Back to blog



How many of us think of the Chestnut Hill Reservoir as infrastructure? You know, the stuff that keeps the world working–like roads, bridges and tunnels, power and sewer systems, and the pipes that deliver water to the tap. Have you noticed the beautifully designed bridges on the Merritt Parkway? Have you wondered why the generation before us gave each bridge a different theme or chose to house the water pumps at Chestnut Hill in two prominent works of architecture alongside the reservoir in a picturesque park like composition? They chose to fuse necessary infrastructure with notable architecture.


In the early development of Boston, the need for clean water was solved by continually moving west. Sources of clean water were found that could be fed or pumped into the city until we reached the Quabbin Reservoir in central Massachusetts that still services us today. Population growth in the 1850s initiated the planning that lead to the Chestnut Hill Reservoir construction starting in 1866. According to an article by Allston-Brighton historian, Dr. William P. Marchione, the population growth continued in the next decades.

“In the 1870 to 1900 period, Boston’s population more than doubled, rising from 250,000 to 560,000 (some of the increase occasioned by the annexation of surrounding cities and towns). The city’s water supply system thus required further expansion. A number of stopgap measures were resorted to in the 1870s to increase the supply, including the construction of six small reservoirs on the Sudbury River and its tributaries, which provided another 13 million gallons for the city. In addition, with the annexation of the City of Charlestown in 1874, Boston acquired the water rights to Mystic Lake, which added 7 million more gallons to its overall water supply.”

-The Allston-Brighton Tab or Boston Tab newspaper articles, July 1998 to late 2001

Completed in 1870, the Chestnut Hill Reservoir was a masterpiece of urban planning, integrating engineering, architecture and landscape so pleasantly conceived that it became a popular place to spend a Sunday afternoon then, and remains so even today, more than 100 years later. The High Service Building was designed by Arthur Vinal, the Boston City Architect at the time, in the Richardson Romanesque style of Trinity Church and was completed in 1888. The Beaux Arts style Low-Service Station, clad in Indiana limestone, was designed by Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge, the architects of Boston’s South Station, and completed in 1901. A carriage house between the two pump stations rounded out the complex. The landscape was designed by the Olmstead Brothers.

Aerial view of the reservoir with the High Service Station on the right, the white Low Service Station in the middle and the Watermark on the left.

The Richardsonian High Service Building contains the E.D. Leavitt steam pumping engine that has been said to have run continuously from its start up until it was decommissioned in 1970s. The Leavitt Engine was designated a National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark in 1973 and is so impressive that a replica stands in the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. Abandoned and unused, the buildings languished and deteriorated while various state agencies debated their fate. In 1997, The Boston Globe ran an article with the headline: “Famed waterworks crumbles as a patchwork of agencies mumbles about someone else’s responsibility.” However, there were interested parties and a local group known as Friends of the Waterworks that advocated for the buildings’ preservation. The buildings were eventually declared surplus, and the state put out an RFP to developers seeking proposals for the site. Diamond/Sinacori was designated the developer and had the backing of the Brighton neighborhood. Their proposal was to convert the existing buildings into condominiums, to include a “Waterworks” museum on the ground level of the High Service Station showcasing the famous pumps and telling the story of the metropolitan water system, and to construct a new residential building on the vacant part of the site.

The Leavitt Steam Engine, courtesy of the Metropolitan Waterworks Museum. For a video, click here.


After their designation, Diamond/Sinacori would bring E. A. Fish Associates on board as a co-developer. Ed Fish’s daughter, Karen Fish Will of Peabody Properties, joined the team in a co-marketing role with Diamond/Sinacori. Graham Gund, well know for the adaptive reuse of Church Court in Boston and the Old Middlesex Courthouse Complex in Cambridge, was selected to adapt the three historic buildings into condominiums along with the museum, and DiMella Shaffer was tapped to design the new building.


