The Hotel Commonwealth


Ken­more Square, Boston, has always had a rep­u­ta­tion for being a lit­tle bit seedy—much the way Times Square used to be. It boasts a major Sub­way inter­change, the best Ball­park in the Amer­i­can League, if not all of base­ball, and it used to be home to a diverse group of small busi­ness­es and restau­rants.

When I first moved to Ken­more Square, in 1996, there was a Methadone clin­ic, a punk-rock venue called the Rathskeller, a late-night restau­rant called Deli-haus, a grit­ty cof­fee house called Fuel, and a bunch of oth­er busi­ness­es housed in the clus­ter of Brow­stones on the oppo­site side of the Square. In 2003, chalk these land­marks into a new chap­ter of Lost Boston.

When Boston Uni­ver­si­ty pro­posed bull­doz­ing much of the south side of the square, and replac­ing the cen­tu­ry-old brown­stones with a “Euro­pean-style” hotel, city and com­mu­ni­ty lead­ers large­ly sup­port­ed the idea… large­ly, I sus­pect, because BU was will­ing to pay gen­er­ous­ly to relo­cate affect­ed busi­ness­es with neigh­bor­hood asso­ci­a­tion ties, such as Cornwall’s Pub. Also, the uni­ver­si­ty is giv­ing mil­lions to upgrade the Sub­way sta­tion and traf­fic con­fig­u­ra­tion in the Square.

Whether or not you iden­ti­fy with my bemoan­ing the loss of a funky piece of an oth­er­wise bor­ing city, what is not in ques­tion is the pub­lic reac­tion when the work­ers final­ly unveiled the facade. For a hotel look­ing to project Con­ti­nen­tal lux­u­ry and flair, it looks like a repro­duc­tion on the back lot at Uni­ver­sal Stu­dios, or, per­haps, Main Street USA, Dis­ney­land. Tacky, cheap, and an insult to a city with tru­ly excep­tion­al archi­tec­ture.

I am not, I think, an elit­ist when it comes to archi­tec­ture… I think clas­si­cist ideals of style and mate­ri­als are prefer­able to 90% of all avant-garde rub­bish of the past 50 years. But, BU and the devel­op­ers cheat­ed by try­ing to copy the style of the French Sec­ond Empire, while using mate­ri­als com­mon on a Wal-Mart job site. Instead of lime­stone, let’s use fiber­glass. Brick too expen­sive? Sub­sti­tute fiber­glass for the real thing. And, the dorm­ers can just be cut-outs—I mean, who looks that close­ly, right?

The fact is, this hotel would look pret­ty good from your car on the Inter­state at 75 MPH, if it were locat­ed out in the sprawl belt of I-495 and 128. It’s car­toon col­or and fea­tures would blur from the high­way strip. But, this hotel is in the heart of the city, with thou­sands of pedes­tri­ans walk­ing by each day. And it looks Mick­ey Mouse, com­pared with the sur­round­ing build­ings.

The pho­tos I took, unfor­tu­nate­ly, fail to show how bad the facade real­ly is. Trust me, it looks as if they were try­ing to save a few bucks… which is pre­cise­ly not the image you’re going for in a 4-star hotel that wants to charge hun­dreds of dol­lars a night. Appar­ent­ly, BU and the devel­op­ers are going to spend $2 mil­lion to “fix” the facade. Good luck.

8 Responses to “The Hotel Commonwealth”


  • Your com­ments are being added to the range of feed­back we’ve got­ten so far to the build­ing and a major fix is in the works. Thanks.

  • I live in NYC now, but my heart is in Boston. I was excit­ed to see the new Hotel Com­mon­wealth when I was home for Christ­mas. As I drove by it on Bea­con St. my first impres­sion was that it looks like an upscale Days Inn. It is cheesy and hor­ri­bly out of place in the beau­ti­ful Back Bay. I say, tear it down and do it again!!
    Peter

  • Well, as Tim can attest, the devel­op­ers and BU are promis­ing a major facelift before it opens.… I’m hold­ing my breath.

  • Hotel Com­mon­wealth was just rec­og­nized as one out of ten lux­u­ry Best New Busi­ness Hotels by Forbes.com (2003). It shows that what is being fixed on the out­side, does not reflect the ser­vice and beau­ty of the building’s inte­ri­or. I hope you will vis­it soon.

  • Thank you for your com­ment Didi.

    The con­cern expressed was not with the ser­vice and beau­ty on the inside, (which I’m sure is quite lux­u­ri­ous), but rather with the hotel’s loom­ing pres­ence at the heart of Ken­more Square. A gat­ed com­mu­ni­ty can be very pleas­ant once you’re past the guard.

    The Back Bay is full of archi­tec­tur­al gems — built from mate­ri­als that have last­ed more than a cen­tu­ry. There is a per­ma­nence to the neigh­bor­hoods.

    The devel­op­ers promised the com­mu­ni­ty that the hotel would match the style and mate­ri­als of the build­ings sur­round­ing the site, which they did not keep.

    Whether a tourist enjoys his or her stay at the hotel is a sec­ondary con­cern for the thou­sands of peo­ple who live and work in the square. For them, it is a knock-off eye­sore.

    I real­ize that the hotel is try­ing to improve its pub­lic rela­tions, and I give cred­it that com­mu­ni­ty con­cerns were addressed at every stage in the project.

    The prob­lem is that PR was PR — the actions and deci­sions of the devel­op­ers direct­ly con­tra­dict what was com­ing out of their mouths.

    Putting aside ani­mos­i­ty, wouldn’t it have been beau­ti­ful, had the hotel tak­en on a more authen­tic look?

  • How did this ever get past the BRA in the first place? There must have been design mod­els sub­mit­ted. I’m just amazed that they allowed con­struc­tion to be com­plet­ed and then force a change. I agree that one is sore­ly need­ed, as this mon­stros­i­ty looks like it was lift­ed from the Loire Val­ley. I’m just won­der­ing what will hap­pen when these guests pay­ing hun­dreds of dol­lars a night find they can’t get to the air­port in an hour because there’s a Red Sox game.

  • When we’re done this June I hope you’ll revis­it and appre­ci­ate what is final­ly here. The future of Ken­more Square with the new trees, bus sta­tion, cross­walks and light­ing is begin­ning this fall and with Hotel Com­mon­wealth ful­ly dressed and oper­at­ing you’ll be pleased I’m sure.

  • You thought Fuel was a “grit­ty cof­fee house”?

    Grit­ty?

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