Buildings 2001 Moderization Awards - Lafayette Corporate Center, Boston, Ma

April 1, 2001
Ignoring the call of urban shoppers for storefront windows and enticingly clad mannequins decked in the latest fashions, Mitchell/Giurgola Architects built Lafayette Place, a suburban mall in the heart of downtown Boston, during the early 1980s.From the day it opened its doors until the mall’s closing in 1992, the block-long shopping locale failed to bring in both retailers and shoppers, and was never fully leased.The failure of Lafayette Place was largely attributed to its architecture, a box design that even modernism’s adoring critics would have shunned. The only solace of the flat façade was an occasional window punched in the masonry. Its lifeless color and design were an unwelcome and obtrusive addition to the street once known as Paper Row. A time-traveler from the early 1900s would have been shocked to see the awnings and architecture signature of this era, replaced with the cold minimal lines of the failed retail center.

A circular courtyard in the center of the building punctuates the three-story, 360,000 square feet at Lafayette Place, like a round hole in a square doughnut. When shoppers entered the facility through the adjacent department store (now Macy’s), they found themselves walking in a circle that led them back to where they started. Originally, the mall had hoped to seduce Bloomingdale’s to be its second anchor, but when these plans went bust, Lafayette Place did not have a Plan B. Constructed with only one entrance through the existing department store to the north, the mall’s exterior walls – void of the revolving doors, stairways, and signage that shoppers had grown used to – seemed to be there more to keep people out than invite them in.
Taking a RiskLocal developers knew all too well of the mall’s lack of success, and were unwilling to take on the risk of failure. Scared away by the stigma associated with the building, it took the insight of an outsider to look beyond the past and see a promising future. Amerimar Enterprises Inc., a Philadelphia-based real estate developer, had previously invested in a nearby building, 600 Washington Street, and watched Lafayette Place struggle from birth to death. Uninfluenced by the building’s cursed history, the company sought financial backing from Angelo, Gordon & Co. and rallied together in a joint venture with Centrum Properties. The building had stood empty for five years before it was added to the Amerimar portfolio in 1997.“Originally, we were looking at the property, and thinking ‘it’s brick, it’s less than 20 years old, we should keep it,’ but, unfortunately, our perception was that it looked like a prison from the outside,” says Gerald M. Marshall, president and chief operating officer for Amerimar. Rightfully attributing the building’s demise to the uninviting exterior motivated the developer to undertake a massive modernization of the existing structure.

