January 31, 2024 A spotlight on Henry Moss
This month HBI’s Erika Tauer kicks off a series of stories that turn the spotlight onto the talented people who make up Historic Boston’s organization.
HBI board member Henry Moss has headed Bruner/Cott Architect’s Historic Preservation team since 1986 and practiced architecture in London for 16 years before arriving in Boston. At Bruner/Cott, he led groundbreaking designs for rehabilitation projects like MASS MoCA in North Adams, the Watertown Arsenal, and the Hemingway Estate outside Havana, Cuba. Henry is the founder of the New England chapter of DOCOMOMO, an organization dedicated to documenting and conserving buildings and neighborhoods of the Modern Movement. In 2015, Henry was awarded the Codman Award for Lifetime Achievement in Preservation from the Boston Preservation Alliance.
ET: So, what took you to London, Henry? Is that where your interest in architecture first took root?
HM: I was doing architectural research in London, and was offered a teaching position. Nothing in my architectural education suggested I would ever work with an existing building of any type, but as I began to teach, my interest in historic structures really increased, and then I began to work for a firm that specialized in preservation. Half of my design work was new buildings, and half of it was restoration-related work. I became the appointed Architect to the Fabric of St Martin-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square, and that led to work with other churches around Britain, some of them going back to 1100. Then, most of the other work we were involved in was what the British referred to as social housing– and the British have a very highly developed version of the CDC housing association’s– and in a number of instances, that involved creating new housing where there were either existing Victorian structures or even 18th century Georgian buildings. So, that’s the background which was a real departure from my education that had to do with really Brutalist architecture, in which I now specialize in terms of restoration!
ET: And where did you go to school?
HM: I went to Harvard as an undergraduate and then the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Between undergraduate and graduate school, my wife and I taught in a non-graded high school near Washington D.C. At that point, I was 23 or so, and I looked around Washington, and I couldn’t explain why anything was the way it was; why there was a section of the city that was poor and Black and another section right by it, which was the Washington Mall. So, I went to architecture school so I might be able to understand why the world around me was shaped the way it is. Urban renewal and fires in what were then called ghettos, were big issues in those days. We talk about resilience and architecture today, but the last thing we were thinking about then was sea level rise. Organizations like Historic Boston were thinking of revitalizing cities because anybody with an income had moved away from cities unless they were very rich and lived near Central Park.
ET: You’ve been on HBI’s Board since 1998. Was it the urgency for climate resilience that brought you to HBI? Wanting to incorporate that into more preservation approaches?
HM: No, as I had just come back to Boston and began working with Bruner/Cott, I was working on a 1960s building at MIT, and I wanted to use my interest and background with historic buildings. When the Jesuits destroyed the interior of the Immaculate Conception Church in the South End in 1993, Bruner/Cott was brought in by Historic Boston to help the City of Boston and the Boston Landmarks Commission assess the damage. Bruner/Cott and I went to hearings that had to do with the church, and that introduced me to Historic Boston and to the Landmarks Commission in an interesting way.
The economic downturn in 1988 was so severe in Massachusetts that it stopped construction projects. Our firm at Bruner/Cott went from sixty people to eight people in three months, and all the Senior Associates were let go, myself among them. At that point, I came to work as the architect for Historic Boston and continued in that role for about five years, and that was the first and last time that HBI had an architect on their staff.
ET: Wow, I didn’t realize HBI had an architect on staff at one point.
HM: It made a difference for a number of instances because, for one thing, we were doing projects like the Spooner-Lambert House and the Boston Light Project, which had five buildings on the island out in the harbor. We created the Steeples Project, and I was able then to assist historic churches with the prioritization of repairs and capital improvements. It was an innovative and productive program.
ET: And are you still working with Bruner/Cott?
HM: Yes, and many of our projects really came from deindustrialization. Simeon Bruner and Lee Cott, both of whom are now retired, had a lot of foresight and intelligence when it came to repurposing large, abandoned mill buildings. They pioneered that nationally, and to a certain extent, internationally. They purchased and organized financing, and brought back to life a number of buildings like the Chickering Piano Factory on Tremont Street. In five states they transformed seven mill complexes into 1500 apartment units.
