Can We Finally Save City Hall Plaza?

After 50 years, let's revive that urban wasteland called Government Center.
city hall plaza

The City Hall Bostonians know (and love to loathe) today was built in the 1960s. / Boston Redevelopment Authority photographs, Collection # 4010.001, City of Boston Archives, Boston

At the center of what should be the city’s beating heart, Boston has a howling concrete void. Welcome to City Hall Plaza—more than 8 acres of windswept emptiness, dominated by City Hall itself: 513,000 hulking square feet of brutalist architecture. Occasionally, the Big Apple Circus or another large event fills the brick desert, but usually it’s just empty. And during winter, it’s cold and empty. The plaza has been listed on the Project for Public Spaces’ Hall of Shame as one of America’s worst places to gather; former Mayor Tom Menino called it “a vast wasteland”; and architect Edward Durell Stone once said City Hall looks “like the crate that Faneuil Hall came in.”

At this point, we’ve been commiserating about this architectural abomination for so long it’s practically become part of our identity. I’ve heard people say that Bostonians always talk about two things: how the Red Sox are doing and the hideousness of City Hall. That’s especially true for the elected officials who work inside its bleak walls—Menino and current Mayor Marty Walsh both talked of demolishing the building just as often as they sought to enhance it. We’ve been collectively hating and debating the look and feel of the building and the plaza for half a century now, since even before it was built: When the city first revealed a model in 1962, then-Mayor John Collins reportedly stood dumbfounded, staring at it in shock.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The notion of a new City Hall sprang out of an effort in the early 1960s to revive the core of the city, or as the Boston Redevelopment Authority phrased it back then, to revitalize “a place where inelegant transients come to enjoy themselves.” At the time, Boston was in an economic slump, and this shining new creation was to be a symbol of a New Boston rising from the ashes of depression. The original intention was for City Hall and its plaza to create an engaging gathering place. In fact, earlier this year one of City Hall’s original architects, Michael McKinnell, made the stunning admission that he and his team had wanted to include a bar: a traditional rathskeller, the kind of basement beer hall seen in many European public buildings. Unfortunately—as was often the way in this town—this vision was held back by the parochialism of Old Boston: Local merchants, threatened by the notion of competitors, threw a fit and scuttled the whole idea of making City Hall a commercial nerve center.

Five decades later, City Hall Plaza stands as an empty promise waiting to be fulfilled. Not only is the plaza unwelcoming—it’s increasingly irrelevant, with fewer citizens making the arduous trek to City Hall as more services became available online. What was once a bustling hive of municipal activity has become a ghost town, where silence pools in the cavernous interior and visitors’ footsteps echo through the deserted corridors.

Over the years, there have been nearly half a dozen failed attempts to breathe life into City Hall and the plaza, never with any success—each idea collapsing under the weight of bureaucracy. And we’re about to try again—only this time might be different. Just like in 1960, the city is in the throes of transformation, shedding its Old Boston skin for a shiny New Boston one. People are pining for fun places to swarm, as evidenced by the recent success of other outdoor spaces. Thanks to our recent building boom, the city is almost unrecognizable from what it was at the turn of the 21st century. Amid this flurry of redevelopment, the Walsh administration has decided to take a run at City Hall Plaza. This year, it selected a design team whose proposal is aimed at completing McKinnell’s vision from so many years ago, as well as making the plaza a desirable place to gather. If Walsh can pull it off, it will be a major accomplishment that no previous mayor has achieved. After all this time, are we finally on the brink of getting the City Hall Plaza we always wanted?

 

In 1960, Boston was a pretty grim place. Investment had dwindled and people had been fleeing for the suburbs since the end of World War II, causing urban jobs and economic growth to dry up, sapping the life out of the city. “We came this close to Boston going the way of Detroit right now,” McKinnell recalls. “It was a very close thing, a very close call.”

The urban renewal plan that brought about City Hall and the plaza was part of a $90 million effort to foster economic recovery. City officials also hoped to improve upon Boston’s reputation as a northeastern honky-tonk mired in graft. For many years, public building contracts were awarded to local firms that complied with the “one third, one third, one third formula”—meaning one third of the cost went to completing the building, one third to the profits, and the final third to paying off politicians. After I. M. Pei was hired to oversee the Government Center Master Plan, which was completed in 1961, city leaders decided to hold a nationwide competition for the crown jewel: City Hall.

At the time, it was a bold decision to launch the competition—the first open search for an architect to design a major public structure in the United States since San Francisco’s city hall in 1912. The move signaled to the outside world that Boston was ready to raise its hand and be counted.

McKinnell was 26 when he and his partner, Gerhard Kallmann, entered their winning design—a vast departure from Old City Hall. Built in 1865, that stately French Second Empire masterpiece had housed 38 mayoral administrations within its mahogany doors. McKinnell envisioned something entirely different: to make City Hall a symbol of the New Boston—a shockingly modern, indestructible block of concrete that would be a testament to the city’s strength. But at the same time, they wanted something that would bring the community together. Kallmann was German, and as a young Englishman, McKinnell had traveled throughout Europe and fondly remembered drinking and eating at rathskellers inside the city halls of Munich and Stockholm. When it came time for them to design Boston’s City Hall, those images of rathskellers were very much alive.