By victoria veilleux | May 2, 2013 | Lifestyle
A grand elevator rises three floors through the center of RH Boston, The Gallery at the Historic Museum of Natural History.
The exterior of the building, built in 1863, retains its original appearance.
The interior before the elevator was installed
The elliptical staircase offers an elegant alternative to the glass elevator
The original coffered ceiling was uncovered when the second and third floors were peeled back
The building was the original home of the New England Museum of Natural History, where dinosaur bones found a resting place
The restored building is an ideal home for RH’s retro-chic offerings.
During an unexpected layover in Boston more than 20 years ago, Gary Friedman, creator, curator, and now chairman emeritus of Restoration Hardware, made a quick stop into what was then Louis Boston, at 234 Berkeley Street, to buy a dress shirt. “I’d never seen such a beautiful work of architecture housing a retail store,” he recalls of the French Academic façade, designed by famed architect William Gibbons Preston. So when Friedman learned in 2011 that the building was vacant, he jumped on a plane the very next day to explore the possibility of turning the address into his company’s grandest exhibition of luxury home goods.
With a philosophy of “re-imagineering” the past, Restoration Hardware seemed predestined for this historic landmark. Originally built as the New England Museum of Natural History in 1863, it was the second public building constructed in the Back Bay (after the Arlington Street Church), housing the Boston Society of Natural History’s exotic collections from around the world—from dinosaur bones and tiger specimens to war clubs and minerals. In 1947 the museum, renamed the Museum of Science, began vacating the building for a new space along the Charles River, and 234 Berkeley Street became home to the department store Bonwit Teller, followed by Louis in 1989. Friedman admits that the leap of faith required to take over the lease— at 40,000 square feet, the building is twice the size of Restoration Hardware’s largest design gallery—was extraordinary, as the retailer didn’t have much data suggesting that it could support a location of this magnitude. He credits advice from the company’s chief creative officer as the catalyst for his signing on the dotted line: “Eri Chaya said to me, ‘Gary, the next time this building will be available, you’ll be dead.’ That made a big impression on me.”
Friedman turned to architect James Gillam, a principal of Backen, Gillam & Kroeger Architects, to help him realize his vision. Together they aspired to recreate the original museum experience, based on old photographs, drawings from the public library, and information from the current Museum of Science. The architect devised a loop concept so the space would feel more like a gallery than a retail store. “You can walk continuously through four large rooms and adjoining corridors without ever having to walk backwards out of a room,” says Gillam. To bring back historical details, local artisans took painstaking measures, such as restoring the exterior stonework and original color of the plaster, as well as repairing decorative braces, coffers, trims, and arch surrounds on the second and third levels. New earthquake and floor-load codes were met by doubling the floors on all levels and reinforcing the original masonry components. The architect addressed other issues as well, such as having many of the windows dual glazed for energy conservation and making the entrances accessible to the handicapped. Then all the “enhancements” made in the 1940s to create more retail space were stripped away, including the mezzanines, the dropped ceilings, and the pedestrian elevator banks. “Peeling back the covered second and third floors to restore the original atrium allows you to see the 70-foot vaulted and coffered ceiling, restoring the grandness that existed in the original museum,” says Gillam. Demolition of interior walls revealed the original winding staircase, now showcased behind steel and brick arches and fully encased in glass.
Much as I.M. Pei’s glass and steel pyramid entrance provides a counterpoint to the Renaissance architecture of the Louvre in Paris, a steel-and-glass conservatory-like pavilion now graces the store’s new entrance from Newbury Street. The building was originally oriented toward Berkeley Street, so this was no small undertaking. In addition, Restoration Hardware preserved the original flowering magnolia trees and native New England perennials to fulfill the historical society’s initial vision of being surrounded by nature. Says Friedman, “This building sits within its own park, completely detached on all four sides. You never see that in the middle of a city as significant as Boston.”
One-of-a-kind creations further enhance the interior, such as custom lighting by Ross De Alessi and one of the space’s true showpieces: a custombuilt steel and glass elevator that reinterprets an 1892 traction and counterweight model. On the third level, the elevator doors open to an indoor conservatory and park. The coffered ceiling—glistening in iridescent shades of gold and punctuated by a 24-foot steel replica of the Eiffel Tower discovered in a Paris flea market—provides year-round protection from the elements. The composite flooring is made of decomposed granite; reproductions of silver-leafed olive trees dot the third-floor “landscape”; and working fountains complete the parklike atmosphere. Explains Friedman, “The trick is to find the juxtaposition of making it look historic with a new twist.” 234 Berkeley St., 857-239-7202; restorationhardware.com
photography courtesy of restoration hardware