Sunday, February 4, 2018

An Echo of S.S. Pierce in Coolidge Corner

Like many people, I was curious — and a little concerned — in the summer of 2016 when Walgreens announced it was closing its store in the S.S. Pierce Building in Coolidge Corner.  What would take its place in the most recognizable of all buildings in Brookline, an iconic structure that has stood at the heart of the town's busiest intersection since 1898?

I'll confess I wasn't thrilled when I heard it was going to be another bank. Banks already occupied two of the four corners at the intersection of Beacon and Harvard Streets: Bank of America in a 1930 building on the southeast corner (originally the Boulevard Trust); and Capital One's coffee shop/bank in a 1950 building on the southwest corner. But at least this was going to be a local bank with long and deep connections to the community.

The S.S. Pierce Building in 1906
The S.S. Piece Building in 1906. The original tower was damaged in a storm in 1944 and replaced the following year.
The work being done inside the former Walgreens was hidden from view for months. But the bank gave an indication of its appreciation for history and quality by hiding the construction behind high-gloss color photos of the building and the neighborhood (replacing the brown paper that had covered the windows after Walgreens left). They also added the bank's name in gold letters flanking the name of the building above the entrance, much like what had been there in the days of the S.S. Pierce store.

Corner entrance to the S.S. Pierce Building in 1906 and 2017.
Corner entrance to the S.S. Pierce Building in 1906 and in 2017.
I finally got a look at the interior when the bank opened in the summer of 2017. The colors, lighting, and openness of the space were impressive. But it was the elliptical shape, topped by a brightly lit rotunda ceiling that really caught my attention. It makes a grand space out of a relatively small footprint, more than fitting for its iconic location. I was very pleased.
Brookline Bank, Coolidge Corner
Brookline Bank, Coolidge Corner. (Photo courtesy of Torrey Architecture)
Months later, my appreciation for the design grew even stronger. It began with a serendipitous discovery in the microfilm of the Brookline Chronicle newspaper on the lower level of the Brookline Library. While researching something else entirely — ice skating in Brookline, if you must know — I came across a 1949 advertisement for S.S. Pierce with three views of the interior of the store. I don't think I'd ever seen interior views of the S.S. Pierce store before that.

The quality of the images on the microfilm was very poor. But one thing was very clear from the middle of the three photos: the central space was round with a rotunda ceiling. It's apparent in the shapes of the ceiling, the wall, and the counter in the photo.

Rotunda of the S.S. Pierce store as seen in a 1949 advertisement in the Brookline Chronicle
Rotunda of the S.S. Pierce store as seen in a 1949 advertisement in the Brookline Chronicle
Was the design of the new bank a deliberate homage to the historic design of the old Pierce store? Had the architect been aware that there had been a rotunda there in the past, either through plans or photos or existing architectural elements of the space itself?

To find out, I wrote to David Torrey of Torrey Architecture who designed this space (and many others for Brookline Bank). David was surprised (and as delighted as I was) to learn that there had been a rotunda in the space in the past. "I only saw the empty Walgreens space with its field of columns when I arrived at the site with Brookline Bank!," he wrote.

The former Walgreens space before its conversion to the Brookline Bank
The former Walgreens space before its conversion to the Brookline Bank (Photo courtesy of Torrey Architecture)

He then gave me this detailed description of "how I coincidentally came to design my version of a rotunda in that same location."

The program from Brookline Bank was to welcome customers into a friendly lobby with all the bankers visible to the customer on arrival. We shaped these glassy offices and teller line to allow this visual interaction to occur, and to provide a glimpse from the sidewalk at the activity inside through the art gallery facing Harvard Ave. But I also wanted to create a sense of arrival and grandeur, evoking the Brookline Savings Bank’s original lobby on the corner of Washington and Boylston in Brookline Village. (The bank let go of this building as their headquarters when we redesigned 131 Clarendon Street in Boston as the Brookline Bancorp headquarters.)

My challenge in redesigning the pivotal retail space at the S.S.Pierce Building was to carve out an open area for a lobby out of the field of columns which had to remain for structural reasons. This was done using a central ellipse surrounded by another elliptical ring that incorporated three columns and allowed an ambulatory corridor for access to the offices. But a plaster ceiling would be too loud for acoustical privacy, and I was aiming for a quiet library-like feel. So a plaster ceiling was out of the question, and a standard rectilinear acoustical tiled ceiling with downlights or even a surrounding cove would be a disappointment within an ellipse. 

So for acoustics and lighting we specified a stretched fabric ceiling, this one from Newmat, a European system being introduced recently in the USA. We built the rotunda coffer, lined it with acoustical batts spaced between rows of LED lights and the result is a daylit, quiet space in a modern deco-inspired composition giving the feel of a dome but made with flat surfaces and stepped plaster rings. My inspiration was also the still-standing Roman Pantheon with its central oculus open to the sky.

The Pantheon in Rome and the former Brookline Bank headquarters
The Pantheon in Rome (left) and the former Brookline Bank headquarters (right) in Brookline Village (now a medical marijuana dispensary) were both inspirations for David Torrey in his design for the new Coolidge Corner branch of the bank.

Coolidge Corner is going through a lot of change of late. Several businesses have closed their doors, including Pier One, Lady Grace, Vitamin World, Radio Shack, Panera Bread, and others. (Panera is being replaced by the Gen Sou En Japanese tea house. I'll have more about that space in a later post.)

Amid all this change, it's nice to know that the most iconic space of all has found a worthy replacement.

NOTE: Brookline Bank is not taking up all of the space in the S.S. Pierce Building formerly used by Walgreens. Oath Pizza moved in on the Harvard Street side even before the bank opened. It joins Paris Creperie and Coolidge Corner Opticians, both longstanding tenants on that side of the building. The newest addition, Allium Market on the Beacon Street side, is another echo of the building's past. It sells high-end specialty foods much like its predecessor S.S. Pierce (and even like the Coolidge & Brother store that stood in a different building at this location before that.)

1 comment:

  1. Thank you Ken for your well written and informative article about the changes over time to the iconic S.S. Pierce Building in Coolidge Corner. It is an honor to have been a part of this history.