An EPIC Example of Eminent Domain
Last winter, we celebrated the grand opening of the Engineering Product Innovation Center (EPIC) at Boston University. Located at 744-750 Commonwealth Ave, the newly renovated facility provides highly visible and highly valuable space for engineering product development and manufacturing. We spent several years researching, programming, and designing the facility to thrive within the framework of a former automobile dealership and parking garage. As with any renovation project, researching the existing conditions became an archaeological adventure! Among the many interesting finds, we came across a bit of Massachusetts transit history and a fascinating example of eminent domain.
Tucked between the new EPIC machine shop to the north and the Massachusetts Turnpike (I-90) to the south, the unassuming structure at 744 Commonwealth Ave was the humble subject of our discovery. The building, now home to the EPIC foundry and lab space for future faculty hires, was originally built in the early 1900s as an automobile dealership and service center along Auto Row. More recently, it was used as a parking garage for Boston University.
When conducting our preliminary surveys of the building, we noticed an irregularity in the column grid along the southern exterior wall. About halfway along the facade, the columns begin to disappear as the wall slants inward and pinches the southwest corner of the space. From the outside, we noticed the concrete floor slab had been cut at an angle and brick infill erected to support it. Clearly, the original southwest corner of the building had been lopped off and a new diagonal wall constructed in its place.
Sketch showing the buildings at 744-750 Commonwealth Ave. which were renovated as part of the Boston University EPIC project. Notice the southwest corner of the building at 744 Commonwealth Ave. is no longer rectilinear, but truncated to conform to the contours of the Massachusetts Turnpike. The dashed triangle represents the original building footprint prior to demolition.
To find out, I spent some time researching the development of the Boston University Charles River Campus and the contentious construction of the Massachusetts Turnpike Extension in the early 1960s. I came across the photograph below, taken during construction of the Carlton Street overpass in 1963, just as land was being cleared to make room for the Mass Pike. You can see the original structure of 744 Commonwealth Ave was rectilinear and its design typical of parking garage construction of the time. You can also see the structural bays along the south facade maintained a uniform grid and full-height glass spanned between columns where brick infill and small square windows existed at the outset of our renovations.
Photo from 1963 (“Building The Mass Pike”, Tsipis, page 72) showing the construction of the Mass Pike alongside 744 Commonwealth Ave. Notice the building was rectilinear prior to the demolition of the south facade to make way for the new highway. Also interesting to see the Prudential Tower under construction in the distance, a tandem building project to the Mass Pike extension and a signature icon on the Boston skyline.
Photo taken from the Carlton Street overpass prior to our renovation project. Along the south facade of 744 Commonwealth Ave, you can see the concrete floor slab exposed to view and the red brick infill constructed to align with the retaining wall of the Mass Pike.
So what happened?
When the Mass Pike was extended through downtown Boston, the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority laid claim to the right-of-way of the Boston & Albany Railroad lines that cut through the heart of the city. As fate would have it, these lines ran directly behind 744 Commonwealth Ave. The railway needed to be rerouted, land needed to be cleared, and the pathway needed to be widened to accommodate the new highway.
Led by William F. Callahan, the Turnpike Authority made liberal use of eminent domain legislation to clear a path for the eight-lane toll road. As a result of this expropriation, more than 350 buildings were demolished and over $4.5 million worth of property was destroyed. Among the casualties was the southwest corner of 744 Commonwealth Ave, demolished and realigned to conform to the expanded contours of the Mass Pike.
Fifty years later, we are able to piece together the many transformations of 744-750 Commonwealth Ave. From automobile dealership, to music shop and parking garage, to a breeding ground for the latest innovations in engineering, the building has weathered the scars of eminent domain and adapted to the needs of each generation. Sustainable in the truest sense, buildings that can so ably withstand the test of time are not only tremendous historic assets of the community, but hidden jewels within our cities.
Photo looking west, taken from the inside of 744 Commonwealth Ave prior to our renovation project. Notice the slanted diagonal wall running from the last visible column (left) to the southwest corner of the building.
Photo looking east, taken from inside 744 Commonwealth Ave prior to our renovation project. Notice the belled column capital and drop panel disappearing into the slanted wall as it approaches the foreground.
Images of America: Building The Mass Pike, Yanni K. Tsipis, Arcadia Publishing, 2002
Interchange: Highways and Displacement in the Post-War American City, Elihu Rubin, University of California International and Area Studies, 2006
Six Lanes, Five Miles, A Decade of Controversy: The Construction of the Massachusetts Turnpike Extension through the City of Newton, Toby Berkman, The Concord Review, 1998
Revisiting Auto Row, Patrick L. Kennedy, Boston University, 2012
Boston’s Original Auto Mile, William P. Marchione, Brighton Allston Historical Society, 1998-2001