Boston's City Halls, As Time Goes On

Governing Design Director David Kidd went on assignment to photograph Boston Mayor Thomas Menino. He came back with an architecture review of Boston's old and current city hall.
by | January 11, 2012
David Kidd

Governing Design Director David Kidd went on assignment to photograph Boston Mayor Thomas Menino. He came back with an architecture review of Boston's old and current city hall.

Mayor Thomas Menino has a picture-postcard view of the historic Fanueil Hall marketplace from his office on the sixth floor of Boston's City Hall. Unfortunately, the view from Fanueil Hall isn't nearly as nice.

Fanueil Hall was built in 1742 and has been used as a marketplace and a meeting place ever since. One of Fanueil Hall's tenants, the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company of Massachusetts, has been headquartered there since 1746.

The history of Boston's City Hall isn't quite as nice.

For the 104 years before the city government moved into its "new" City Hall, Boston's bureaucracy made do with what is now known as "Old City Hall" (left), an early example of the French Second Empire Style in the United States and one of the few survivors of that style of architecture.

In 1962, the city held a competition to design a new, modern city hall. A winning proposal was chosen, more than 1,000 buildings were razed, 20,000 citizens were displaced and construction was begun on one of the world's best examples of Brutalist architecture (left) -- or one of the worst, depending on your point of view. While the Boston City Hall waits for a chance to be recognized as a National Historic Landmark, it will have to make do with being on various "World's Ugliest Building" lists.

In his profile of Menino, Governing senior editor Zach Patton quotes the mayor: "When you sit in your office, you don't accomplish anything. You got to listen to people tell you what they think. That's part of my success. I go out there and listen."

I don't doubt for a minute that the mayor is sincere in his desire to get out of the office and roam the streets of Boston, connecting with the people. Being imprisoned in that concrete fortress is no way to keep your finger on the pulse of your city. (For his part, Menino openly refers to Boston City Hall as the "ugliest building in the world." He's even floated a plan to build a new City Hall on the city's south waterfront, but that expensive proposition has proven unpopular. The mayor has shelved it for now.)

Almost as soon as it was abandoned, Old City Hall was added to the list of National Historic Landmarks and is now home to a Ruth's Chris Steakhouse, among other tenants. None may rival the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company of Massachusetts, but the building is still being used and enjoyed. I doubt very much they'll be saying the same about the current city hall when its usefulness has passed.

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David Kidd  |  design director
dkidd@governing.com  | 

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