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A reflection of the times

Boston church plans user-friendly revamp of famed pool, plaza

By Matt Byrne
Globe Correspondent / May 19, 2010

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The Christian Science Church is launching a major redevelopment of its Back Bay headquarters, with plans to remake one of Boston’s most famous landmarks: the 686-foot-long reflecting pool that anchors the church’s sprawling concrete plaza at Massachusetts and Huntington avenues.

The church plans to build a more modern, shallower version of an infinity pool. But most significant will be the addition of a 20-foot wide path across the pool, built so that, from a distance, people crossing it will look as if they are walking on water.

“When we started this process, people said: ‘It’s so beautiful. Why would you want to change anything?’ ’’ said Barbara Burley, the church’s senior manager for real estate planning and operations. “Times are different than they were 40 years ago. It really matters to have more trees and more places to sit.’’

Another change the church will encourage: ice skating in winter on one section of the divided pool.

The new pool is part of a massive redevelopment the Christian Science leadership has been working on for more than a year. Its current plan is to build three buildings, with one taller than 500 feet. Proceeds from the lease or sale of the buildings would be used to finance the estimated $40 million redesign of the plaza and pool.

There is no firm timetable yet for beginning construction, but the church expects to release more details this summer after it concludes working with a citizens group in a process organized by City Hall.

Beyond being a signature work of modernism, the plaza and reflecting pool have become part of the public realm of Boston. So any changes the church proposes will probably be subject to intense scrutiny and undergo extensive review by city agencies.

The new pool would be a few feet shorter and use much less water than the current 38-year-old basin, which is expensive to maintain and leaking into the underground garage below it. It currently holds 1 million gallons of water, and goes through three times that much during the course of the year. Church officials said it costs $2 million a year to maintain the plaza.

The new pool would be 12 inches deep, compared with the existing 28-inch pool. Around plans call for adding benches, trees, and a lawn to make the plaza more welcoming. While community members involved in the planning process over the past 15 months have not raised major objections to the changes, some professionals caution the church to tread carefully.

Tim Love, principal of the architectural and design firm Utile Inc., said adding the path across the pool and making it shallower than the current 28 inches could rob it of its surreal qualities.

“The pool is successful now because you can’t see the bottom, and it acts as a mirror,’’ Love said. “It might be the right thing to do, but it would have to be done carefully.’’

And the church may soon face an even more involved process to get the changes to the pool approved.

The Boston Landmarks Commission is scheduled to issue a preliminary report June 22 on the plaza, in response to a petition signed by dozens of architects and others in January 2007 asking to have the site designated as a landmark. If granted, the landmark status would force the church to get the commission’s input and approval for any final design, said Ellen Lipsey, the commission’s executive director.

The commission has scheduled a public hearing on the petition July 13.

The plaza and pool were originally designed by architects I.M. Pei & Partners and Araldo Cossutta, Associate Architects and built in 1972. Araldo Cossutta, the lead architect for the plaza, told the Globe in 1973 that he wanted to create a space with “dignity.’’

His solution? “A large piece of water,’’ he told the Globe.

In a recent interview the 85-year-old Cossutta said he’s been briefed by church officials on the proposed changes and has mixed feelings. He supports adding a walkway across the pool, but opposes making the pool shallower.

“That is a ridiculous idea,’’ Cossutta said. “It has been tried out in some projects; I saw one in France, where the pool is very shallow, and it becomes sewage, mostly, because of all of the pollution in the air. It becomes a mud pool, not a water pool.’’

Although the plaza has been popular since its opening, church officials believe that time has shown it to be a less welcoming public space than others in the city, such as the Boston Common or Public Garden. Thick concrete benches and planters block pedestrian access along Huntington Avenue, funneling foot traffic to a few narrower passages. And, outside the pool, much of the open space in the plaza is blank pavement.

Chief architect Robert A. Herlinger said the pool is integral in providing easier access to the church property, as well as connecting the different architectural styles of buildings on the grounds.

“With this crossing it gives us a landing point and an ability to actually enter the site,’’ Herlinger said. “We’re looking at some paving changes that will draw people in,’’ including paths to lead people to the reflecting pool area.

Moreover, the walkway over the pool evokes a grass path that was part of the landscaped grounds that were cleared to make way for the current plaza.

In its current plan, the church would construct three new buildings, totaling around 1 million square feet.

Development options include long-term leasing of the three parcels to developers who will share some of the proceeds from what they build with the church. But no firm plans have been released yet.

The tallest would be a 531-foot tower near the corner of Belvidere and Dalton streets, and adjacent to that would go the shortest of the three, a 270-foot building. The third is a 311-foot glass edifice planned for the corner of Massachusetts and Huntington avenues that may house condominiums and apartments.

The church is nearing the end of its work with the neighborhood group. Next is the formal submission of official redevelopment plans to city regulators.

Cambridge architect Alex Krieger, who is also interim chairman of urban planning and design at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, urged the church to make sure it has perfected the design of a new pool before submitting it to the city for review.

“As you start to approach the area of the reflecting pool itself,’’ Krieger said, “I think you have to be very, very cautious not to tamper with the kind of aura of the place.’’