History of Kenmore Square

by Bill Tarkulich

 CoverPart IPart IIPart IIIPart IVNamesAppendices

Part IV - New Development and the Future

Hotel Commonwealth (2003)

Over two decades, BU opportunistically purchased buildings in the square.   With the 516 to 532 Commonwealth Avenue block of buildings, BU jointly partnered with a Great Bay Holdings to construct the 150-room Hotel Commonwealth.  

The original plan was for a sensitive restoration of the existing five- story buildings, retaining the facades, and "bookend" the old fronts with new construction. But the city didn't like that plan. The Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) noted that the formerly residential/office row buildings had been altered beyond recognition by their contemporary retail and office uses.[i]  Most of the block was eventually demolished in 2001.” [ii] 

 The city relocated the MBTA entrance into the façade of the hotel.   As part of the joint revitalization with the city, the bus terminal was redesigned[iii].     The bus terminal took an astronomical five years to replace.

The hotel, along with its high-end restaurants and street level shopping opened in 2004.   During construction, both the neighborhood association and the Boston Redevelopment Authority objected to the exterior design.  They argued that the building did not architecturally fit.  It cited exterior panels that looked like plastic, cutouts that pose as dormers and colors [that] appear to “glow.”    In the end, the developers spent $1.9M for changes, which included precast concrete on the lower floor to look like limestone, the pointed window frames became dormer connected to the mansard roof.  BU agreed to fund relocation of the MBTA entrances.[iv]

BU’s intention was never to own any property long term.  The plan was to improve the area, then move on.  In December of 2012, Denver-based Sage Hospitality purchased the hotel from BU for $79M.[v]  BU did however, retain land ownership.  They felt this would be the best way to control future events in the square.

Commonwealth Hotel

Figure 37 Hotel Commonwealth, Original Design


Figure 38 Hotel Commonwealth, as constructed



Figure 39  Commonwealth Ave, South Side, 2011

1970 Comm Ave in the Square south

Figure 40  Commonwealth Ave, South Side, 1971

Today, real estate demand around Kenmore Square has accelerated to the point that dozens of new building projects can be found from Boylston St., to the Longwood Medical area to Boston University.   Hundreds of new housing units have been constructed in the last five years on Boylston Street, south of Fenway Park. 


Fenway Center (Under construction)


Figure 41 "Fenway Center" 2013, showing Beacon Street in the foreground, Courtesy Fenway Center

In 2012 the $500M, 1.3M square foot “Fenway Center” [vi]proposal to build over the Massachusetts turnpike was dusted off.  It passed its final hurdle at this writing, June 20, 2013.  This proposal includes construction immediately behind the Hotel Buckminster, a transportation/commuter rail center, mixed use commercial and residential components.


Conclusion - Still a Gateway?

 The period from 1890 to 1930 was one of unprecidented growth for the square.  What started as vacant land quickly rose to a high level of sophistication and charm. 

Post-war social change took the “American Dream” to the suburbs leaving Kenmore Square devoid of families, doctors, professionals and businesses.  These voids were filled by short-term residents; students, the  homeless, and transients.  The old hotels couldn’t match the service and accoutraments of the modern hotels downtown.  Crime became uncontrolable; that reputation is hard to shake. 

With a new hotel in the 2000’s, additional residential space, departure of the clubs and a large development looming nearby, the square is positioned for a the first large scale improvement in 100 years. 

So who’s “gateway” is Kenmore Square anyways?  A gateway to the city, or a gateway to BU?  Perhaps it’s both.

 “Nobody goes there anymore.  It’s too crowded” – Yogi Berra



[i] Missed Opportunity, Traditional Building magazine, February, 2007


[iii] European-Style hotel planned for Kenmore Square, B. U. Bridge, Feb 5, 1999

[iv] Hotel Commonwealth Developers acknowledge substituting cheaper materials:  City requires $1.9M Makeover of Exterior.  Boston Globe, 2003

[v] BU Scores with hotel sale, Boston Herald, Dec 19, 2012

[vi] http://fenwaycenter.com/