Boston University’s Howard Thurman Center Reveals New Home on Commonwealth Avenue

| February 26, 2020

 by Beth Wilson-Shunta

The design centers around the community stair that connects the two levels and enables a variety of gathering space./© Shanklevision

This winter, Boston University opened a new student center that not only serves students, but also brings new life to a historic landmark at a major urban and university gateway. The university’s Howard Thurman Center for Common Ground is a program that breaks down barriers of divisiveness by building inclusive community through programming and meaningful human connections. The university chose to elevate the program to a more prominent location along Commonwealth Avenue in order to reactivate existing campus real estate while providing the center with a strong presence that brings more visibility to its activities and mission.

Boston University identified three potential locations along Commonwealth Avenue to accommodate the new program space for the Howard Thurman Center. NBBJ studied the three locations to analyze their appropriateness for the new center based on the following criteria: visibility, cost, short-term and long-term impact on campus, ease of construction implementation and program accommodations.

The Howard Thurman Center’s new home on Commonwealth Avenue./© Shanklevision

A site along the Commonwealth Avenue spine of campus, at the intersection of the Boston University Bridge, was ultimately chosen by the university due primarily to its location, ease of schedule, and construction implementation and its ability to reactivate existing campus real estate. The prominent location was once the home of the Peter Fuller Cadillac-Oldsmobile dealership, originally designed by Albert Kahn in 1927. The building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and required review and approval by the Brookline Historic Commission in order to renovate the iconic building.

The design balances the raw and refined nature of the existing and the new./© Shanklevision

The Howard Thurman Center’s new home, designed by NBBJ, encompasses 19,000sf and is a key student life hub at the center of campus. The new space supports existing programs, allows for expanded programming, and captures the energy of the people who make the center unique. The street-level space brings increased visibility to the Howard Thurman Center through a new building entry defined by the undercut corner of the building. Inside, a variety of meeting and event spaces, both formal and informal, provide the flexibility to support a variety of programs. Staff offices are dispersed throughout, allowing for increased student-staff interactions and visibility throughout the center. The meditation room allows for students to decompress and focus their attention in a quiet space. The whole design is grounded and centered on a community stair that connects the two levels and provides spaces for gathering, performing, and chance meetings.

The overall design juxtaposes the historic and the modern, celebrating each period individually while bringing them together to invigorate the activity within. Existing terrazzo, the decorative plaster ceiling and marble and bronze materials meet the raw edges of the concrete floor and a geometric patterning of carpets, fabrics, lighting and new ceilings. The result is a space that is comforting and energizing for students and that furthers the mission of the Howard Thurman Center.

Beth Wilson-Shunta

Beth Wilson-Shunta is an architect and programmer who specializes in creative solutions for higher education and science projects at NBBJ. 

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Category: All, contributor, Education

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