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.

This former comfort station has been renovated and repurposed as a sandwich shop.

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.

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