Originally the site of a historic Boston museum, this grand building is now retail giant Restoration Hardware’s flagship. The redesign won the Professional Commercial category for the 37th Annual SOURCE Awards last month at Lightfair.
In Los Angeles, you might expect the grand opening of a flagship store to attract celebrities or for the ensuing VIP party to be “shut down” because the crowd exceeded the fire code. But oddly enough this happened in Boston…at the celebration of a Restoration Hardware (RH) store.
Naturally, there is something unique about this location to draw such a diverse crowd as Hurt Locker actor Jeremy Renner (a renovation enthusiast), music producer Tommy Mottola, Boston Bruin hockey player Andrew Ference, and fashion designer Joseph Abboud and many Bean Town notables. Designed in 1862 by renowned architect William G. Preston, the Beaux-Arts building was the second to be erected in Boston’s tony historic Back Bay neighborhood. Encompassing 40,000 square feet, this landmark structure on Berkeley Street housed the New England Museum of Natural History until the museum (renamed the Museum of Science) relocated in 1951 to its current site on the Charles River.
Known as the “Gallery at the Historic Museum of Natural History” building, RH chose this famous site for its flagship, which debuted last year. It’s not the first time the address has been occupied by a retailer: upscale Bonwit Teller was a tenant for 42 years (1947-1989), followed by a 20-year stint by tony department store Louis Boston, which ordered a major renovation of the space before it moved in.
Once Louis Boston relocated to Northern Drive, the former museum building sat vacant for years. According to an article in Boston Common magazine, RH’s chairman, chief executive, creator, and curator Gary Friedman was so impressed with the grand building while shopping at Louis Boston 20 years ago that as soon as he learned the building was vacant, he immediately seized the opportunity to elevate the RH brand. The Boston flagship is the bellwether for Friedman’s concept of constructing grand, gallery stores nationwide.
In effort to honor the cultural significance of the building’s place in Boston’s history, the exterior and interior have been completely restored by stripping back decades of structural modifications, auxiliary mezzanine levels, and pedestrian elevators that had been added over the years. In its role as the RH flagship, the space has been reimagined to be more aligned with the original vision for the museum, which means including artistic touches not common to the retail industry.
The project represents the latest and most complex collaboration between RH’s Friedman and design architect James Gillam of Backen, Gillam & Kroeger Architects of California, which has designed many RH stores.
“This Gallery marks a milestone for RH as the most significant architectural undertaking of its kind,” Friedman has said. “With great respect for the building’s history, we are reestablishing its relevance while unveiling innovative elements and aspirational interior installations that reimagine the landmark museum’s tremendous potential.”
Devil in the Details
A pavilion of glass and steel, designed by architect James Gillam, provides a respectful contrast to the building’s neoclassical façade and creates a dramatic new entrance on Newbury Street. The landscape has been restored and the original flowering magnolia trees are back. New brick paths lead to an outdoor sculpture garden.
When shoppers enter the central atrium, they immediately notice the reinterpretation of an 1892 traction and counterweight elevator inspired by the iconic model in downtown Los Angeles’ Bradbury Building. Soaring three floors, the steel-caged glass cab highlights the interior’s newly unobstructed vertical openness and dramatic architecture. From the fresh floral boutique to the 18’-high antiqued mirrored archways reflecting 12 sparkling crystal chandeliers on level two, the interior is designed to inspire new and evolving ideas for the home.
When the elevator doors open on level three, shoppers are greeted by the sound of trickling fountains as they enter the Indoor Conservatory and Park with reproduction heritage olive trees, a 24’-high illuminated steel Eiffel Tower replica discovered at the Paris flea market, and the first Ma(i)sonry Napa Valley wine bar outside of Yountville, California. All of these are housed under the restored original vaulted and iridescent gold-coffered ceiling visible from the first level, located 70 feet below.
The third floor is also home to four Clubrooms: the Billiards Room, complete with a refurbished vintage Brunswick table that is open for play; the Music Room, a tribute to the days of vinyl, rock & roll and Motown, plus a 100-year-old beer bar salvaged from a local Boston pub; the Library, filled with design and architecture reads; and the Cinema, celebrating the art of film.
Visitors looking for even more architectural fun can also reach the third floor via the original winder staircase that was previously hidden behind walls and is now completely exposed through impressive steel and glass archways.
Let There be Light
When it came to illuminating this one-of-a-kind space, RH called in internationally renowned experts. The building’s exterior luminescent glow is created by award-winning lighting designer Ross De Alessi, who has famously illuminated historical monuments across the country including The Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco.
The interior lighting was accomplished by Bentley Meeker, who has designed stellar events for New York City’s MoMA, The Guggenheim, New York’s Natural History Museum, plus exhibited at The Whitney.
What was critical to the renovation was the idea of treating the space as the historical monument it is while understanding its purpose as a retail business. True color rendering was just as important as hiding the fixtures. In particular, all of the façade lighting fixtures are completely concealed, evoking the desired “light from nowhere” look. Though 95 percent of this lighting is LED, multiple high-CRI source types in various color temperatures are used to accommodate the different finishes, colors, and proportions of the building and merchandise. (High contrast focal lighting and moody galleries were avoided). Certain architectural elements were selected to be illuminated in a way that harmonizes with the merchandise.
What judges of the SOURCE Awards found the most interesting regarding the use of Eaton’s Cooper Lighting products is the lack of intention to package the design. The lighting fixtures were selected by an independent lighting designer to fulfill team desires, wants, needs, and visions [as opposed to selecting products for an edge in the competition].
The design team notes that various lighting distribution and output options, excellent color, low profile, and reliable performance combined to make io the single choice for the majority of both interior and exterior linear LED strips. Similarly, the designers point out that the low aperture brightness and small size, field-changeable optics, outstanding color, superior quick aiming, and lockable optical chains and options of the IRiS brand exceeded the attributes of competitors’ products.
“This outstanding project exemplifies RH’s position as one of the most innovative luxury brands in the marketplace,” stated RH CEO Carlos Alberini. “The Gallery at the Historic Museum of Natural History highlights the magnitude of our real estate transformation and elevates the RH customer experience to a place never seen before in retail. We are grateful for the support we received during the development process from Boston’s city officials and other local and state organizations who were greatly involved with the project. We have invested considerable resources to bring our vision to life and are proud to present the product of our work to this great New England community.”
At the grand opening, Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino noted, “We are excited to welcome RH to Boston in one of our most beloved cultural and architectural landmarks. Through collaborative efforts and partnership, RH has restored a piece of history for Boston’s residents and visitors. I believe that RH has honored this building and uncovered its potential to be a one-of-a-kind design destination.”
Project At a Glance
Client: The Gallery at the Historic Museum of Natural History Restoration Hardware, Boston
Design Team: Ross De Alessi, IALD, MIES; Norm Spencer, I.A.T.S.E. United Scenic Artist; and Neil Reeder
Lighting Design: Ross De Alessi Lighting Design, Seattle
Photography: Brett Drury Photography (exterior) and © 2013 Doug A. Salin – www.dougsalin.com (interior)