Agiant spiderweb of pine trusses form one of the most remarkable ceilings in New Eng- land. Suggesting the rafters of a medi- eval barn, or perhaps a Paul Bunyan– size cat’s cradle, the “roof” above the library at the International School of Boston (ISB) is an architectural marvel. For 165 years, no one saw the intriguing structural underpinning, which was only revealed by a recent restoration.
ISB, a bilingual (French and English) school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, educates 600 students and serves the Francophone community of Greater Boston. The pre-K-through-12th-grade academy
initially rented the massive granite four-story building that had variously been an almshouse, orphanage, and parochial school. Then a
decade or so ago, the institution bought the property. Desperately in
need of more space, the school hired Maryann Thompson Architects of
Watertown, Massachusetts, to undertake a study of the physical plant.
“We did a master plan to try to figure out how to
fit everything in,” says principal Maryann Thompson.
The firm was subsequently hired to do a small project,
such as a faculty lounge or the lobby, every summer.
The most significant of these, and where the concealed
roof trusses were discovered, is the library, which occu-
pies the space beneath the dome that unifies the great
building’s three wings. It is, says Thompson, “sym-
bolically and iconographically the heart of the school.”
And what a distinguished piece of architecture the
school chose as its home. Built in 1851, it was the latest in a long line of
Cambridge workhouses that sheltered the aged and the infirm, the poor
and the mentally ill. This particular iteration, however, was based on
the philosophy of the Rev. Louis Dwight, a noted prison reformer. The
new library is on the top floor of the main tower, from which extended
men’s and women’s blocks (the women’s wing was smaller, hence the
truncated T-plan). An 1878 newspaper report says the poorhouse had 14
acres under cultivation; the main industry was the making of offal carts.
The impressive masonry building is an example of Boston’s “
Granite School” of architecture, a burst of unparalleled civic construction
that employed stone from regional quarries and includes projects such
as Boston’s Quincy Market, Custom House, and Old City Hall. The last
was by the designer of the Cambridge almshouse, Gridley J.F. Bryant.
An incredibly prolific architect, Bryant was responsible for courthouses,
hospitals, churches, colleges, and jails throughout New England. Simultaneous with the Cambridge poorhouse, Bryant designed Boston’s Suffolk County Jail, which has been restored as the Liberty Hotel.
Bryant employed elaborate, if hidden, trusses in erecting a promi-
beneath the truss system,
the library is transformed into
a multifaceted space (above).
A wrapper of birch has
bookshelves, desks, and
study spaces running along
the sinuous perimeter. The
solid demeanor of the granite
exterior (left) has hardly
changed since 1851.