‘They Don’t Make Buildings Like This Anymore’.
Even on a hectic day, it’s hard to pass by the Talbot Building without admiring its statuesque presence at the School of Public Health. Since it is located in the South End Landmark District—an area listed on the National Register of Historic Places—the castle-like building is a protected structure and has maintained its original “High Victorian Gothic” design since it was constructed in 1876.
Now members of the SPH community have one more reason to admire the historic structure: the lobby of the building is newly renovated to create functional space for students, staff, and faculty.
The front entryway of Talbot features a new reception desk, hardwood floors, tables, and chairs for casual gathering. Additionally, the 1 East wing of the building is now fully dedicated for student use.
“It is a privilege to work in a storied, beautiful building,” says Sandro Galea, SPH dean and Robert A. Knox Professor. “In many ways, doing what we do at the school feels like carrying out the mission that this building was built to serve—to make health available for all.”
Indeed, from the time it was constructed in the late 19th century, the Talbot Building has housed a succession of health institutions dedicated to improving the health and well-being of populations on a local, national, and global scale.
The original structure—the central wing of the building—was designed by William R. Emerson, the great-nephew of Ralph Waldo Emerson. It served as the home of the Massachusetts Homeopathic Hospital (MHH), which was founded in an act of defiance by homeopathic physician Israel Talbot, after he and six other physicians were expelled from the Massachusetts Medical Society for their embrace of homeopathy. Talbot concurrently served as the first dean of the School of Medicine, which was established in 1873.
Over the next three decades, the Talbot Building developed its distinct E-shape as MHH expanded to establish research departments, laboratories, a maternity home, and a nurses training center in adjacent buildings that comprise present-day Vose Hall, the Robinson Building, the Old Evans Building, and the Collamore Building.
As the unorthodox practice of homeopathy began to lose popularity, MHH was renamed as Massachusetts Memorial Hospitals (MMH) in 1929 and underwent a series of management and name changes throughout the next several decades. MMH combined leadership with MED to form Boston University Medical Center in 1962, and was renamed again as University Hospital in 1965, to reflect its commitment to medical education, research, and patient care. In 1993, MMH became Boston University Medical Center Hospital and merged with Boston City Hospital in 1996 to become the current-day Boston Medical Center.
SPH did not officially occupy the Talbot Building until the late ‘90s—a gradual and somewhat rocky transition that David Ozonoff, chair emeritus and professor in the Department of Environmental Health, remembers well.
As the second longest-serving SPH faculty member—he arrived just three months after George Annas, William Fairfield Warren Distinguished Professor of health law, ethics & human rights—Ozonoff joined SPH in 1977 when it operated as a Department of Socio-Medical Sciences and Community Medicine within MED (SPH became a separate BU school shortly after, in 1979). As hospital services expanded or transferred to other BUMC buildings in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the Talbot Building was largely abandoned for years. Ozonoff recalls the Departments of Environmental Health and Epidemiology moving into the central wing of the third floor in the early ’90s—but had to eventually move out because of unsafe conditions.
“There was a lot of mold on the floors above us, and it was causing respiratory problems for some building occupants,” says Ozonoff, who occupied the original, unrenovated space that is now the Board Room.
Ironically, he says, there was asbestos on heating pipes in the office that belonged to Anthony Robbins, former professor of environmental health, who had previously served as the director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
Ozonoff shared other details about his old office, such as a bookcase that used to be attached to one wall, and small openings around the building that allowed birds to sneak inside.
“When they removed the bookcase during the  renovation, they found a bunch of bird skeletons behind the case,” he says. “It was an interesting place to be.”
Skeletons and asbestos aside, Ozonoff recalls fond memories of his time in the pre-renovated space, adding that many prominent faculty members and students made academic strides in the aging offices. As the Internet was becoming publicly available, one of Ozonoff’s computer-savvy doctoral students, Chris Paulu (SPH’00), now an assistant research professor at the University of Southern Maine, uploaded the school’s entire catalog to the web.
“We were the first school of public health to have any presence at all on the Internet,” Ozonoff says. “That all happened right in those offices.”
The building finally underwent a major renovation in January 1998, to prepare for SPH to officially move into the building, under the leadership of Robert Meenan (MED’72, GSM’89), the former SPH dean who led the school through a significant growth during his 22 years in the position, starting with relocating the school to Talbot. Internally, the building received comprehensive updates to modernize the offices, and pedestrian walkways were constructed to connect open spaces.
“They don’t make buildings like this anymore,” says Michael McCrae-Hastings, who has worked as a public safety officer on the BUMC campus since 1994. “Nowadays everything is made with plastic and fiber, but this building made of real bricks and real mortar and real wood, and it will probably be around for another 100 years.”
He says the school “didn’t take any shortcuts” during the much-needed renovations in ’98. Prior to those renovations, he recalls being able to see the first level of the building through open gaps in the floor of the lobby area.
He’s also a fan of the most recent updates in the lobby, where he spends much of his time during day or night shifts.
“It’s very comfortable in here,” he says, gesturing to the new seating area with walnut-colored tables and chairs. “It feels like a home.”
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