There'll soon be a new bloom on Horticultural Hall

It's a singular success story: A small, nonprofit organization, saddled with a white elephant of a building, finds a creative solution for renovating, preserving, and modernizing its edifice. And the solution not only solves the group's financial problems, but benefits the city as well.

Boston's Horticultural Hall, a splendid example of neo-Georgian architecture, was originally built in 1900 to house the Massachusetts Horticultural Society. The hall was the toast of the town when it opened in 1901. It boasted a ballroom, complete with stage; a nearly 50-foot-high, glass-roofed exhibition hall for its already famous annual flower show; and a stunning paneled library to house the society's growing collection of books.

Today, Horticultural Hall is on the National Register of Historic Buildings. The Massachusetts Horticultural Society, founded in 1829 by some of the most prominent Bostonians, sponsors an annual Spring Flower Show, trips and courses for its members, and a gardening information hot line. It also maintains a 50,000-item library of horticulture-related books and periodicals, the largest collection of its kind in the country.

A few years ago, however, the Horticultural Society was facing a crisis. ``We didn't need the large amounts of space any more for exhibitions,'' says executive director Richard H. Daley. ``The spring flower show was held here until the mid-40s, when it got too large. The building was very expensive to maintain; costs for heating, upkeep, and major repairs were prohibitive.''

So in 1982 the Horticultural Society arranged for a private developer, O'Connell Development Company, to renovate the building, turning unused space into office rentals. Because Horticultural Hall is a historical structure, such a redevelopment project was eligible for tax credits. ``That wouldn't help us [as a nonprofit organization], but it would benefit the developer,'' Mr. Daley explains. O'Connell will receive all rental profits for the next 38 years; then all revenue from the building will revert to the Horticultural Society.

``What's interesting about the project,'' Daley says, ``is the public-private-nonprofit mixture, which works to the advantage of all three. With more tax revenue coming in [from rentals], the building will be back on the tax rolls. A very important historical building has been saved . . . plus, you've created lovely rental space and solved the crisis of how a nonprofit organization could support a physical plant it no longer used.''

Directly across Massachusetts Avenue is Symphony Hall, completed a year earlier than the Horticultural Society's building. Although the two were designed by different architects, the graceful faade of Horticultural Hall is aesthetically pleasing as a companion to Symphony Hall's neoclassical grandeur.

Stopfel Associates, architects for the renovation project, aimed to preserve the historical integrity of Horticultural Hall while adapting it for modern usage. The limestone-and-red-brick exterior has been meticulously cleaned and restored, and except for the addition of attic skylights, a brick-paved entrance, and handicapped access, it remains unchanged from the day it was built.

The interior, however, is vivid testimony to the fact that innovation and preservation are not necessarily incompatible. Visitors enter through the main doors into a spacious lobby. Glass panels around the original doors admit abundant natural light, and a combination of indirect lighting and a brightened color scheme of white and soft green has transformed the lobby from the gloomy hall it once was to a light, airy entry that has not lost a bit of its turn-of-the-century character.

To the right, a wide staircase anchored by a gleaming brass banister leads up to the 5,000-square-foot ballroom. Here, the floor will be raised two feet to accommodate mechanical and electrical ductwork, and the space made over into an office area.

The ductwork posed a major challenge to the architects. They wanted to keep the sense of height and volume but at the same time needed to provide lighting and ventilation for the tenants. Tom Miller, the project architect, came up with a solution: free-standing pillars to camouflage the electrical system. The wooden pillars will have recessed lighting built into their capitals and will conduct heating and cooling to the offices.

``Basically we lifted the design [from the outer faade] and made a relationship to the exterior,'' Mr. Miller says of his graceful Ionic columns.

``What I'm most pleased with, though, is that the library still remains the centerpiece of the building,'' Daley says. Upstairs, beyond two massive 10-foot portals, lies the pride of the Horticultural Society. The rectangular library, graced by a gently curving balcony, is paneled in long-leaf yellow pine. The library's understated elegance has been enhanced by a few unobtrusive modernizing touches, such as soft-green carpeting that echoes the lobby's color scheme, a specially designed lighting system to accentuate the ceiling vaults, and climate control to protect the books. The society's rare-book collection will be housed in the basement in a room with its own security system, climate control, and fire-protection system.

The building's boldest architectural innovation is in the glass-roofed exhibition hall. The dramatic height of the space was completely inappropriate for ordinary offices. So the architects divided the hall, adding a self-supporting ``tray'' tier of offices above the ground-floor suites. At no point does the ``tray'' touch the outside walls -- standing on the ground floor, one can look up past the second-floor office tier to the vaulted glass roof above. Thus the soaring feeling of openness, the hall's major advantage, has been preserved.

Factors unique to Boston make such a creative redevelopment project feasible, according to John Ryan, chairman of the board of Ryan Elliott & Co., the leasing agent for Horticultural Hall. He emphasizes the current real estate boom the city is experiencing. Downtown office space in Boston rents for $35 a square foot; in the best suburbs, it is $20 to $25. Prime office space in Horticultural Hall is a competitive $20 a square foot.

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