Edifice complex

By ADAM REILLY  |  August 2, 2007

Sensitive, perhaps, to the fact that locals might not care how the world’s architectural elite regarded City Hall 40 years ago, Wolf also casts the construction of City Hall as a seminal Boston event. In the mid-20th century, locals didn’t obsess over Boston being (or becoming) a “world class city”; instead, they fretted that it was evolving into a post-industrial backwater. The creation of City Hall helped change that. “It was a symbol of the rejuvenation of Boston,” says Wolf. “Nobody could quite believe it was actually happening — that there was a national design competition; that this building was chosen unanimously by a distinguished jury; that the Boston business community was behind it 100 percent.” What’s more, City Hall was the first project of the Boston architecture firm now known as Kallmann McKinnell & Wood, which went on to national and international renown; the building’s place in the KMW oeuvre, Wolf says, is analogous to Beethoven’s First Symphony.

(Ada Louise Huxtable, the New York Times’ Pulitzer Prize–winning architecture critic, sized up the building in 1969: “Boston can celebrate with the knowledge that it has produced a superior public building in an age that values cheapness over quality as a form of public virtue. . . . It confers, in a kind of architectural-status transferal, an instant image of progressive excellence on a city government traditionally known for something less than creativity and quality. . . . It will outlast the last hurrah.”)

There’s a corollary argument to the preservationist case — namely, that City Hall’s interior doesn’t have to look as crappy as it does today. Herbert Gleason, a Boston attorney, was the city’s corporation counsel from 1968 to 1979, under then-mayor Kevin White. During his years in City Hall, Gleason insists, it was a radically different place. “We kept it clean, for one thing,” says Gleason. “There was the original furniture, which was custom designed; all the upholstery was in primary colors, and it was just stunning. There were not a lot of artificial flowers and stuffed animals on people’s desks.

“We had art shows, we had music, we had parties,” adds Gleason. “We had a symphony orchestra in the great hall. We had the Queen of England for lunch! Can you imagine that happening today?” (If the queen deigns to visit our fair city again, expect Menino to meet her elsewhere.)

Those who’d save the building dream of restoring it to its former glory — and more: there’s talk of “greening” City Hall, of adding new features (retail? restaurants?) to make it more inviting to employees and the public. Of course, such changes would cost money. And according to Tom Miller, the economic development director of the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA), even a straightforward rehab of the building would be prohibitively expensive. Miller tells the Phoenix it would cost $250 to $300 per square foot to rehab the building’s 500,000 square feet.

Those are ugly numbers. But remember: Fenway was supposed to be beyond saving too. What’s more, if things are really that bad, why has City Hall been allowed to become so decrepit? Municipalities everywhere are strapped for cash these days, which may be part of the answer. But one City Hall defender believes something more nefarious is at work. “I think Menino doesn’t like the building, and Ray Flynn didn’t like the building,” he says. “And it shows.”

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