The newly rehoused North Bennet Street School now brings together all of its educational and administrative programs into a single facility with expansive floor space and natural lighting.
By Mark Favermann
This is not like any other school of higher learning anywhere else. All you have to do is listen as you walk around the building. You will hear the whirring, high-pitched industrial sound of wood being cut by a power saw and then the melodious strains of a violin or cello. Here acquisition of knowledge comes from doing; manual work engages the mind. Students can study bookbinding, cabinet and furniture making, carpentry, jewelry making and repair, locksmithing and security technology, piano technology, preservation carpentry, and violin making and repair. Simply put, it is an education in craftsmanship.
On June 6, 2014, 91 students graduated from the new building erected for the North Bennet Street School at 150 North Street in Boston’s North End. Opened on September 9, 2013, the building was created by structurally bridging and renovating the complex of the old Precinct One Police Station (1932) and the old City of Boston Printing Plant (1933).
Founded in 1881 and incorporated in 1885, the North Bennet Street School offers a distinctive educational environment. Boston blueblood Pauline Agassiz Shaw (her father was the famed Swiss Scientist and Harvard Professor Louis Agassiz, and her husband was part of the Brahmin Shaw family) founded the school to train Eastern European Jewish, Italian, and Irish immigrants. Shaw, along with fellow philanthropists and social reformers Helen Osborne Storrow (Paul Revere Pottery) and Lina Hecht (Hebrew Industrial School), assisted newly arrived immigrants by giving them the opportunity to receive the education, training, and social services they needed to succeed in a growing industrialized society. At the time, Boston’s North End was the home to thousands of recent immigrants, stuffed into the neighborhood’s tenement houses as they searched for a better life in America.
The North Bennet Street School’s stated mission “is to train students for careers in traditional trades that use hand skills in concert with evolving technology to preserve and advance craft traditions and to promote greater appreciation of craftsmanship.” The words “evolving technology” are key: the school has been committed to giving its students a wide variety of occupations to choose from for 130 years.
Given the highly stratified class system of 19th-century Boston, it should come as no surprise that along with the founding of the North Bennet Street School came the establishment of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts (founded 1870) and the Massachusetts College of Art and Design (then the Massachusetts Normal Art School, founded in 1873). The Museum School was for upper-class scions of the wealthiest families; the Massachusetts Normal Art School was set up to serve middle-class citizens. Clearly, the North Bennet Street School was created for the poorer immigrant population.
In 1880, the (very Brahmin) Associates Charities Volunteers established the North End Industrial Home for immigrants in Boston’s North End. Besides educating young men, early programs included teaching young women employment skills and paying them for piecework. In 1885, the board raised enough funds to purchase the North Bennet Street building. Pauline Agassiz Shaw became president of the Board and served until 1915.
Various social, educational and crafts-oriented programs were housed in the North Bennet Street building as well. One of the more interesting programs was the Saturday Evening Girls’ Club. This grew out of reading and discussion groups that were held in the Boston Public Library branch housed in the building. Ceramic pieces produced in collaboration with the Paul Revere Pottery studio (and meticulously painted by Jewish and Italian immigrant girls) are now highly collectible and prized. Many fine examples are in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts.
Today,the North Bennet Street School offers eight full-time programs for 164 students taught by 18 instructors. Student ages range between 18 and 60. There are dozens of workshops, courses, and weekend intensive classes offered as well. More than 600 individuals take part in these every year.
The new 65,000 square feet facility contains workshop, classroom, storage, and common spaces along with state of the art equipment needed for proper instruction in the various fields offered by the school. Administrative spaces along with a shop and showroom are included as well.
Change has posed a challenge: evolving technologies, economics, global markets, war, prosperity, politics, immigration, and changing demographics have influenced the way the school has developed over the decades. Keeping up with transformation has not been easy, yet the North Bennet Street School’s flexible pragmatism has prevented it from becoming stagnant and encouraged it to grow and adapt.
In terms of space, the North Bennet Street School eventually outgrew its old North End landmark building complex. Two of its programs were forced to hold classes in rented satellite spaces in Arlington, MA, and South Boston. The times called for a new complex if the school was to remain educationally relevant.
The original architect of the “new” school’s property was John M. Gray of Salem. He has done a great number of public sector buildings throughout eastern Massachusetts. The architects for the building’s renovation were Kennedy & Violich Architecture, Ltd. of Boston (KVA), a firm well known for its work with novel and interesting materials, particularly evident in the North Bennet Street’s new renovated quarters.
The combined renovation and addition bring together all of the school’s educational and administrative programs into a single facility with expansive floor space and natural lighting. Though functionally elegant and visually compelling, the architectural redo is a no frills, minimalist application. The architectural concept was to create two rooms, one indoor and the other outside, each offering the kind of social space the school has been lacking because of its overly congested and antiquated teaching environment and need for multiple locations.
The strategically located indoor room connects the historic Police Station and Printing Plant. KVA designed a welcoming entrance gallery and store, a two-story exhibit room that can be used for lectures and special events, and a monumental set of light-filled stairs that act as a school crossroads. Flooring and wall treatments are simple. Metal stair railings are sculpturally functional. LED lighting enhances the natural light in open spaces. There is an emotional, even warm comfort in these spaces.
The design for the outside room transforms the building courtyard into a presentation space for full-scale mock-up construction projects. In the design, working balconies overlook the courtyard and a façade made of recycled industrial pallets will eventually create a dramatic visual framework. The school hopes to build these features in the future; meanwhile, the courtyard is already being used for building projects and much coveted parking.
The complex will soon include a 40KW array of photovoltaic panels on the roof. It will be the first such environmental test case in Boston’s Downtown area. This is not because the city has had no interest in solar energy. Surprisingly, it is because of the restrictions set by electricity providers: adding too much energy to the city’s antiquated power grid might overwhelm it.
Besides the architecture, funding for the new building is worthy of note. Led creatively by current president Miguel Gomez-Ibanez, the school paid Boston $11,350,000 for the unused city structures. A credit for the existing 39 North Bennet Street and Salem Street buildings of $6,710,000 was deducted by the City of Boston. Construction and other project costs came in at $20,883,000. A strategic Capital Campaign raised $17,150,000. The school received two grants from the Massachusetts Cultural Facilities Fund (MCFF) totaling $500,000.
Gomez-Ibanez is a former practicing architect who went back to North Bennet Street School later in life to develop his furniture-making skills. He is the first alumnus of the school to lead the institution, and, judging by the new building, he is bringing energy, enthusiasm, and a thoughtful vision to the job.
The North Bennet Street School continues to play a significant role in the evolution of American craftsmanship and social history. The right steps have been taken to see that its 19th-century legacy will continue into the 21st-century future.
An urban designer, Mark Favermann has been deeply involved in branding, enhancing, and making more accessible parts of cities, sports venues, and key institutions. Also an award-winning public artist, he creates functional public art as civic design. Mark created the Looks of the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta, the 1999 Ryder Cup Matches in Brookline, MA, and the 2000 NCAA Final Four in Indianapolis. The designer of the renovated Coolidge Corner Theatre, he has been a design consultant to the Red Sox since 2002.