While the buildings were distinguished works of architecture, they were purpose-built for industrial equipment, and their conversion to housing was complicated by large interior spaces with small windows and floor plans that did not effectively work for residential occupancy. Their listing on the National Register of Historic Places also limited the changes that could be made to the exteriors. The solution to this dilemma lay in Gund Partnership’s skill in converting the buildings and in the construction a new high quality building that the state agencies determined should not be a derivative of the existing historic buildings. This new building is designed for housing and contains a large number of units that could help subsidize the adaptive reuse of the historic buildings. At the same time, the character of the historic buildings and the site on the Reservoir would add significant value to the new housing.

Site Plan with the Watermark on the right.

The site of the Watermark building in the pipe yard portion of the historic Boston Waterworks presented us with a unique and challenging design opportunity. Immediately south of the our building stands the Beaux-Arts style Low Service Station, built of white marble and Indiana limestone and at the far end of Waterworks Park one finds the Romanesque Revival brick and brownstone High Service Station.  As the only new construction in the redevelopment of the park, the 81-unit Watermark building required a design crafted to both respect and reflect the architectural heritage of the site. In response to the client’s desire for a modern and unique design, DiMella Shaffer embarked upon a lengthy design process, examining in great detail the issues of scale, façade, and material.

There are two fundamental ways to make a building: one is planar and the other volumetric. The planar building is like a house cards. As you lay the cards against each other to form the walls, the edges of the cards are exposed and expressed, like a clapboard house that has corner boards. The volumetric building is a like a Monopoly house made of cheese, it is cheese on all surfaces and if you cut into it, you see cheese on the inside too. A shingle style house with woven corners is an example of a volumetric building. Many historical styles appear as volumetric buildings because the construction techniques led to having thick walls with punched windows. Both the High and Low Service Stations are volumetric, both seemingly carved out of stone with deep set windows. Volumetric buildings convey quality through their substantial construction and most lay people would characterize them as more expensive. Thus it was important that the new building convey an equivalent feeling, to hold its own in the ensemble. Watermark expresses its volume in several ways, including the bulging façade, the materials that turn the corner and express their thickness, and the window jambs that step back to reveal the depth of the wall. If you go around back and look into the courtyard void, the material changes color, like the inside of a grapefruit having a different color and texture than its skin. Laid on the surface is a carefully scaled façade treatment that organizes the building’s exterior into a two-story rhythmic sequence of regular bays, allowing the typical residential window treatment to reflect, with more modest floor-to-floor heights, the larger institutional scale of the Watermark’s neighbors. Like its historic neighbors, the Watermark is given a volumetric roof shape so when viewed from a distance it makes a composition at the skyline bookending the Low Service Station. This bookending aspect of the composition is reinforced in the color choice for the brick and cast stone banding that relates to the colorful High Service Station rather than the stark white of the classical Low Service Station. In plan, one wing of the building forms a backdrop for the playing fields while the other curves gracefully away, yielding to the visual prominence of the historic buildings instead. The gentle cure also serves to maximize the number of units with views across the reservoir. The cornice is clean, simple and contemporary, matching the height of its immediate Beaux-Arts neighbor.

Though frankly modernist, the Watermark building succeeds in blending harmoniously with its neighbors by way of its volumetric expression, the scale of the exterior wall, and its coloring. It feels substantial and reflects the historic elements of its neighbors in a manner appropriate for our time and building methods. It makes a cohesive set–three buildings in the greensward of the landscape, each dressed appropriately and representing the era in which it was constructed, reminding us about the continuum of our building traditions.

As we hear about the contemplated cuts to the new Green Line extension, we find here an example of infrastructure done right the first time. Boston benefits from many examples of high quality infrastructure and public realm projects completed a century ago that are either still in use or robust enough to be repurposed into a new life. Robert Campbell, architectural critic for The Boston Globe, raised the following relevant questions when the Waterworks project opened in 2008.

“Why was the architecture so lavish? Should we worry, perhaps, that corruption was at work? Did officials receive kickbacks in return for spending too much public money on the buildings and their builders? This was, after all, the age of notorious political bosses in American cities, including Boston.

Maybe that happened, maybe not. When you look at the result, it’s hard to feel puritanical about the process. Sometimes it’s better to spend too much than to spend, as we usually do today, far too little.”