B.B. Chemical, Corporate Headquarters and Research Facility

Cambridge, MA | 1938

The B.B. Chemical Building stands as an example of design innovation and excellence in a time of great economic constraint. B.B. Chemical, popularly known as the Polaroid Building, was designed for a subsidiary of the United Shoe Machinery Company (USMC) on a prominent site on the Charles River. The first modern industrial structure in Cambridge, this marked the introduction of a new style in the firm’s design vocabulary, in contrast to Harvard’s neo-Georgian River Houses, completed a few years earlier a mile away. Henry Richardson Shepley, the firm’s principal partner, led the design team, working with architects Henry Wijk and Herman Voss. Shepley’s work shows the influence of his close friendship with Walter Gropius, who had come to Harvard in 1937.

The design adopts several elements of International style while drawing on the vocabulary of classical architecture, including the insertion of a vertical tower, which varies the facade while preserving symmetry. Glass block, a new material at the time, was used innovatively in the manner of its masonry cousins to form the first floor wall. Concerns regarding the blocks’ waterproof qualities were addressed in the design, with the second story brought out as an overhang to protect them from direct rain.

To produce a building that was compelling architecturally on a tight budget, Shepley concentrated on the most visible facades. Costs were kept down by using a constant glass size throughout, reducing specially designed windows to the price of factory sash. Sand lime brick was used on all but the most prominent facades, which were clad with a glazed white brick that the firm also used for Massachusetts General Hospital and the original campus of Northeastern University.

The building was later sold to Polaroid, which used it for a time as a corporate headquarters. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.

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