The following is an excerpt from our Fall 2016 South End Stakeholders' Report, a report on the state of the South End real estate market and a glimpse into life in our neighborhood. You can download the full report here.
Looming over an otherwise modernized stretch of Washington Street, in between Northampton Street and Massachusetts Avenue, is the neglected shell of the once-grand Hotel Alexandra. An abandoned husk bearing the scars of fire, foreclosure, and less-than-kind landlords, the five-story building still clings to traces of its former glory.
It may be hard to believe, but the Hotel Alexandra featured unheard-of luxuries at the time it was built, including a primitive elevator powered by a giant piston connected to the city’s water main. Built in 1876 and designed in the High Victorian Gothic mode at the peak of the style’s popularity, it was an early Boston example of an apartment-hotel and home to long-term, rather than short-term, renters. Its vibrant red and buff-colored exterior is typical for the style, which was inspired in part by the Gothic architecture of Venice. Only a handful of substantial examples of this design remain in the Boston area, including the Charlestown Five Cents Savings Bank building at Thompson Square, and Harvard University’s Memorial Hall in Cambridge.
The Hotel Alexandra parcel was purchased by Caleb Clark Walworth, a member of 19th-century Boston’s new class of businessmen. He came from a background of great wealth generated from family-owned industries that produced the first steam heating system in the world. Walworth embarked upon a second career as a real estate developer after the Civil War. It was reported that his family actually lived in some of the apartments in the Hotel Alexandra.
In the following decades, ownership of the building exchanged hands several times. By the 1970s the doors and windows were boarded up. As part of the South End Landmark District, which requires that its colorful sandstone facade and cast-iron details be preserved, the Hotel Alexandra would be a monumental and expensive renovation for any developer. When the Church of Scientology purchased the building with the intent to transform it into its new headquarters in 2008, the neighborhood cheered. However, a combination of the great recession and the church’s lack of funds put the renovation of the once proud Hotel Alexandra on hold.