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Updates proposed for Christian Science Church's Boston plaza

The First Church of Christ, Scientist on Tuesday unveiled draft plans for changes to its Boston plaza, including constructing two new buildings and reducing the size of its reflecting pool.

By A staff writer / July 20, 2010

The plaza at the Boston headquarters of the First Church of Christ, Scientist, seen here, would see updates in a plan unveiled Tuesday.

Taylor Weidman/The Christian Science Monitor

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Boston

The First Church of Christ, Scientist in Boston formally unveiled draft plans Tuesday that call for building two new commercial and residential buildings on the perimeter of its 14.5 acre campus in Boston's Back Bay neighborhood.

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The draft, crafted in consultation with a citizens advisory committee appointed by Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, also envisions changes to the Christian Science Center's signature plaza and its 686-foot-long reflecting pool.

These changes represent a more economical, environmentally sustainable design than the original, and they would add green space to the plaza and make it more welcoming to the general public, church officials say.

Several architects and art historians say they are concerned that the plaza-level changes would alter the effect of the space in ways that compromise a patch of urban landscape that has become world renowned for its unique blend of modern and older architectural styles and the open spaces that tie them together.

Boston's Landmarks Commission is weighing a move to designate the Christian Science Center as an historic landmark – a move that could complicate efforts to execute some elements of what the church calls its revitalization project for the campus.

"In general, this is not an us-versus-them issue," says Mark Pasnik, an architect and preservation specialist at the Boston firm of over,under inc. Mr. Pasnik was one of the specialists who signed the petition three years ago that triggered the Landmarks Commission action. The majority of what the church has proposed will bring welcome additional vitality to the Back Bay area, he says.

But the campus also is unique, he adds. He urged caution about new developments or other alterations in the space, which he called "probably the most important modern public space of its time period in the entire country."

Several factors prompted church officials to devise the plan, according to Barbara Burley, the church's senior manger for real estate planning and operations.

A key concern is the high cost of maintaining real estate that fails to generate enough money to pay for its upkeep. The church relies on donations from its worldwide network of members. A significant fraction of every dollar donated is spent on upkeep for the plaza's real estate, which accounts for some 20 percent of the church's budget, she says. Leasing the two parcels of land for commercial development would ease that burden and ensure that church spending stays focused on its denominational mission.

Moreover, the reflecting pool, which also serves as the roof for the center's underground garage, needs to be rebuilt, she says. Essentially, it has reached a point where it is increasingly difficult to maintain and repair.

"It's like a roof on your house. You can patch and patch and patch," she says. "But at some point you have to say: It needs to be torn off and a new one put on."

With a need to replace the pool came an opportunity to revisit the other elements of the plaza, with an eye toward more-sustainable use of water the campus draws to operate the pool, Ms. Burley says. This led the church to consider shortening the pool by some 18 feet. And its 26-inch depth would be reduced by more than half. According to the draft plan, the changes would slash the amount of water needed to keep the 1.3 million gallon pool operating. The pool currently uses some 5 million gallons a year for backwashing and replacing water lost to leaks and evaporation.

The plan posits that a new, lower-volume pool would cut that usage by as much as 75 percent. In addition, the plan envisions a narrow ground-level walkway across the pool to give the public an additional, shorter pathway to reach the main plaza.

Finally, some of the red-brick plaza would give way to additional lawn and trees, in large part to ensure a bigger fraction of storm run-off percolates underground to maintain the water table under two historic church structures, whose support pilings are made of wood.

Although the revitalization plan and the outside push for landmark status for the center represent independent approval tracks, they could merge if the city backs a landmark designation for the center.

The plaza's 26-story administration building, now leased as commercial office space, its low-slung Colonnade Building, now home to Northeastern University offices and recording facilities leased by the Berklee College of Music, and its Sunday School building represent examples of urban brutalist architecture – a form of modern architecture whose name stems from the French word for raw concrete. The center was designed in the mid 1960s by collaborating architects I.M. Pei and Araldo Cossutta. Workers finished the center in 1972.

The historic nature of the plaza is not lost on church officials. They recognize that many consider it "the most monumental and significant collection of mid-20th century modern architecture" in the city, according to the draft plan. Indeed, the plan involves no changes to any of the buildings on the campus.

Still, preservationists such as Mr. Pasnik note that structures around the country built during the same period are entering a twilight zone where they are too young to be declared national landmarks, yet they are reaching the ends of their design lives and becoming too costly to maintain. Often, the structures are being razed. That national trend, as well as its manifestation elsewhere in Boston, is the main driver behind the landmarking effort, he says.

Pasnik readily acknowledges that the Christian Science Church has been a good steward of its architectural legacies. But the uniqueness of the open space, he adds, relies heavily on the uninterrupted reflecting pool – a feature he calls a "mirror to the sky." And to replace brick with green undercuts the "hardscape" that is part of the campus's overall period design.

The Landmarks Commission's own staff study of the landmark proposal, released in June, recommended that the church center receive landmark status. The study is now open for public comment. The church has proposed amendments to some of the criteria it would have to meet as an historic landmark in order to fully execute its revitalization plan, should that plan receive a green light from the city.

The commission could well rule on landmark status in early fall, according to a city official familiar with the process. Yet even the commission's approval is not the final word. The designation also must also pass muster with Boston's mayor, and if he signs off, with the city council as well.

[Editor's note: The original misspelled Mark Pasnik's name.]

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