Now that Mayor Menino has announced plans to move Boston City Hall to the waterfront and give up the current Government Center site to commercial interests, a movement has sprung up to grant our current City Hall actual factual landmark status, which would protect it from many forms of future development. City Hall, a shining beacon of concrete Brutalist architecture at its "best" and the desolate brick wasteland of a plaza surrounding it have long been scorned as aesthetically reprehensible and one of the worst examples of community space in the country. But the site, revolutionary for its time, does have its fans. Let's hear what one of them has to say:
"There is little debate that its 200 million pounds of concrete and steel is a great physical and defining presence in Government Center," [City Council President Maureen Feeney] wrote. "In history and architecture, its national awards stand as credentials to its significance as a masterpiece, albeit a rather less than aesthetically pleasing one to many an untrained eye."You know, she was doing so well up until that last bit, when all of a sudden her nose found itself stuck up in the air and the elitist snide came out. Lady, you don't have to be a chef to know when the pizza is rotten, and many an eye, trained and "untrained", think this particular pizza needs to go -- or at least have its recipe changed.
The Project for Public Spaces, for one, has placed Boston City Hall on the top of its Hall of Shame, and for damn good reason. City Hall does not jibe with the surrounding buildings. It is a bad neighbor. It sticks out like a bad simile, hulking over its plot of land, giving Faneuil Hall the evil eye -- if it hadn't been for that damn festival marketplace concept, pally, you'd have been next! Its offices, elevated above the Common Rabble as they are, only enhances the feelings of inaccessibility in both a physical and bureaucratic sense. The stark, barren, wind-whipped plaza is devoid of any charm, any emotional connections, and is completely uninviting: the exact opposite of how community space should be. Its only redeeming quality is that it has enough space to accommodate the humongous crowds that gather any time we win a sports championship, but frankly, if there weren't electrical hookups around there'd be absolutely no reason to hold any public event there.
The supporters also bolster their petition by mentioning that a Michelin Guide gave City Hall two stars as a tourist attraction, while the Public Garden, State House and the Paul Revere House only merited one star. That's some superb logic for keeping the site and its appeal as a tourist attraction is all oh-so-true. When you ask the kids where they'd like to go when you visit Boston, they all eagerly jump and down and say "City Hall! City Hall! City Hall! Yaaaaay!!" To hell with Jack, Kack, Lack, Mack, Nack, Ouack, Pack and Quack, it's Le Corbusier for us! Who needs the Aquarium when we can hang out in this sunken, unshaded plaza with precious little place to sit?
There's no denying that the place has seen its share of history, of course. Championship rallies, I'll grant you, are historic, especially Boston's 2004 World Series win. But there've been race riots. There's been unrest. A black attorney was speared with an American Flag during the busing riots in the 1970s and while one famous attack in the city nearby has been memorialized for the ages, Landsmark's attack isn't one anybody should be really proud of. And as a few generations ago proved, you can knock down anything historic and just put up a plaque commemmorating where it happened and gosh, everything will be A-OK.
Government Center was built on a foundation of controversy, eminent domain and the erasure of Boston history. Both Scollay and Adams Squares, comprising over 200 buildings and businesses, were razed right off the map and paved over in the early 1960s to make way for this project. Nearby, the West End was being prepared for a similar fate. There, an entire neighborhood was forced out, its residents scattered to the four winds and its buildings laid to waste for the benefit of several condo towers, advertised on Storrow Drive and I-93 with the now-cliche signs that read "If you lived here, you'd be home by now." While the areas had grown seedy in their last years, it was no excuse to just tear it all down. Rehabilitation seems to work; look at the Combat Zone (or don't look at it, as the case may be these days.)
In the end, all protests to save Scollay Square were in vain, with the sole exception of the Sears Crescent building, which still stands today (it's to your right as you leave the T through the Government Center headhouse.) The bureaucrats had won, the Brutalists had a major victory, and once everything had been flattened just nicely and the subway realigned, Government Center and 1-2-3 Center Plaza came in. I'll grant you that 1-2-3 at least has civic use, as it offers retail and restaurants below its office space. However, the blatant disregard that city planners of the time had shown towards the area, combined with New York's sins of tearing down Pennsylvania Station and other historic buildings around the same time, were the seeds of the preservation movement and the development of the "Landmark Status" to protect that which is deemed culturally, historically and civically important enough to keep around.
But does Government Center deserve that which its very creation had spurred? Is it historically important? Perhaps, but so was the building where Alexander Graham Bell made his very first telephone call. (Fortunately his office was removed, preserved, and kept in the art deco phone company building that Verizon now owns.) Is it culturally important? Well, they have that cool all-you-can-eat ice cream festival there every year, and the Big Apple Circus shows up there too, but... wouldn't you enjoy your ice cream much more if you were on the Boston Common, where there's shade and grass and places to sit and places for sugar-hopped kids to run around? (I vaguely remember it happening on the Common, too, twenty years ago or so.) And there's certainly other space in the city where the Big Apple Circus could put up their tents. Of course, I'm not privy to how these events are organized and there may be reasons which prevent the ice cream folks from using the Common, but by gad, there has got to be a better place for it.
And is Government Center civically important? Consider this: The original designs for the plaza included a sunken terraced fountain which helped enhance things slightly in an End Of Logan's Run kind of way. But the fountain proved difficult to keep operating, a pain to maintain, and apparently leaked into the Blue Line tunnel underneath it. So, instead of fixing it, last year they gave it the ol' Scollay Square treatment: covered it up with a concrete slab.
There is absolutely no reason why this City Hall and its graceless, charmless, needless plaza should be granted landmark status. It is beyond rehabilitation, no matter what some more-eyetrained-than-thou people claim through tightly clenched teeth. No, it would be better to bring the building down, dig up the bricks and start anew, building a civic and commercial space that would be of actual use to the public, something that people would actually want to use for more than just a shortcut down to Quincy Market from Cambridge Street. Something that would actually deserve the honor of being called a true Boston landmark.