Dainty Dot Renovation Is Through the Looking Glass

Earlier this week, the Boston Civic Design Commission approved a proposal for the shabby, though mildly iconic, Dainty Dot building on the edge of Chinatown. The project has been fraught with controversy from the get-go, with the developer initially wanting to demolish the old building and replace it with, you guessed it, a slender glass tower of luxury condos—something neither the neighborhood nor the city was particularly psyched about.

The final compromise is ungainly to say the least. Basically, the Dainty Dot façade will remain, and a slender, 27-story glass condo complex will be built on top of it. I’m not saying this is entirely a bad thing—that neighborhood could use the kind of density brought by a taller residential building (which it will also get with the big rehab of the Filene’s building up the street)—but it is indicative of a lot of things.

For one, this is a city with a hell of a lot of guilt about knocking down beautiful old buildings in the ‘50s and ‘60s (generally to make room for highways and parking lots), and it will go out of its way to avoid further strip-mining our architectural heritage for quick cash. Even if those efforts, as in the case of the Dainty Dot, are often largely symbolic and ridiculous-looking.

Two, this is a trend. When it was renovated, the Pennysavers Penny Savings Bank on Washington Street in the South End was completely gutted, save for the façade, and a big modern glass condo box was built on top. The plans for historic South Station are basically to retain the original structure and build a big (Houston-looking) modern glass tower on top of it. The Filene’s building is getting the same treatment: retention of façade, giant glass tower protruding from it. (Maybe this is the answer to the question of what to do with City Hall: Stick a big icy tower in there like a knife through its rotten, Brutalist heart cavity.)

I’m torn on all this. It’s a completely lazy and uncreative was to reconcile the past and the future—which is, after all, the aim of these projects. The glass protrusions and the original facades often have nothing to do with one another, they’re just smugly clapped together (save for the weirdly angled Pennysaver addition, which I think is badass).

There’s no attention paid to the sorts of little details and design motifs that could unite the incongruous structures (like with the Liberty Hotel). Moreover, there’s a sense of built in fuck-you to the neighborhood groups that want the original buildings preserved. They’re preserved, alright, but only the husks, and even those seem to be quietly disdained, like the lowly origins they are, by the sleek big-money, big-city glass towers sticking out of them.

On the other hand, I’m a big believer in building in more residential density, particularly in areas like Downtown Crossing. Having people walking around at night is the first step toward organically cultivating the sorts of bars, cafes, and restaurants the area needs so baldy, before it can attract more interest from the retail sector.

And the gradual changes that that population boomlet can affect will, in the long run, pay off in a far more motley and interesting way than the sort of big-scale one-off thing the mayor desperately pushes to enliven the block. Like, say, a Target in the old Filene’s space topped by hundreds of crushingly expensive condos.

But back to the Dainty Dot. The Globe’s great Robert Campbell had an article in last Sunday’s paper asking why all our new buildings are so uninspired. He hangs it on the Dainty Dot controversy, and gets right to the heart of why people are wary of the sorts of new buildings that are being thrown up all over town: they’re coldly indifferent, indifferent to the blocks around them, and to the people passing by them.

“I’m not advocating a return to architectural styles of the past,” Campbell writes. “But it’s hard not to be impressed by the care and craft lavished on even the most ordinary buildings in earlier eras. An everyday office or warehouse structure would, very often, put on its architectural dress-up clothes to meet the public.” Great stuff.