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, and 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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