Unsure of how to reposition the building, Amerimar initially contemplated transforming Lafayette Place into an entertainment complex. “As they started to develop that concept, people in the city suggested to them that maybe they should think about office use, because it’s such a good location with public transportation access,” explains Larry Grossman, principal of ADD Inc., the Cambridge, MA-based architectural and engineering firm selected for the renovation. The suggestion was considered – but not seriously – until two large tenants came forward and expressed interest in leasing the space, given that Amerimar would transform Lafayette Place into Lafayette Corporate Center.
As plans began to take shape in this new direction, the prospective office tenants discovered that 300,000 square feet of space would not be enough to fulfill their real estate requirements. Adjusting plans, ADD Inc. determined that three additional stories could be constructed on top of the existing building to accommodate their needs. “The scope grew as they looked at different opportunities and different uses of the building. It went from a renovation of a three-story building, to being a renovation of a three-story building with three levels being added on as well,” says Scott Menard, project executive, Suffolk Construction Co., Boston.With some storefront glass and entrances from the street, the Amerimar/ADD Inc. team felt sure that a lower level offering of retailers would bring in neighborhood shoppers. Plans were rapidly taking shape. Lafayette Corporate Center, when completed, would house 50,000 square feet of retail space along Washington Street and provide 575,000 rentable square feet of office space in the five stories above.
Design Challenges
The project was not without its design challenges, however. According to ADD Inc.’s senior associate principal, B.K. Boley, “From a design point of view, we had to be very conscious of not making this building seem bigger than it was – which I think was the mistake that had been made with the previous building. It was only a three-story building, [yet] everyone seemed to think that it was already a five- or six-story building – it just seemed larger. So our conscious design attempts were to break down the scale and animate the street level.”Giving depth to the previously flat façade would require massive demolition, saving only the building’s raw steel members and structural support beams. The newly designed skin was destined to change the look of the building – and the neighborhood. Layering materials on the Washington Street façade energized the exterior and created the illusion of depth, further diminishing the scale of the building and making it appear more comprehensible to the eye. ADD Inc. architects took their cues from two streets running perpendicular to the Washington Street façade, using these junctures as places to locate multi-level bays on the building’s exterior. An additional bay was placed at the corner of Washington Street and Avenue de Lafayette. “In most cases, we only had two inches in depth to work with, from one skin to the next skin. We were right on the property line when we started – so we could either come out in bays or work in layers,” explains Boley.The three bays transformed the previously two-dimensional exterior into an animated façade, adding rhythm and visual drama to the building. “The idea was that the bays were multi-story and they could hold the signage for the retail that occurred on the first floor,” Grossman says. Signage was a critical design element to ADD Inc.’s architectural plan.Large billboards, banners, and neon gave the appearance that there was an abundance of retail available at Lafayette Corporate Center. “This was a very un-Boston thing to do, but because of the depressed nature of that part of town and the stigma that came with a failed retail project, the city was much more open to an animated retail façade,” elaborates Grossman. Due to the street and neighborhood’s large retail presence, presenting this image was a crucial element to blending the building into its surroundings.The facility’s corporate entrance is located around the corner, beneath a wide canopy, off of Avenue de Lafayette. Hoping to achieve a more sophisticated and subdued appearance, the ADD Inc. architects designed a stronger masonry façade that they hoped would set the tone for the building’s primary function. Throughout the process of designing the architectural schemes for the building, the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) was consulted. In one meeting between the BRA and ADD Inc. team, a committee member commented about liking the look and flashing of the back of the bricks selected for the façade, more than their intended surface. After consulting with the manufacturer, the decision was made to use the brick backwards, a look that gave the masonry more variation and texture.Construction ComplexitiesThe existing three stories of the building were located on top of a three-level public parking garage owned by the city of Boston, and long-term leased to a private operator. The garage serviced parking for Lafayette Place Mall, the Swissotel, which is connected to the building on the south, and the adjacent Macy’s department store that also shared the northern wall of the facility. “It was a complicated project because everything you did you had to get permission from the Swissotel, the parking operator, the city of Boston, and Macy’s,” says Marshall. The success of the demolition and renovation work is a testament to the expertise and skill of Suffolk Construction Co. and its dedication to maintaining the schedule dictated at the project’s inception.Public easements, which provided access from the parking garage to the hotel as well as to the department store, needed to be maintained. During the modernization, both the Swissotel and the parking garage remained in operation. Shared electrical and mechanical (HVAC and fire alarm) systems between the mall and the Swissotel, however, had to be divorced from one other – a challenge, to say the least.The downtown location of the facility was the source of more than a few head-scratching questions: How would we erect the steel? Where would we put the crane? A rather innovative solution evolved, explains Menard. “To erect the steel, we had to build up a platform on the roof, over frame the roof, and put the crane up on the roof and work it from one end to the other,” he says.To accommodate the weight of the three new levels, additional support was necessary. “There was a variety of bracing that had to be added,” Menard explains, “not only to take the load of the three levels above, but also to accommodate new elevators [and a] change in stairs.” On the first floor, the circular cutout in the center of this square building was filled in to establish a continuous floorplan and provide a lobby area for the corporate entrance off Avenue de Lafayette.Close to Boston’s Financial District, Government Center, other shopping venues, and the Theater District, this area of downtown has begun a resurgence that started with the modernization of Lafayette Corporate Center. The “Combat Zone,” as it was once referred to, is experiencing more development and modernization, including the restoration of a nearby opera house. Due in part to the successful transformation of Lafayette Place into a thriving mixed-use commercial building, developers such as Millennium Partners and their financial backers have gained the confidence needed to pursue another neighborhood project.With 100 percent of the office space currently leased, it’s no doubt that the once “impenetrable box” has now become a welcoming sight. Lafayette Corporate Center’s retail space is gradually being gobbled up by lease agreements with companies like Eddie Bauer and Citizens Bank. From failure to fabulous, the building on Washington and Lafayette finally has citizens of Boston smiling.

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