Rebuilding Boston

Boston has a long tradition of re-using historic structures—converting churches into housing, fire stations into theaters, woolen-industry warehouses into artist spaces, and many more.


Given its place as steward of one of the first public park systems in the U.S., the Boston Parks and Recreation Department is in a challenging position when it comes to the use of historic buildings within its 2,600 acres of parks, playgrounds, urban wilds, and cemeteries.

With strong protections for parkland in Massachusetts and Boston, opportunities for expansion or new building construction are rare.

In the last 15 years, two facilities were constructed within the park system: the Boston Common Frog Pond skating rink and wading pool in 1997, and a new golf clubhouse at Franklin Park in 1998.

Because of the challenge of working within an established park system, the parks department constantly looks into the possibility of recycling existing buildings that have fallen into disuse and/or disrepair.

Following the model of a successful Massachusetts Historic Curatorship Program encouraging renovation and adaptive re-use of historic structures in state parks, two buildings were identified in recent years: the former men’s comfort station on Boston Common, and the Duck House on Agassiz Road in the Back Bay Fens—both restroom facilities.

In both cases, the buildings were too small to support features such as solar or photo-voltaic panels. When considering the goals of sustainability, however, adaptive re-use of existing buildings alone saves on building materials and energy.

“By recycling the existing structures, we save on the use of materials, cutting down significantly on construction waste while giving new life to unused structures and activating new areas of parkland,” notes Antonia Pollak, Boston Parks and Recreation Commissioner.

Men’s Comfort Station
The more visible of the two buildings, the men’s comfort station on Boston Common, was built in the 1920s for use as a public-toilet facility and closed to the public in the 1970s due to shrinking budgets.

The 660-square-foot octagonal building is located in the middle of the Common between athletic fields, tennis courts, and Parkman Bandstand in a heavily trafficked area with minimal existing services or concessions. Because the building had been unused for so long, the area was also quite dark and uninviting.

With support and encouragement from the mayor and council members, the city sought state legislation allowing a lease term of more than the standard 3 years allowed by current Massachusetts laws.

After legislation was successfully passed to allow for up to a 15-year lease at both facilities, in 2010 the parks department issued a Request for Proposals (RFP) for the adaptive re-use of the comfort station with the goal of rehabilitating and preserving the structure.

With rehabilitation came the opportunity to further activate the park and enhance the experience of park users through an attractive amenity.

Instead of building new structures, the Boston parks department renovates old ones.

In total disrepair, including a collapsed roof, the building required full renovation of the interior and exterior, as well as reconnection of all utilities. The work had to be performed by the successful respondents to the standards of the parks department and the Boston Landmarks Commission, while keeping in compliance with all state and city health and building codes.

Proposals included food vending kiosks and a columbarium for cremation urns. In October, 2011, the parks department announced that the mayor had signed a lease for the adaptive re-use for the building with Earl of Sandwich, a Florida-based franchised restaurant chain.

With a compatible use identified, Earl of Sandwich was granted a long-term 15-year agreement calling for annual lease payments of $50,000 to the city and requiring the company to fully restore the building at its own expense. The cost of the project was approximately $1.2 million.

The restaurant celebrated its grand opening on November 12, 2012. The revenue from the lease will be used to help maintain Boston Common.

Duck House
The second historic building to be renovated is the Duck House on Agassiz Road in the Back Bay Fens. One of the original features of the park, the Duck House is located near the Museum of Fine Arts, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and major hospitals and colleges.

The department’s plan is to issue an RFP once significant progress has been made in the Muddy River Restoration Project, which began earlier this year and will ultimately remove 12-foot-high phragmites, an invasive reed that abuts the building and obstructs views to the river and park.

The building’s prime location on the banks of the Muddy River will provide potential users with the opportunity to utilize its wonderful outdoor space.

The building is constructed of seam-faced Cape Ann granite. The 670-square-foot interior is in poor condition due to years of disuse and a 1990 fire that destroyed the original roof, which has since been replaced with a new slate roof.

As with the Boston Common structure, new utilities are needed. Preliminary cost estimates put restoration, utilities, and site work at $1 million, not including interior build-out.

The Fenway community has already held several meetings to discuss what types of uses they would like to see in the park. Ideas include a coffee house, art gallery, kayak and canoe or bike-rental facility, and gardening outlet.

In addition, the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, which manages the abutting parkway, including Agassiz Road, has developed a plan to improve pedestrian, bike, and vehicular access to the site.

Expanding Efforts
A second building in the Back Bay Fens underwent a similar process through another city agency when the Boston Water and Sewer commission rehabilitated the H. H. Richardson-designed Stony Brook Gatehouse built to regulate the flow of water from the Stony Brook Conduit into the Fens.

The gatehouse was decommissioned in the 1970s and fell into disrepair. In 2007, the Boston Water and Sewer Commission restored the exterior and added a new roof.  The building was then leased to the parks department, which in turn looked for a long-term tenant. The Emerald Necklace Conservancy was selected, and in 2010 restored the interior of the building, a model of sustainable design in an historic structure.

The former Stony Brook Gatehouse now serves as a visitor and volunteer center offering walking and biking tours, maps, exhibits, and information on activities throughout the parks.

It also is the headquarters of the Emerald Necklace Conservancy, a valued park partner and supporter, where its volunteer guides gather. The center welcomed more than 3,000 visitors in its first year, hailing from 30 states and nearly as many countries across the globe. The cost of that project was approximately $1.3 million.

The city of Boston is proud of its efforts to save structures on park properties.  The re-use of old buildings preserves the historic character of parks and is a positive conservation measure that reduces the need for new construction materials when existing facilities are renovated.

Submitted by the Boston Parks and Recreation Department. For more information, visit