Little Building wins 2022 American Architecture Award for historic preservation


Jakob Menendez

The Little Building residence hall.

By Adri Pray, Editor-at-large

A landmark of the neo-Gothic style in Boston, the Little Building was built over a century ago. But it took a purchase by Emerson and a massive contemporary reimagining to earn it recognition for its “modern approach” to historical preservation.

On Dec. 29, the building was awarded a 2022 American Architecture Award by the Chicago Athenaeum, in partnership with the European Centre for Architecture Art Design and Urban Studies. The honor spotlights Elkus Manfredi Architects and their two-year mission to preserve and rehabilitate the Little Building’s original structure for the modern day.

“We love working with Emerson, we’re a really great team, and it’s just nice to be recognized in the end,” Elkus Manfredi’s Vice President Ross Cameron said in an interview with The Beacon. “But the true success of the building is the enjoyment that the students get out of it, rather than the awards that we win.”

The Little Building sits beside several other Emerson structures on Elkus Manfredi’s portfolio, including the Cutler Majestic Theatre, the Paramount Center, 2 Boylston Place, and the Emerson Dining Center. The firm has also undertaken projects across Boston, namely New Balance Headquarters and the Auerbach Center, and Warrior Ice Arena at Boston Landing.

The firm began an initial maintenance investigation in 2010, when Emerson officials noticed structural issues with the building’s stone façade. The firm’s solution to the problem—a steel superstructure weakened by water damage—was to replicate the stone with ultra high performance concrete. They started the regulatory process in 2014, which took them until the end of 2015 to execute.

Construction began early in 2017, and the renovations were completed after a 28-month construction period in time to welcome the class of 2023 to the dormitory in the fall of 2019.

“We’ve always been historic preservationists,” said Peggy Ings, the college’s interim vice president for government and community relations. “And we’ve been very committed to our campus to revitalize, restore, repurpose buildings when we take them over.”

Having stood nearly 100 years before Elkus Manfredi arrived on the scene, lead architect Cameron and his team sought out laser scanning technology to perfectly replicate the building’s structure and fix inconsistencies within the original design.

“We did a lot of high resolution laser scanning, partnered with fabricators up in Canada so that we could really control all of the molds accurately to replace all of that material,” Cameron said. “But it was challenging, if you can imagine taking apart a building that’s a hundred years old at the time and meticulously putting it back together.”

In 1917, Clarence Blackall designed the Little Building, which originally offered mixed-use for retail, commercial, and office spaces. Named after John Mason Little, an influential Boston businessman at the time, it was referred to as “the most glamorous office building of the era of World War I” by local historian and preservationist Walter Muir Whitehill. It was constructed to hold 600 offices, 37 stores, one post office, a restaurant, and even underground subway passages that have since been blocked off.

Emerson acquired the building in March 1994 for an estimated $5 million and began interior renovations in January 1995. The building welcomed the first students in the Fall 1995 semester, offering 715 students dormitories on floors three through 12 and direct access to the first-floor dining center.

When the deterioration of the cast-stone façade became apparent and dangerous, Emerson considered demolishing the building, but instead turned to Elkus Manfredi to save the historic structure—an initiative that aligned with campus sustainability efforts.

“We did a little analysis and it showed that if the Boston Common was completely forested, it would take a forest that size 100 years to sequester the amount of carbon that we’ve saved,” Cameron said. “[By renovating it instead], Emerson has, for all intents and purposes, a brand new building without the same environmental impacts of building new from the ground up.”

Lightwells, multi-level common rooms, and the 13th floor were brand-new additions to the building’s original designs. Lightwells, Cameron explained, aided in increasing the bed count, but also solved structural problems. The building’s 1917 design did not account for lateral bracing to survive natural disasters, so the firm had to introduce cross-bracing that runs from the top of the building to the foundation.

“The lightwells were the path of least resistance,” he continued. “That led us to solving a structural problem, creating these much more healthy and wellness-oriented common rooms, double height spaces that bring communities together over multiple floors, and [adding] lots of daylight, all of the windows are operable, so everybody gets fresh air.”

Founded on the belief that historic preservation is key to honoring Boston’s rich history, the new Little Building reaffirms the college’s sustainability efforts.

“We are committed to the preservation of these buildings. We are committed to the area we’re located in,” Ings said. “We’re very fortunate to be as visible now and have the Common as a front yard. Having awards for doing what the college believes in is just extra special.”