Renovations give old Little Building exterior new life

The Little Building facade has been stripped and will be replicated in the reconstruction. Photo: Hardik Pahwa

The college commissioned highly detailed, three-dimensional scans of Little Building as part of a measure to fully restore the building’s original exterior and commemorate a lively past.

The college hired Canadian company Béton Préfabriqué du Lac Inc to scan the building.

Each scan analyzes the curves of the exterior, feeds information to a computer, then produces replications in a stronger, lighter concrete. The fresh pieces of the exterior—also known as the facade—are then arranged in their original place on the building’s exterior to replicate its initial appearance and size.

The college began preparation for reconstruction in 2012, when structural engineering company McNamara Salvia investigated and identified hazardous conditions requiring stabilization.

Parts of the 101-year-old building would hail onto the sidewalk. The falling debris prompted the installation of a protective scaffolding and a decision to begin the $140 million repair in May 2017, Michael Faia, director of construction management, said.

Scanning the facade affirms dedication towards maintaining Little Building’s integrity, Margaret Ings, vice president for government and community relations, said.

Neither administrators nor contractors specified how much of the project’s budget went to restoring the original exterior.

“Every square inch of [Little Building] was laser-scanned,” Arthur Mombourquette, senior associate vice president for real estate, said. “The scans were built into a computer for the goal of faithful replication of the building in electronic form.”

Béton’s process includes scanning over 2,000 individual elements from a rubber model after completing the scans. Then, the company sculpts models from ultra-high density concrete.

“[The Little Building renovation project] is one of the reasons I came here in the first place. I was so enthralled by a really honest, historic, renovation of that scale,” Mombourquette, who came to Emerson in December 2015, said.

While students resided in the building, exterior materials and steel frames were noticeably aging, which led to the deterioration of the facade in various locations. Water seeped behind the steel, rusted it, and pushed surrounding cast stone out.

“The stone was cracking,” Faia said. “That’s why we would check it twice a year and had overhead protection. There was never any chance for catastrophic failure.”

Little Building’s Historical Significance

Little Building emerged as the college’s primary residence hall in 1994, as the college started to move from the Back Bay neighborhood to the Theater District.

After its grand opening in 1917, Little Building earned features in several prominent architectural magazines, such as the American Architect and Building News. The building was celebrated for its exterior as a prime example of a modern Gothic style skyscraper. It held over 600 offices and 30 shops, earning its nickname, “City Under One Roof.”

The building even had its own newspaper called Little Building News. It covered news from the outside world and discussed interactions between staff, including tea gatherings and speed-typing contests.

“I didn’t appreciate how much history was in the building when I was living there,” sophomore Thomas Flynn said. “It was like a unifying place. It almost doesn’t feel like Emerson without it.”

When shown a rendering of Little Building’s finished renovation, Flynn’s mouth dropped.

“It’s definitely not little,” he said. “It looked grand.”

Plans for the building include new common rooms and a thirteenth floor hidden behind the original 14’4” wall along the top of the building, according to an Institutional Master Plan Amendment submitted to the Boston Redevelopment Authority in 2015.

The replicated facade will serve as the finishing touch. The college plans to complete work on Little Building by August 2019.

“Bringing a building like this back … it would be a revitalization of the corner. It would certainly be a dramatic and transformative corner for the city,” Ings said.

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