Widely considered one of the most underutilized pieces of real estate in the South End, the former Alexandra Hotel, located at 1761 Washington Street, has been the subject of much speculation regarding its ultimate positioning in the market. The Church of Scientology, the current owner of the hotel, has officially taken a pass on developing the structure into offices, putting it up for grabs as to who will steward the redevelopment of the building to its rightful standard.
The building has an intriguing, if underutilized, history. It was originally constructed in 1875. Sitting at the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Washington Street, the building is five stories tall, boasts 22,819 square feet, and, at one time, offered 50 elegant guest rooms. These guests rooms along with several 2,000 square-foot flats were adorned with intricate architectural detail and high ceilings. The flats and rooms once served as luxury residences where the wealthy could enjoy rarified amenities, including one of the first elevators in the area. Its dilapidated facade now disguises much of its former prominence as a landmark property in the South End.
From 1875 until the late 1890’s, the hotel was the crown jewel of a fashionable residential area near Chester Square during a period when immigrant and working class boarding houses dominated most of the South End. However, the Hotel’s fortunes changed in 1901 with the construction of the Boston Elevated Railway, a project which obscured the building’s beautiful facade and made Washington street a dirty, noisy and markedly less desirable place to live. The hotel was subsequently converted to a cheap boarding house for many years until it was eventually abandoned in the mid 1960’s. After the rail line was finally removed in 1987, the hotel was struck by several suspicious fires, the last of which in 1993 destroyed much of the hotel’s interior and forced the upper levels to be boarded up. The removal of the rail line opened up new space for growth along the Washington Street corridor. The last 15 years have seen gentrification inch through the South End and towards the old hotel. Long years of disrepair have taken their toll and though some minor work has been done for the structural integrity of the hotel, barring an extensive restoration, it is highly unlikely the building could be used in the immediate future.
Herman Medeiros, a general contractor who has worked in the greater Boston area for twenty years, has a lot of experience with the aging hotel. “As a contractor I’ve actually bid three separate times to help develop the property, lost it each time. Apparently no one can raise enough money to develop it.” He also admitted it was not entirely the fault of the owners. “Red tape, that’s the problem, lotta red tape going on. The city wants to take it and do something with it, that’s what I’ve heard.”
Before being purchased for $4.5 million by the Church of Scientology in 2008 as a space for their Boston headquarters, the Hotel had stood vacant for 30+ years. The previous owner, developer Peter Bakis, had promised neighbors and the city that he would develop condos in the building. However, as deadlines passed without any sign of progress, the Menino administration eventually forced a sale with the help of a court-appointed receiver. In came the Scientologists.
The Church of Scientology, established by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard in the 1950s, has a vast and expanding real estate portfolio. The portfolio was recently valued at $1.5 billion according to Jeffrey Augustine, author of the blog The Scientology Money Project. Many hoped that the church would make good on their promise of restoring the unique structure. Nationally, the Church of Scientology has an impressive record for restoring aging buildings in cities like San Francisco, Nashville, and even London. Unfortunately, seven years later, the majority of the hotel remains vacant and boarded up, an eyesore at a prominent crossroads in the city. Today, only the street level space is occupied by a hair and beauty supply store. In the past year, the church has begun to consider offers from developers who wish to purchase the property, citing the prohibitively high costs of the restoration as well as conflicts with city development agencies in their decision to sell.
Local residents are understandably eager to see the late-gothic building renovated and redeveloped. The impressive size and prime location of the former hotel could mean that a large scale restoration of the building for commercial or residential purposes would have a ripple effect for the surrounding community, raising property values and bringing new business and investment to the adjacent blocks.
Lisa, a local who has lived in Boston her entire life, was not shy when sharing her opinions of what she’d like the hotel to become. We chatted with her on Washington Street recently: “I don’t want to see it developed into more condos or a Whole Foods or anything like that. Affordable housing is what this area needs. If the city buys it that’s what it should be.”
Kieran and Nat, two interns at a South End architecture firm, were quick to comment on the historic design of the building. “You can definitely tell it’s different from the other buildings around here” says Kieran, “It’s older and built in a different style.” “I heard the Scientologists own it” adds Nat, “I think it deserves to be in better hands ‘cause they haven’t done anything with it.”
Whatever the view of the local residents, the building evokes some strong feelings. The historic hotel has a long and tortured history of fires, poor maintenance, start and stop proposals, and city intervention. Sadly, it continues to languish in development purgatory. The location and square footage of the building allow for plenty of development potential, whether it be for condos, a boutique hotel or commercial usage. The hotel will be sold, that much is certain, but the church first wants to find a new space for their regional office, a search proving difficult given high prices and low inventory in the Boston market. While the initial investment to restore and renovate the building will feel prohibitive to almost all prospects, the payoff could be even higher for those willing to take the risk. The Washington Street corridor is an area on the rise with more investment and businesses moving in every year, and we hope to see the Alexandra hotel rise with it.