Shepley Bulfinch: The Walking Tour

One of Boston’s most celebrated architects is Henry Hobson Richardson. He rose to architectural stardom with a building that graces Copley Square–Trinity Church. Richardson launched his firm in 1874 after winning the commission to build Trinity Church. It was completed in 1877 and the firm that was started by Richardson continues to this day, 150 years later as Shepley Bulfinch.

Adventure Lab App ScreenshotSome of Boston’s most iconic buildings were designed by Shepley Bulfinch over the past 150 years. Boston is lucky to have these places grace our city streets. This tour highlights a few places from Downtown to Copley Square and beyond. You can go on your own scavenger hunt by downloading an app created by the fine folks at Geocaching. It is called Adventure Lab and can be downloaded at this link. When in the app, look for a tour titled–Shepley Bulfinch: A Legacy of Innovation.

Below we share the history and context of some of Boston’s most beautiful buildings. The route follows our own walking tour that highlights the shifting architectural landscape of Boston tracing the evolving work of Shepley Bulfinch. Before we lace up our walking shoes, we have a useful tool to share–Atlascope. This mapping tool allows you to see past and present Boston with the swipe of a finger. It was also a recipient of a Preservation Award. 

The Flour and Grain Exchange

Start the tour at the Local Landmark and beautifully detailed Grain Exchange. It was built in 1892 for the Boston Chamber of Commerce for $400,000. The site was donated in 1889 by the Central Wharf and Wet Dock Corporation and Henry M. Whitney, a member of the Chamber and the founder of Boston’s electrified local transit system. The site was donated with the condition that a suitable building be erected on it, one which would fulfill the purpose of providing suitable room for commercial exchange in the city. The building committee picked none other than Shepley, Rutan, and Coolidge with the dream team builders, the Norcross Brothers.

A note on the Norcross Brothers:

The Norcross Brothers were one of the first firms to become General Contractors. They built more than 50% of Richardson’s buildings and were known for their craftsmanship and for supplying their own building materials from firm-owned granite, slate, and marble quarries, and kilns, mills, and ironworks.  

Today, the Flour and Grain Exchange is home to Alliance Corporate Member, Related Beal. 

Read the Study Report

Insurance Exchange Building

You don’t have to walk far to find the next building on the tour as it is next door on the corner of Milk and Broad Streets.
This was home to 21 smaller brick buildings that were once a common sight in Downtown Boston after the Great Fire of 1872. By the 1920s, the economy is booming, especially Boston’s insurance industry. The entire block of brick buildings was demolished to make way for the 1924 Insurance Exchange Building. 

The 1920s were a period of growth for Boston, especially for insurance. Big names like John Hancock were moving away from Downtown towards the newly available Stuart Street area. Other companies pooled together and occupied the top floors of the Insurance Exchange Building. The idea being that if many similar companies were clustered in close proximity, ideas would spread and business would improve. The building itself is an example flattened Classical Revival style. It has all the markings of a classical revival building, but restained for New England sensibilities. The building is not a protected Landmark.

Read the Survey

Samuel Appleton Building

Continue a wee block farther down Milk Street to our next stop–the Samuel Appleton Building.

Like the Grain Exchange, the Samuel Appleton Building curves along the street, hugging the curb. It was built in 1926 and was known as the Employer’s Liability Assurance Building. This is what would become known as Workmen’s Compensation. The company resided here until 1973! Like Shepley Bulfinch, it is still around today with the name One Beacon. 

A notable feature of the building was a hospital on the third floor. Admitted patients would enter the building via a series of ramps in the Milk Street vestibule. The building, like many Shepley Bulfinch buildings, has been adaptively reused. It is not a projected Local Landmark.

Read the Study Report

A worthy detour is Batterymarch Street. The street is so named as it once led to a battery, or fortifications along the coast. This was Fort Hill. The neighborhood and hill itself were leveled and tossed into the ocean to help create what is today Atlantic Ave. The Batterymarch building is one of Boston’s few art deco structures.

Ames Building

Ames Building

For our next stop, make your way to Washington and State Streets where you will find the resplendent Ames Building.

When completed in 1891, the Ames building was the tallest building in Boston, a record it held until 1915 when the Customs House Tower was completed. It remains the second-tallest masonry building in the United States. It made quite the statement in Boston’s skyline and people lined up to visit the top floor for an unsurpassed view. 

