Suffolk University is an important institution in Boston, but it lacks a tangible presence as a campus, particularly when it comes to a recognizable landscape place. The purpose of this project was to overcome that deficit and create the university’s first landscape space as a part of the construction of a new academic building. The tight urban character of its downtown campus yielded few opportunities, but when the school successfully negotiated the purchase for demolition of the Commonwealth’s former Metropolitan District Commission (MDC) headquarters on Beacon Hill, the renovation of the forlorn Roemer Plaza was part of the real estate purchase. The deal was a win/win—the state would get a new plaza that it did not have to pay for and the school would get a new campus space for its own identity, ceremonial gathering, and daily passive recreational use. The site itself is challenging. Roemer Plaza was a lifeless, 1960s era plaza, divided into two parts by a 14’ grade change, making connectivity and accessibility difficult. The lower level was situated over a parking structure with low live-load capacity while the higher level sat over mechanical rooms requiring exhaust ventilation to remain. The design team headed lengthy structural and mechanical review processes to introduce more robust soil depths and plantings into the plaza, and reconfigure mechanical requirements.
To address the grade displacement, the design blends amphitheater seating and stairs to connect the upper and lower levels, recalling the plaza’s original Beacon Hill topography. Despite accessible connections to the street in upper and lower zones, the project was required to link these levels with an accessible ramp that took advantage of the slope between the street and amphitheater. In its new configuration, the plaza links Suffolk’s administration and new classroom buildings in the north/south direction, and the McCormack Office Building and John Adams Courthouse in the east/west direction creating a new nexus of circulation and melting pot of different constituencies in which to enjoy lunch and breaks outdoors.
The planting design incorporates American Hornbeam which can withstand the high wind conditions of the site and play a key role in creating canopy and scale for the plaza spaces. The locations of the tree pits are calibrated to work with the load capacity of the roof structure and are dispersed to achieve a sense of vegetation in the highly constructed environment. A variety of ornamental grasses provide texture and move in response to the wind. Though the net increase of planted surface could only be 12%, the character and presence of vegetation has a greater affect than the numbers would suggest.
An additional design challenge and opportunity was the state’s requirement that there be a commemoration of the MDC in the plaza by incorporating architectural elements from the demolished building. Our design took a different strategy: commemorate the great parks, parkways, beaches, dams, reservoirs, and natural areas that are the results of the MDC, rather than preserve various architectural elements of the building that housed it. Place names are raised from a black granite plinth, listing 80 MDC projects throughout the Commonwealth, as the first, elongated tread of the amphitheater. In addition to the plinth, wall-sized panels, standing 12’ tall and 175’ long, exhibit historic maps, plans and photographs highlighting important MDC projects around the greater Boston area.
In the end, this project overcame the grade and on structure load capacities of the site to transform an underutilized 1960s era open space into a multi-functional, university plaza, that provides flexible circulation and much needed campus gathering spaces within a tight urban fabric.
Entrant office name: Klopfer Martin Design Group
Role of the entrant in the project: Landscape Architect
Other design firms involved:
NBBJ – architect
LeMessurier – structural engineer
Project location: Boston, Massachusetts
Design year: 2008
Year Built: 2016