One of the oldest buildings in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood is getting yet another makeover. The Back Bay is made up of tree lined streets spanning eight blocks from Boston Common and the Public Gardens alongside the Charles River. It boasts some of the best preserved 19th century Victorian brownstone row houses, an iconic face of Boston architecture, along with other fine examples of American architectural history. The neighborhood is well known for having Boston’s best shopping and dining, with luxury retail brands, independently owned boutiques and salons, fantastic restaurants and trendy cafes along posh Newbury and Boylston Streets.
This particular building is located at 234 Berkeley Street. If you have never had the pleasure of visiting this building, you should try to do so once renovations are complete and the doors open. I am excited to see how the space will be transformed to meet the unique needs of the new tenant, Restoration Hardware.
Originally home to the New England Museum of Natural History, it was designed in the French Academic style by William G. Preston and built in 1863, around the time the Back Bay land was created by filling in marshland to accommodate the growing city. The centerpiece of this Berkeley Street gem, located between Newbury and Boylston Streets near the Public Gardens is a large hall with an ornate ceiling and clerestory windows. This double height space once had the skeleton of a whale suspended from the ceiling that stretched nearly the entire length of the room. It drifted there, frozen in time, above other animal exhibits housed in glass cases. The New England Museum of Natural History became the Boston Museum of Science in 1951 when the Museum began to become “more of a science museum and less of a gentlemen’s club for safari trophies” (Wikipedia: Museum of Science, Boston) and it relocated to its current location bridging the Charles River. 234 Berkeley maintains the air of a gentlemen’s club in appearance. It is kind of grandiose if you overlook the crumbling column capitals and rotting window frames.
The building served as a museum for roughly 90 years. For the next fifty years, luxury retailers transformed the 44,000 square foot building into a refined shopping experience, bringing the interior from fittingly functional to purely palatial with some quirks. For thirty years the hall where the whale skeleton once floated was filled with clothing racks of high-end retailer Bonwit Teller. A strange glass room was built out from one of the large windows and served as a storefront for a single dress. This awkward architectural feature appeared in the 1958 film Home Before Dark, based on a novel by Eileen Bassing, in a scene in which the main actress loses her sanity.
For the past twenty years, shoppers in search of the finest clothing donned apparel from top designers in a changing tent in the center of this impressive space while the building was occupied by LouisBoston. Now Louis has moved out of the aging building to the Waterfront to get in on the growth of a neighborhood that has become increasingly cool in the past few years. Interestingly, Bonwit Teller moved out of the building in 1988 with a similar distaste for the crumbling building in search of a more modern look as well.
The flight of many businesses from the Back Bay since the economy took a turn for the worst may have also played a role in the decision to leave 234 Berkeley. Restoration Hardware was one of the businesses that closed its doors on Boylston Street not too long ago. I am sure the neighborhood is glad to hear that RH is coming back and giving new life and character to a Boston landmark.
Photo (top) from “The Boston Society of Natural History, 1830-1930″, Capt. Percy R. Creed. Photo (bottom) by Suzanne O’Leary.