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City makes Filene's site a landmark

Two of 4 buildings must be preserved

The Boston Landmarks Commission last night unanimously voted to give protected status to a Downtown Crossing block of buildings housing Filene's department store, meaning two of the four buildings in the complex must be substantially preserved.

The commission voted on a petition filed in the 1980s but moved to the top of its priority list because Federated Department Stores Inc., which last year bought the parent company of Filene's, is closing the store and selling the buildings.

Designation of landmark status means the facades of the two buildings must be largely retained, and the prospective new owner, Vornado Realty Trust of New York, will have to work with the panel as it redevelops the site.

Although the guidelines that were approved applied to the whole block, from Washington to Hawley streets, and Franklin to Summer streets, only the main 1912 Filene's store building and a 1905 former glassware and china seller's building on an opposite corner must be retained.

The 1912 building was one of the last designed by famed Chicago architect Daniel Burnham, and one of only three in New England.

Two newer buildings on the remaining two sides, built in 1951 and 1973, are expected to be demolished, and one or more towers are likely to be proposed. Vornado executives have a policy of declining to comment publicly, and neither they nor their lawyer would comment yesterday.

But the lawyer, Matthew J. Kiefer of Goulston & Storrs PC, said Vornado's substantial deposit on the property is scheduled to be no longer refundable after today, the end of the buyer's ''due diligence" period to study the site. Kiefer opposed a suggestion to delay the commission's vote for two weeks, and the members agreed.

After Vornado closes on the purchase, it is expected to file redevelopment plans with the city. No price has been disclosed, though real estate specialists estimate the deal at around $90 million.

The Filene's building is 125 feet high, and the block is zoned for a maximum of 155 feet. But any new redevelopment -- which will involve retail stores but could also include some combination of hotel, residential, and office space -- is expected to be considerably taller, if approved by city officials.

Filene's Basement, which is owned by a separate company, will remain in the building.

In a letter, one area resident urged the commission not to require that the clock and carillon on the building -- which chimes and plays music -- be restored to service. It formerly played songs like ''Hey, Look Me Over" repeatedly, the resident wrote, and, ''I feel tortured by them."

The commission staff had done a historical analysis of the block and held a public hearing. City officials had indicated they wanted a substantial portion of the block, if not all of it, protected.

Federated, the Cincinnati-based owner of Macy's department stores, bought the parent company of Filene's last year. It is closing the Boston store, now having a clearance sale, and department stores it purchased in several other regions. The historic Filene's building is one of dozens that Federated put on the market last year.

Filene's Basement, owned by a separate company, occupies the floors below street level. It has a long lease for the space and will be a significant player in any changes that are made on the block -- demolition, construction, or remodeling.

The 1912 main building is considered the most valuable of the four Boston structures. A group of Boston residents who petitioned for landmark status, one of whom attended last evening's meeting, called it ''one of the best examples of early 20th century Monumental Beaux Arts commercial architecture in Boston."

The eight-story structure is already on the National Register of Historic Places.

Eighty Boston buildings are designated individually as landmarks, in addition to whole districts, such as Beacon Hill. In all, Boston has about 7,700 buildings that are considered historic.

The Legislature created the Boston Landmarks Commission in 1975, after complaints over a Victorian building that housed the Jordan Marsh department store was torn down. Macy's is now in that location in a modern building.

Thomas C. Palmer Jr. can be reached at tpalmer@globe.com.

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