs to the moleskin upholstery of the stadium seating.Notable coverage mentions the cost of the theater ($1 million, upwards of $14 million in 2017 buying power), the relationship to other themed theaters by NETOCO found throughout Boston (specifically, The Seville in East Boston and the Oriental in Mattapan), and the constant flux of films on view. And considering the space’s thematic decoration, it seems ironic that the nver The Mummy (1932) or Cleopatra (1934) never showed there. Films shown for the opening ceremonies included Broadway and Our Modern Maidens.The story continues, however, past the use of 326 Washington Street as the home to Brighton’s Egyptian theater. Following its more than six year vacancy, Elks Lodge #2199 moved in and remains to this day. Its first order of business: a circus. *article pdf/jpg*