City Hall turned 50 this month. That should be unremarkable. Boston, after all, is famous for row houses so old that their original owners rode horse-drawn carriages and cast votes in the election of Abraham Lincoln.
But this is City Hall we’re talking about. Since the building’s official opening, we’ve joked about its looks. We’ve called it ugly, awful and worse. We even turned our heads when elected officials tried to assassinate it. So, yes, we should be surprised City Hall has made it this far.
“There was a long period of what you can only call maligned neglect,” says Michael McKinnell, the surviving architect of the massive concrete building.
Photo: Adam Smith
“Maligned neglect” is a kind way of putting it. A few years ago, when officials set out to examine how to fix up the building, they found the address had deteriorated into a power-sucking, code-violating, leaking facility, described in a grant proposal as, “deeply disliked and misunderstood by Boston’s citizenry.” But it’s not only the public who snub City Hall. The longtime, late Mayor Thomas Menino wanted it dead.
“We unfortunately had someone in there who hated the building,” says architect Chris Grimley of firm OverUnder, who’s aiding in the building’s preservation efforts, and created commemorative bronze pins of the building.
“It’s very dear to my heart, obviously. It’s gone through a lot,” McKinnell says. The Rockport resident, who taught at Harvard and MIT and also designed the Hynes Convention Center, waited decades to see the city once again give a damn about his project that he believes never really got a fair shot. But times are changing. Mayor Marty Walsh is now game for improvements—many of which have already begun, such as lobby updates and facade lighting. Studies and plans are under way to map out more needed and hoped-for work that could cost up to $500 million in the coming decades. This new focus on City Hall is great news to McKinnell, who was in his early 30s when the building’s precast concrete dried.
City Hall was built on a limited budget and was supposed to be a work-in-progress, he says. The plan was for something kind of like Italy’s civic buildings from the Renaissance that were completed over generations: “The stone was decorated, it was then carved, frescoes were put into it.”
Left: 1962, Right: 1965. Photos: Courtesy of the West End Museum
Left: 1967, Right: 1981. Photos: Courtesy of the West End Museum
Some scholarly snobs may turn their noses at any comparisons of the building to classical landmarks decorated with Corinthian columns, arches and chiseled marble. And it’s true: City Hall is the opposite of that. It’s a utilitarian product of the Brutalism movement. Not only is the obscure style’s name unpleasant, it’s controversial: An old copy of Modern Architecture in Europe—a guide celebrating modern buildings—couldn’t even make Brutalism sound good, describing it as “the mega-structure, that building-as-machine which, like the misunderstood monster in a B-movie, might grow to unpredictable proportions or even threaten to consume an entire city.”
It’s hard to believe that McKinnell and his partner, the late Gerhard Michael Kallmann, wanted City Hall to swallow Boston. Instead, they seemed to take a more punk-rock approach to the building that appears to reject the rise of glass and steel commercial towers. McKinnell says: “[Brutalism] defined what was really a wish for an architecture of resistance that would resist that ubiquitous ruining of our cities with those terrible, thinly clad boxes built for profit.”
Seeing City Hall through this lens makes sense. The horizontal structure—at just nine stories—is really an anti-tower. Its curious shape locks into the ground, immovable in a city implanted with all those towers that appear like glassy, stretched-out smartphones jutting into the sky. It is striking, like a great abstract sculpture.
“It’s one of the few prominent examples of monumental Brutalist buildings in the city,” says Christopher P. Lane of Finegold Alexander Architects, which recently renovated the building’s City Council chambers. “It’s a strong footprint, it’s a strong facade. … It’s not going anywhere.”