The Ames is named for Frederick Ames. The Ames family commissioned Richardson himself for no fewer than 12 buildings. The relationship continued after Richardson’s death with at least 34 commissions issued to Shepley, Rutan, and Coolidge. The family relationship to the firm was so strong that Shepley, Rutan, and Coolidge moved into Ames, where they would stay for nearly 100 years! The building was built by none other than the Norcross Brothers.

The Ames is a Local Landmark, thanks in part to the advocacy efforts of the Alliance. It also won a preservation award in 2010. The Alliance also worked with Suffolk University when they converted the building into a dorm in 2020.

Read the Study Report


Boston Safe Deposit and Trust Company

Walk down Washington Street to Franklin Street for the next stop, the marble-clad Boston Safe Deposit and Trust Company. It too was built by the Norcross Brothers using white marble from their quarries in Dorset, VT. It was completed in 1908 and during the 1950s and 60s, this is where business leaders met to form Boston’s “urban renewal” efforts. The building is not a protected Landmark. 

Before the tour continues, we’ll take a detour to see a well-preserved residential street from the 1840s. Follow Arch-Chauncy-Oxford Place for a hidden gem.

This small street is a great example of residential architecture in downtown Boston before the Great Fire of 1872. It is also the likely origin street for Boston’s Chinatown. 

Read more from the Survey

We also suggest a deep dive into the Chinatown Atlas.

Hayden Building

Hayden BuildingTurn right on Beach Street and walk towards Washington Street. The Hayden building will slowly reveal itself on the corner of Washington Street.

There were at least four commercial buildings designed by H.H. Richardson in Downtown Boston. Today, only one remains–the Hayden Building. This five-story building completed in 1875 punches far beyond its diminutive size. It was built by the Norcross Brothers for an in-law of H.H. Richardson. The building becomes immensely significant as an early prototype for the modern sky-scraper. 

A decade later H.H. Richardson designed the Marshal Field Wholesale Store in Chicago. The study for that building was the Hayden Building. The Marshal Field Wholesale Store would inspire a generation of Chicago architects including Louis Sulivan and Daniel Barnham. It is credited with influencing the Chicago School of Architecture. As a Bostonian, you gotta love that! 

Historic Boston, Inc., with advocacy help from the Alliance, purchased the Hayden building in 1993 and restored it. It is a protected Local Landmark! 

Read the Study Report

Trinity Church

Continue down Washington Street and take a right on Stuart Street. Check out the Salada Tea Doors before you turn right on Clarendon Street.

Trinity Church is frequently listed as the Most Beautiful Building in Boston. The history and lore that surrounds it are far too robust to share here. We have Phillips Brooks, the Rector of Trinity Church to thank for willing this building into existence. (Some side trivia: He is also the author of “O Little Town of Bethlehem”). The parish was located near Downtown Crossing. As downtown became more business-centered, Brooks set his eyes on the newly built land in the Back Bay. It was becoming a fashionable residential neighborhood, great for the congregation and the weekly collection basket. The building rests on 4,000 wooden pilings that anchor it to Copley Square. 

Trinity Church is the sort of building that feels like it has always been there. But it has been altered and added to several times. The first time was in 1897 when Shepley, Rutan, and Coolidge used Richardson’s sketches to add the West Porch. The entry to the Church has also been altered. The original facade featured carvings of twisting vines. Today, it is adorned with scenes and figures from the Old and New Testaments. One figure along the St. James Street side is not a Saint, but Philips Brooks carved in stone. 

Read the Study Report

Boston Public Library

Just across the way from Trinity Church is the Boston Public Library. While it was not designed by Shepley Bulfinch, it was designed by Charles Follen McKim of McKim, Mead, and White. Both McKim and Stanford White started their architecture career working with H.H. Richardson. So while Richardson did not design the library, his influence is visible. The Library is the perfect companion to Trinity Church across the street.

Read more about the Library

Thanks for reading to the end of this tour! 

If you enjoyed this tour and learning more about Boston’s architecture, please consider a donation to the Boston Preservation Alliance. We are fully funded by donations and memberships.

 Join today

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7 Buildings Living Their Best Second Lives

From old fire departments to post offices that succumbed to the demise of snail mail, buildings across the country have fallen prey to shifting markets and the rise of technology.

Paramount Theatre and the Boston Opera House Honored for Their Remarkable Makeovers

Last week, the National Trust for Historic Preservation

Thank you to all our corporate members, including: