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Two Architects, One Seamless Building

The “High Service Pumping Station,” now housing the Metropolitan Waterworks Museum, was designed by architect Arthur H. Vinal in 1886-1887 and seamlessly expanded by Edmund M. Wheelwright, in 1897-1898. The building was constructed at the height of what is sometimes referred to as Boston’s “Golden Age,” a period of great prosperity that lasted from the Civil War through World War I.

Both Vinal and Wheelwright served as Boston’s official City Architect. Vinal designed the High Service Pumping Station while he was the City Architect, and the building is considered to be the high point of his career, which also produced many residential buildings in Back Bay.  Wheelwright’s addition to the Pumping Station is a distinguished design although it is less well-known than Vinal’s original building. Wheelwright’s other works include the elegant Horticultural Hall across from Boston’s Symphony Hall, the whimsical Harvard Lampoon Building, and the monumental Longfellow Bridge that is best known to Bostonians as the “Salt-and-Pepper Shaker” bridge because of the shape of its central towers.

An Industrial Building All Dressed Up

Although the exterior of the building does not immediately appear to serve an industrial function, it is organized into three separate functional elements. When looking at the building from left to right, the coal store’s slightly angled lower walls and the gabled end of its roof suggest the coal that was once piled inside. Years ago, a coal conveyor belt was suspended from its roof ridge, leading from a railroad siding at the rear of the building. The 140-foot smokestack connects the coal store to the boiler house. The machine room, partly masked by the tower and entrance archway, houses the steam engines and is located on the right side.

Richardsonian Romanesque

The Museum building is a remarkable example of the Richardsonian Romanesque style. The term “Romanesque” does not refer to the style of ancient Rome but to the round-arched style of the churches and complex monasteries of the early middle ages, prior to the rise of the pointed-arch Gothic style of architecture in the 13th century. The Richardsonian Romanesque style was a rugged revival of the Romanesque style developed by America’s most influential architect up to that time.

Henry Hobson Richardson had lived nearby in Brookline and died while the High Service Pumping Station was under construction.  While Richardson’s most famous building is Trinity Church in Boston’s Copley Square, he also designed a series of small town and academic libraries, a building type that was unique to New England at the time. The museum building draws upon Richardson’s functional manner of organizing his libraries.

Richardson’s stylistic language is reflected in the museum’s arched entrance and in the clustered groups of windows spanned by sets of lesser round arches. The building is made of his most characteristic materials: warm toned, rock-faced Milford granite and the more easily carved ruddy-brown East Longmeadow sandstone trim.

Throughout the building, Vinal and Wheelwright drew closely on Richardson’s examples. Only Vinal’s tower perhaps misses the mark somewhat. It is less in the disciplined manner of Richardson and is reflective of the picturesque “Richardsonesque” architecture that flourished across the country for many years after it had died out in Boston.

Wheelwright’s seamlessly blended, high-gabled addition is at the right hand side of the building. While closely following Richardson, it is influenced by other Richardson examples. The major exterior arches above the great window arrays on each façade are almost flat and nearly hidden within the massive lintels spanning those huge openings. They are as understated as Vinal’s tower may be overstated. Wheelwright used contrasting stone colors, as Richardson did at times, to add crisply executed, mosaic-like accents..

Inside the Cathedral of Steam Technology

A complex spider web of Carnegie wrought-iron truss work fills the interior of Vinal’s original space. Designed by the city’s chief engineer, the space embraces iron technology in a way that Richardson never could do. Above the ironwork is a more Richardsonian ceiling of diagonally patterned, mahogany-colored southern yellow pine bead board. It is hard not to compare the space to the nave and transept of a church. The nave’s flat ceiling and its more complex arching trusses accentuate the higher, more delicately supported transept.

In Wheelwright’s addition, the soaring space housing the tall Allis engine is lit from three sides by high windows. The elapsed decade between the building’s two sections resulted in Wheelwright’s ceiling structure being made of steel rather than wrought iron. The location of Wheelwright’s stone roofed, internally domed screen room, where water first entered the building, had already been determined by Vinal. At the west end of the building, Wheelwright added a wall thick enough to incorporate a vaulted staircase and balconies overlooking the great engine.

The High Service Pumping Station is now the museum, along with four residential units that are located in the former coal store and boiler room, including the tower. Inside one end of the museum’s “Great Engines Hall” is a two-story, glass-walled, interior “addition” designed by the well-known architect Graham Gund. This space contains offices and a Community Room/Gallery for exhibits.


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