Why Boston City Hall Matters Today More Than Ever

Boston's Iconic City Hall
Boston's Iconic City Hall

Everyone who lives or visits Boston has formulated an opinion on Boston City Hall based on their interactions with the building. In recent years, there has been much debate over the future of one of Boston’s most iconic works of architecture, primarily fueled by Mayor Thomas Menino’s desire to sell the current building and construct a new one on South Boston’s Waterfront. Menino’s wishes has ignited the passions of preservationists, architects, students, and citizens who have found more than one reason to advocate on behalf of Boston City Hall and the people it stood and stands for.

Designed in 1961-1968 by Kallmann, McKinnell, and Knowles with Campbell, Aldrich, and Nulty, Boston City Hall will turn 50 in 2011, the magic number dictated by the National Park Service for it to be recognized as a National Historic Landmark. A National Historic Landmark is the official designation by the United States Government of a building, place, or object as possessing an extremely historical significant and cultural value for all Americans. There are some exceptions to this rule, but the mere fact that Boston City Hall turns 50 in two years is an occasion for celebration. I will be celebrating and rejoicing throughout the monumental plaza it faces as the world once looked to Modernist Boston for architectural inspiration.

Boston’s Brutalist monument to city government was designed and built during the Urban Renewal, an era that saw many sections of cities as unfit to live in, resulting in the demolition of neighborhoods and important works of architecture. New construction was thought of as giving new life to cities and putting an end to their plight. Government Center, the area where Boston City Hall is situated was known as the West End, a neighborhood with an architectural character reminiscent of Beacon Hill. A major part of the West End was razed, displacing people from their homes. The demolition of the West End along with its history was erased to make way for the buildings that stand today. Government Center, as the name suggests, is home to many of the city’s government buildings and offices. Boston City Hall is symbolic of the history of the neighborhood that was demolished and of the future of Boston. The thought of demolishing City Hall brings chills to my spine for this act to me is like re-erasing the history of the people of Boston and of what was once the vibrant neighborhood of the West End.

Like Trinity Church which gave Boston a place in the world of architecture, Boston City Hall gave the city an edge over others in modern architecture. Its groundbreaking design inspired by the works of Le Corbusier was executed in concrete, brick and glass. City Hall has inspired countless of other buildings in the city and in the country, and for this matter alone, it deserves to be respected and celebrated!

Is it intimidating? You bet! Harsh? Unfriendly? Of course! Boston City Hall makes people react to it, it makes people talk and express their emotions and feelings. It makes people think, stop and take a second look at its forms and angularity. It’s intimidating; it makes people feel small and aware of the powerful government that looms over its citizens. Boston City Hall has grown on me. I’ve come to appreciate it for what it is, a great work of art and nothing less.

City Hall brought international fame and numerous accolades to Kallmann, McKinnell, and Knowles, just like Trinity Church brought an illustrious, internationally acclaimed career to Henry Hobson Richardson. Trinity Church and Boston City Hall are both a product of their time, reflecting the culture that gave birth these architectural masterpieces.

At a time when great modernist works of architecture are being demolished or threatened with demolition or insensitive redevelopment, we as stewards of our built environment must become aware of the transcending power of modernist architecture. It makes sense to leave Boston City Hall where it is today for it is the diamond among other fine jewels of modern architecture in Government Center and Boston.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. JAA says:

    Hi there,

    I’ve enjoyed reading several parts of your blog but I think you’re way off here! It’s a real stretch to say that just because two buildings have been important and splashy “in their time” that they are equally deserving of protection. Trinity inspires people–not just architecture-people, but real people–to preserve and protect it. How much grassroots interest is there in protecting the Government Center?

    Part of HHR’s gift was being able to work with history, context and tradition. Brutalist architects were adamantly opposed to all such ideas, and that has left most people pretty cold when faced with these buildings.

    There’s a bigger issue here of course–the problem of saving (or not) architectural heritage that is unlovely. I wonder sometimes if it is a matter of taste–is my ambivalence to protect Brutalist buildings in 2009 just the same as some Modernist’s ambivalence about saving, say, Queen Anne houses back in 1959?

    As these concrete boxes are blipped across the country I do worry that we are losing something–but not altogether certain that it’s not somewhat akin to losing, say, the polio virus. Maybe that’s extreme. But, hey, this is your blog not mine! So I’ll shut up now & look forward to reading more in the future.

    Cheers, JAA

    1. AGB says:

      Thanks for your post! I do read your blog alot, I find your postings interesting. I’m honored to have a professor of architectural history read my blog and actually comment on my posts!

      In regards to City Hall, what amazes me is the strong grassroots movement that is behind this much hated/beloved building in Boston. The Boston Preservation Alliance along with other small citizens groups have been working diligently to save this building! I love it! I’m also bias because for the last 2 years I have been a docent at Trinity Church, and yes, Trinity inspires people, but City Hall also inspires me as well! 🙂

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