(Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com)
In a few months, visitors to Boston will have access to one of the most technologically advanced 200-year-old public buildings in the nation.
For almost a year, the city’s iconic Faneuil Hall has undergone a dramatic internal transformation that will bring new amenities, improve retail space, and add a large new visitors’ center to help educate tourists and locals about the city’s historic sites.With new interpretive exhibits, educational space, and up-to-date technology, the center will be one of the most advanced of any in the National Park Service’s 395 parks.
In use for three decades, the park service’s current visitors’ center is in a basement across the plaza south of the Old State House. Sean Hennessey, a spokesman for the service, described the existing center as “antiquated and inadequate.”
“It’s downstairs, it’s kind of dank, it’s been there since 1980, it’s not exactly state of the art,” Hennessey said. “It’s not exactly the kind of place that we want to show our best face to the visitors who come to Boston.”
The new visitors’ center will encompass 7,400 square feet of the market level and basement, adding a bookstore, interpretive exhibits, an audio-visual orientation program for all 16 sites on the Freedom Trail, iPad kiosks for accessing information independently (the first of the 395 units of the national park system to have such access), and a visitor information desk where rangers will distribute information and maps, conduct tours, and talks.
Faneuil Hall is one of eight sites that make up the Boston National Historical Park, established in 1974, just before the American Bicentennial. Most of the sites are also stops on the Freedom Trail, including Faneuil Hall, the Old State House, Old South Meeting House, the Paul Revere House, and Old North Church.
It is a “partnership park”: though some sites are owned by the park service, others are not. The Paul Revere House is owned by the Paul Revere Memorial Association, for instance, and the Old South Meeting House by the Old South Association.
The city of Boston owns Faneuil Hall. When the Huguenot merchant Peter Faneuil built the hall in 1742, he gave it to Boston with the stipulation that it would always serve as a market for goods on its first floor and a market of ideas above.
The second-floor Grand Hall was the site of the first public protest against British rule in Boston and later served as a venue for abolitionists and suffragists to protest the injustices of their times.
Throughout the renovations, the Grand Hall has remained open for naturalization ceremonies, lectures, concerts, graduations, and other events. (The only shutdown was for filming of the Kevin James film “Here Comes the Boom.”)
The renovations underway affect only the basement and the first floor, which once served as a market for produce and meats but more recently has offered mostly souvenirs and gift items for visitors to the city.
In addition to remaking the Park Service offices, the renovation will improve the retail space on the market level and make it more open, as well as introducing new heating, air-conditioning, and electrical systems.
The renovated basement, accessible both by elevator and by a new centrally located stairwell, will also feature public restrooms and an education area with 55-inch video monitors for the “People and Places” curriculum the park service offers to Boston Public Schools students.
“When you figure that the basement is now fully utilized for the public … the design really has maximized the use of the building, going forward for the next 30, 40 years,” said David Michael Lieb, construction manager for the project. “I think that’s a nice statement about the building and its longevity.”
Hennessey said the renovation grew out of years of conversations between the park service and Mayor Thomas M. Menino about how to create a better facility for visitors interested in the city’s historic sites.
“I think Mayor Menino recognized that there was a real need to have a visitor orientation center … that would provide a fitting welcome to all our visitors, to the people of Boston, to all the tourists and others who come and walk the Freedom Trail and enjoy our history,” Hennessey said.
Hennessey said Menino has long been convinced that Faneuil Hall was the right place for the new facility.
“That’s where the people are, so we’re kind of bringing the visitors’ center to the people,” Hennessey said. The site’s access to several forms of transportation was also a plus.
What made the move possible was a $7 million earmark that US Senators Edward Kennedy and John Kerry added to a transportation bill eight years ago. That bill was passed and signed by President Bush in 2005, and two years ago the planning for the renovation began.
Lieb estimated construction costs at about $4.4 million, with the remainder of the federal money going to planning and design, construction management, fabrication costs, relocation of vendors, an archeological survey, and other expenses.
The National Historic Preservation Act required that the archeological dig be conducted before work could begin at the site.
The survey uncovered around 3,500 artifacts, which will be catalogued and added to the city’s archive. Most were everyday items from the period such as animal bones, shells, stems from clay smoking pipes, and pieces of broken pottery.
The project began with light demolition at the tail end of 2010 and has remained on schedule since then.
“It’s going surprisingly well, actually,” Hennessey said this week. “We’ve hit no snags.”
The market level is expected to reopen in spring 2012, in time for the tourist season. Lieb said he expects the project to be “substantially complete” by the beginning of February, with final details addressed through that month and vendors beginning to return to the building shortly thereafter.
For a gallery of photos from the renovation, click here.
(Einhorn Yaffee Prescott Architects and Engineers)