But for all that innovation, Bruner and Cott were sanctioned by the American Institute of Architects for being both architect and owner-developer. At that time, the profession of architecture wanted to hold itself distinct from any commercial activity related to development. It was a sort of Victorian idea about what professions were. You could be a lawyer. You could be a priest. You could be an architect. But you can’t be an architect and developer. Legally, those constraints were abolished.
So, large deindustrialization projects also gave me the chance to work beyond the scale of projects that I was doing in London– in places like the Watertown Arsenal, the Waltham Watch Factory, the Fenway Sears Building, and Mass MoCA– where you’re dealing with large pieces of their cities. It’s architecture and urban design and historic preservation– all of that together.
ET: I took a quick look at Watertown Arsenal and the complete turnaround of that space is incredible. It looks like a wonderful section of that city now.
HM: When it was a proper arsenal, it was closed off to everybody in the city unless they worked there, and I remember talking to a woman who, when she was a little girl, had to walk all the way around the vast site to get to her school bus. The Arsenal had nuclear reactors and hazardous materials problems that needed to be addressed in its re-use, and one of the things that was interesting to me, is that the City of Watertown, decided to only clean up portions of the site to a level that would allow for offices and commercial work. They did not want housing because they didn’t want to attract people from the “Inner City” to Watertown. It was an interesting kind of redlining using mercury, cadmium, and other things in the soil as a way to keep others out.
ET: Do you have any particular goals in mind for the City of Boston and preservation projects that you think the city should be prioritizing?
HM: This coming week, there will be a hearing at the Landmarks Commission for the landmarking of Boston City Hall and, I hope, Paul Rudolph’s Blue Cross/Blue Shield building. The Boston Society of Architects, where I was the Chair of the Historic Resources Committee for twenty-five years, initiated interest in modern buildings as historic structures and was one of the founders of DOCOMOMO_New England. That led to a lot of slowly evolving but interesting things like revisiting the survey documents for modern buildings because anything that even hinted at modernism was never given any value. We altered that.
ET: Have you served on other nonprofits?
HM: Yes, at Historic New England I’ve been on their Advisory Council for twenty-five years, working with Ben Haavik on the Preservation Projects Committee and giving them advice about what to do with individual buildings and landscapes.
I’ve also met new younger people there and have helped point them to preservation advocacy. Some of them through the work I was doing on the Rudolph complex, Lindemann-Hurley — Carissa Moore for example — and I recruited her into the DOCOMOMO_New England Board. What I’ve really liked post-Covid, is getting that organization not to be based just on people able to get into the middle of Boston for meetings. So now we have members of that board from Rhode Island, Vermont, Western Massachusetts, and so forth, and it’s much more significant than it had been. It took years and Covid for that to unfold due to the new comfort with hybrid meetings.
ET: Do you have a favorite HBI project?
HM: In some ways, I think the Steeples project [1993-2007] was outstanding because it activated and energized so many local groups within Boston. It helped individual churches to be seen through their architecture and do what they were having a lot of difficulty doing from within their own building committees — they would never even know where their plan drawings were — practically always in the boiler room. That was a great project.
The Spooner Lambert House  was fascinating to me because our restoration project introduced me to the complicated recent history of Roxbury. [Former HBI Executive Director] Stanley Smith had done a lot of innovative work on a number of buildings there, but what many people don’t realize as they go through Roxbury today, is that over an argument having to do with stoppage of tax increases, property owners paid firemen in the 1970s to set fire to vacant buildings. It was so significant that there were nights when people who lived in the area camped out around Eliot Church to protect it from being burned. Again, a history that people don’t really know about.
The Boston Light project was fascinating because HBI worked to get Senator Kennedy to introduce a bill that required the Coast Guard to continue to “man” that light station while all others were being mechanized. It allowed us to undertake conservation work on five buildings there. It was fascinating. You’re going to work today, and you have to take a Coast Guard Icebreaker to get out there. And then there was this incredible “no-name storm” that brought huge boulders across the island and smashed up a lot of the work we’d done and had to redo. The roofing company that we used out there, all their scaffolding was washed away, and the insurers refused to pay for it saying that it wasn’t on the mainland of the United States. So, these projects never get dull.
I also think the Comfort Station is a wonderful project. I had almost nothing to do with it. I applaud it, and I’m hoping that the Fox Hall Building [also in Upham’s Corner] is finally rethought and reworked, with Historic Boston leading that effort.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.