College construction to renovate Little Building, expand into Boylston Place

by Stephany Christie / Beacon Staff and Laura King / Beacon Staff • November 20, 2014

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Courtesy of Emerson College filing with the city
Courtesy of Emerson College filing with the city

After years of delays, two new construction projects were announced—a proposed dormitory at 1-3 Boylston Place building, and renovations to the Little Building—in an email sent out to the Emerson community by President M. Lee Pelton last week.

The Boylston Place dorm is meant to house students who would otherwise have lived in Little Building while the 97-year-old structure undergoes long-needed renovations, according to city filings. Combined, the projects could cost $175 million total, but funding sources are still uncertain, according to administrators.

Jay Phillips, associate vice president for facilities and campus services, said the delays came from prolonged disussions with the Board of Trustees.

“After exhausting all opportunities to address our needs, we think we have found a plan that would be best for the college,” Phillips said in an interview with the Beacon. 

Emerson’s Little Building has been awaiting repairs for years, said Margaret A. Ings, associate vice president of government and community relations. The proposal, which was filed by the school to the city of Boston on Friday, plans primarily to restore the building’s basic support structures.

The scaffolding that surrounds the Little Building has been in place since 2009, and was erected to protect pedestrians from the crumbling facade’s potential hazards.

“I think the community is going to be shocked when they don’t have any scaffolding to walk under,” said Ings.

The project is scheduled to take place from 2017 to 2019, and will focus on renovating the dining hall, increasing social space, and adding about 290 new beds to the 750 that already exist, according to the email. The building will also gain a 13th floor.

Pelton said, in an interview with the Beacon, that the school has not yet determined where to relocate the dining hall during the renovation, which is currently on the second floor of the Little Building, but the administration is looking into various temporary or permanent options.

As the exterior of the building has faced weathering, pollution has seeped into the exposed material and darkened its appearance, said Ross Cameron, an architect from Elkus Manfredi Architects who is working on the projects. Elkus Manfredi Architects previously worked on the Tufte Center, the Colonial Building, the Paramount Building, and the Cutler Majestic Theatre.

Cameron said that restoring the outside of the building may lighten the exterior to its original coloring.

“The deep hope is that we can put it back to day one appearance,” said Cameron. “I think that’s going to be quite stunning.”

Reconstructing the common rooms is another major focus of the Little Building changes, Phillips told the Student Government Association in its Tuesday meeting. Emerson currently plans to make each common room two stories tall, give them stark glass windows, and move them to the street-facing side of the building, according to Phillips.

The move to finally develop a plan for the Little Building came when the permission was granted by the Emerson Board of Trustees to begin work on the project, said Ings. The Board spent a long time discussing whether doing just the exterior or if renovating the inside as well would be a better route, Ings said.

According to Ings, the school eventually decided to do both simultaneously to minimize the disruption that the required construction would have on the pedestrian and vehicle traffic on the corner of Tremont Street and Boylston Street.

The Boylston Place building received approval from the city of Boston last year, and Emerson plans for its construction to begin in 2015 and end in 2017, according to the email. The building will be an 18-floor residential building and will house 375 students, which is about half of the Little Building’s occupancy, during the other building’s renovation and after, said Ings.

The designs borrowed design concepts from neighboring buildings, said Cameron. Following the themes of the Boylston Place block, the building will include brick, limestone, and terra cotta. 

“The task was to create a building that was harmonious with the rest of the buildings on the block,” said Cameron.

The Boylston Place construction might cause some disruptions to the surrounding area, including noise and potentially closed or narrowed pedestrian traffic in the Boylston Place alley, but Pelton said it won’t affect students.

“The Boylston Place project will not directly disrupt student life in terms of having to move out of current housing,” said Pelton. “It won’t disrupt classrooms.”

Sweetwater Tavern and the club The Estate are being moved out of the 1-3 Boylston Place space for Emerson’s dorm to be built. Neither establishment was available for immediate comment.

Michael Cruz, a senior visual and media arts major, said he was sad that Sweetwater would close. He said that he and other students frequent the tavern.

“I’m actually going tonight,” said Cruz. “There’s karaoke and trivia.”

Upon a request from the city, the Sweetwater building facade will not be demolished because of its historical properties, said Ings. Instead, the outside of that building will be incorporated into the Boylston Place dorm’s external structure, while the inside will be renovated as part of the new residence hall. 

“The Boston Redevelopment Authority asked us to design a building that blended in with the skyline and drew from the materials of the surrounding buildings, such that [the building] looks like it has always been there,” Phillips told the SGA.

Phillips said one temporary nickname for the 98,000 square foot building is Oddfellow’s Hall, after the Independent Order of Odd Fellows that used to hold the address in 1888.

The dorm will have a three-story lobby that incorporates what Phillips called theatrical elements of design. In the lobby, Phillips said a glass-walled exterior common room, to be called the Alley Patio Common Room, will be open to building residents, which will be connected to a café that is open to the public. According to Ings, the proposed name for the cafe is also Oddfellow’s.

Rather than having common spaces for each floor of the Boylston Place building, Cameron said that they have designed what they call destination common rooms. One social space is a partially glass-walled, two-floor common room with a terrace overlooking Boston Common. 

“The volume of space and the height, makes [the common room] much more attractive than a single-height space,” said Phillips.

Another common room, named the Oddfellow’s Common Room, is planned to span the second and third floors, with a mezzanine level and projection screen. The Kitchen Common room, a single-floor common room with cooking appliances, which Phillips says will be “ideal for birthday parties and pizza parties,” will be located on the fourth floor. 

“The hope is that they’re such fun spaces to be in that they’re actually going to draw students to them across multiple floors,” said Cameron. “Therefore, you’re kind of increasing the sense of community within the building.”

The new designs would allow for 69.8 percent of students to be housed on campus, according to Ings, compared to the approximately 53 percent on campus now.

Cameron said that the administration and architects are aiming for a certification that shows the building meets high energy-saving standards in the Little Building’s renovation and the Boylston Place building. While he feels optimistic about Boylston Place meeting that goal, he said the much older Little Building may be more of a challenge.

Paris Dowd, a junior communication studies major, thought that the idea of being able to house more students was a generous thought, but that it was unnecessary in terms of student budgeting.

“I found the general price of housing to be cheaper off campus,” she said.

The college does not have a definitive plan for funding these projects. According to Phillips, the Boylston Place will cost about $60-75 million. He said that the Little Building costs will depend on the Boylston Place project, but will probably be more than $100 million.

Pelton said that the high costs will likely mean taking on significant debt. 

“We’re looking at how to fund the project and so that’s still in the planning stage,” said Pelton, “but it will have no impact on students who are currently enrolled.”

Andrew Sianez-De La O, sophomore performing arts major, said he is concerned that tuition will rise for future students, which may deter them from coming to Emerson.

“A rise in tuition may be a solution for a building project, but not a solution for a student,” Sianez-De La O said.

If students do end up paying more in tuition to fund the projects, James Rowland, a freshman visual and media arts major, thinks that the cost will be worth the benefits.

“The way tuition is used, as far as improving the campus goes, is really going to help our retention rate,” Rowland said. “I think adding space and beds is going to be really good for keeping students [at Emerson] in their junior and senior years.”


Deputy News Editor Martha Schick contributed to this report. 

Correction, Nov. 25: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated Emerson's negotiations with the city were prolonged; it was actually discussions with the Board of Trustees that were extended. It also incorrectly stated that the new building at 1-3 Boylston Pl. has been named Oddfellow's Hall; that name is just a temporary nickname.