City Hall Plaza, Sears Crescent


ABOUT THE HISTORICAL PHOTOGRAPHS "Celebrants fill City Hall Plaza so thickly they look like ground cover. The date is February 3, 2004, and the New England Patriots have just won their second Super Bowl in three years. For once, City Hall Plaza is alive. Except for such moments, nobody much likes the place. In summer, it`s a parched desert of red brick, in winter a wind-swept tundra. It was intended to be a civic center, like the great piazzas of Europe. But it lacks a busy mix of commercial, civic, and religious activity at its edges, the elements that bring those European spaces to life. City Hall itself, the building at left in the new photo, is regarded by most Bostonians as a rather forbidding fortress of concrete. It and its plaza came into existence in the mid-1960s, when urban renewal razed the area we see in the older photo. This was Scollay Square, best known for its bars, strip clubs, and visiting sailors. Only a few buildings survive from the old photo to the new. Faneuil Hall is visible in the distance near the center, and the historic Sears Crescent, which bore a Lipton`s Teas sign in 1911, now bounds the plaza at right. Mayor Thomas M. Menino periodically threatens to sell City Hall and move his government somewhere else. But what City Hall and its plaza need is not a sale but a loving, imaginative renovation. A little ivy wouldn`t hurt, either. Should Scollay Square, with those medieval-looking curving streets, have been demolished? Perhaps not. There is no such thing as an irredeemable slum. Quarters like the Marais in Paris and Covent Garden in London were scenes of dilapidation and poverty as late as the mid-20th century. Both survived to become fashionable neighborhoods. One change will soon arrive in City Hall Plaza. Notice the subway entrance at the bottom center of the new photo, which looks like the entrance to a secret underground tomb. It will be replaced by a glassy pavilion due to open in 2007." -Robert Campbell and Peter Vanderwarker, "CITYSCAPES - City Hall Plaza," Boston Globe, 21 March 2004 "That fortress with the flags in front, shoving its way in from the left side of the new photo, is Boston City Hall and its plaza swept away the delicate European swirl of narrow streets we see at the left of the old photo, which was made around 1920. Little remains now except a curve, the arc of Cornhill Street, once Boston's book selling center, Cornhill itself is gone, drowned in the immense Sargasso Sea of City Hall Plaza. But its shape remains impressed on a fan-shaped building. This is Sears Crescent, built in 1816 and remodeled in 1860 with fine detail is in the Italianate style. Sears Crescent today is curled up like a sleeping spouse on a bed from which the partner has departed. Bookending Sears Crescent in the foreground is the Sears Block of 1848, from which hangs a Boston landmark: a steaming teakettle, rescued from the demolition of Scollay Square. Way back, beyond City Hall. you can make out the peaked gable of Faneuil Hall Not much else is left. Planners of the "New Boston" of the 1960s needed a demonstration project to prove their mettle. They picked Government Center because it was doable. Much of the property here was already publicly owned and so could be demolished and rebuilt with a minimum of interference. With help from architect Henry Cobb, of 1. M. Pei & Partners, they created a master plan that erased the little streets to make room for a grand plaza. But City Hall Plaza turned out to be so vast and shapeless as to be useless for any purpose except showing off City Hall City Hall opened in 1968. It was designed by two teachers of architecture at Columbia University, Gerhard Kallmann and Michael McKinnell. Neither had ever done a building on his own at the time, and McKinnell was only 25. But their design won out over 250 in an open architecture competition. Kallmann and McKinnell moved to Boston and taught for many years at Harvard. Their firm, Kallmann McKinnell & Wood, became one of the city's - and the nation's - most prominent, designing Hynes Convention Center, Back Bay Station, Shad Hall at Harvard, and the new Newton Public Library. Boston City Hall was voted the sixth-greatest building in American history in a poll of historians and architects taken in 1976 - the highest rank achieved by any work of a living architect. Tastes do change. Today this powerful chunk of raw concrete, a sort of architectural Old Man of the Mountain, wouldn't make the charts. But City Hall's fall in esteem is n't just a matter of values. Also at fa ult is the Kafka- like state of suspended decay in which the building is maintained. With a little care and love, City Hall could be transformed. How about a beer hall in the basement. a coffee shop at the top of the atrium, a tapestry competition' Why not a swarm of vendors on the desolate plaza, like those in any European market square' Why can't our City Hall be a museum of Boston, accumulating a rich crust of trophies and memorabilia over time, like a family castle' Too ambitious' Okay, why not replace the blown light bulbs?" -Robert Campbell and Peter Vanderwarker, "CITYSCAPES - A Concrete Sargasso Sea", Boston Globe, 3 May 1992