Fenway Studios was built in 1905 after a fire destroyed the Harcourt Studios on Irvington Street in Boston. The artists in that building lost their life’s work. This event galvanized business and civic leaders, including members of the Copley Society and the St. Botolph Club, to help rebuild space for Boston’s artist community as quickly as possible.
The new building was designed so that every one of the 46 studios would have north-facing windows, 12 feet high. The interior plan, with 14-foot high ceilings, was inspired by the 19th century ateliers in Paris, where many of the original artists had studied. The building, which is Arts & Crafts style with clinker brick exterior, is located at 30 Ipswich Street in Boston.
Fenway Studios is a National Historic Landmark building. It is the oldest purpose-built structure in the country constructed for and dedicated solely to artists’ space. The Studios are also the first in the country to pioneer a not-for-profit limited-equity form of ownership.
Today, artists who reside at Fenway Studios paint in a variety of styles from abstract expressionism to post-modern realism. Some continue in the Boston School tradition and teach new generations of artists, but many others work in other traditions and materials, both modern and classic.
The building is open to the public one weekend a year for the annual Open Studios.
During its early history, a number of prominent artists and teachers worked here. They include Edmund Tarbell, Joseph DeCamp, William Paxton, Philip Hale, Lilian Wescott Hale, George L. Noyes, Marion Boyd Allen, Lilla Cabot Perry, Mary Bradish Titcomb, William Kaula, Lee Lufkin Kaula, Lillian and Leslie Prince Thompson, Charles Hopkinson, and Marion L. Pooke. These are referred to as painters of the Boston School.
Artists working during the post-World War II era included Gardner Cox, who painted portraits of Harvard presidents, four Secretaries of State and several Supreme Court Justices. Artist Mary Reardon designed murals for the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, and sculptor Amelia Peabody and painter Polly Thayer kept studios in the building. Gyorgy Kepes, an internationally recognized artist, painted at Fenway Studios and founded the School of Advanced Visual Studies at MIT.
By 1974, shares of the building had long since passed on to the heirs of the original trust. The building was not being properly maintained and nearly $200,000 in back taxes were owed to the city. It was quietly put up for sale. At this time a group of artist-tenants formed an organization called “Artists for the Preservation of the Fenway Studios” and moved to purchase the building from the trust.
With the generous guidance and expertise of late Boston real-estate entrepreneur Bob Kuehn, the artists went to their landlord’s office on a Boston wharf and dropped an offer on the table, $175,000 in cash plus the assumption of the $200,000 in back taxes. Although the offer was quickly accepted, no bank in Boston would give the artists a mortgage. Interest on the back taxes continued to accumulate, and the city threatened to lock the front door. Kuehn and Edward Abrams, of Abrams Management Company, lent the artists money to keep the doors open.
In 1981, a bank was found in Washington that would put up money for a mortgage and allow physical improvements to the building to begin. A not-for-profit artists’ cooperative was founded with monthly payments based on studio size, and a limited- equity cooperative established to set guidelines for the re-sale value of each studio.
A New York developer made public, in 1998, his interest in building a 41-story skyscraper in front of the building over the Massachusetts turnpike extension that would block the north light of Fenway Studios. A group of Fenway Studios artists felt that if the building were registered as a national landmark building, it could be assured legal protection against such development. The Washington office of the National Park Service agreed unanimously to accept the building as a National Historic Landmark. The New York developer, incredulous that a handful of artists could defeat a project worth hundreds of millions of dollars, gave up the fight.
Later in that year, exuberance was replaced by alarm when serious structural problems were discovered in the façade of the building, requiring emergency repairs. The resulting rent increases created financial strain for a number of the artists, and the Board of Directors of the Fenway Studios realized that they must seek outside support and expertise. Friends of Fenway Studios was founded late in 1998 to help preserve and restore the landmark building.
As with any older building, the cost of upkeep is enormous. Nonetheless, in conjunction with the Friends of Fenway Studios, major efforts have been made to make major repairs to the building.
From 2000-2003, the Friends raised nearly $1 million through grants from independent foundation and government preservation agencies and invested in the renewal of Fenway Studios. The entire building was repointed, roof and lintels replaced, and the decaying brickwork on the east, south, and west walls was repaired. Most important was the restoration of the widely recognized Arts & Crafts façade on Ipswich Street, with its distinctive parapets.
The important preservation work by Friends of Fenway Studios continues. A major undertaking is underway to complete the restoration of the Fenway Studios façade by replacing the critical north-facing windows with 12 over 6-paned windows. These will replicate the original windows installed in 1905.
The contributions of art lovers and others who appreciate the important role Fenway Studios has played, and continues to play, in the cultural life of Boston, are vital to the continued support of this landmark. For more information on the efforts of the Friends, see their website.