Government Service Center


ABOUT THE HISTORICAL PHOTOGRAPHS "Useless city plazas were a Bostonian fad of the 1960s. City Hall Plaza is the most notorious. Here in the older photo, we`re looking at a less-well-known one. Even on a sunny day, only four tiny figures are visible on the glaring, inhospitable concrete paving. The plaza is part of the State Service Center on Cambridge Street. So is the middle building, the one that looks like a scary mouth. The center opened in 1970 and houses a number of health and welfare agencies. It was designed by Paul Rudolph, a noted architect who liked to build out of deliberately roughened concrete, in a raw, bold architectural style known as Brutalism. Brutalism, like some other styles, was better loved by architects than by the public. The center never was completed. Money ran out, and much of the site was left as a parking lot for more than 20 years. And then, in 2000, the Edward W. Brooke Courthouse was built. It stands just outside the left edge of the new photo. As part of that courthouse project, the State Service Center`s parking lot and plaza were rebuilt as the terraced garden we see here. Although it`s certainly an improvement, the new garden doesn`t get much use, either, and its feeble attempt to imitate Rudolph`s rugged concrete and sweeping curves is unconvincing. What neither photo shows is the old West End neighborhood that once enlivened this site and its surroundings. The West End was an immigrant neighborhood, a place of narrow streets like the North End. Old maps show that 130 separate properties on six tiny blocks occupied what is now the single State Service superblock. The population was varied, with Italian, Greek, Eastern European, and other roots. The entire neighborhood, except for a couple of churches, was demolished by 1960, using federal urban renewal funds. It was replaced by the State Service Center and its larger neighbor, the Charles River Park housing development. You could almost call it an act of ethnic cleansing. Though the mayor was Irish and the developer Jewish, the new buildings of Charles River Park were given reassuringly Yankee names: Longfellow, Hawthorne, Whittier, Lowell, Emerson. The former West End residents were ruthlessly scattered throughout Greater Boston, with little or no assistance from the government. Nothing tells you more about the solidarity of Boston neighborhoods than one fact. Forty-four years after destruction of their homes, the former inhabitants of this neighborhood still maintains a newsletter, The West Ender, to which they contribute snapshots, anecdotes, and memories of the old days in the West End." -Robert Campbell and Peter Vanderwarker, "CITYSCAPES - There Goes the Neighborhood," Boston Globe, 27 June 2004 "The recent death in New York of architect Paul Rudolph revived memories of a time that now feels as far removed as the Victorian era. We`re talking about the 1960s, the heyday of urban renewal. With federal dollars flowing freely, architects and planners set out to remake the American city. In Boston, one of the boldest strokes of all was Rudolph`s State Service Center, a complex of health and welfare agencies on Cambridge Street. We see it here in the architect`s original rendering and in a photo as it looks today. Rudolph envisioned a heroic monument that resembled a medieval castle. A tower overlooked an inner courtyard, and – as if for defense – the whole building, inside and out, was to be built of massive rough concrete, a Rudolph trademark. Like many overconfident visions, this one was never completed. The tower, which can been seen peeking up in the background of the rendering, remained unbuilt. One of the authors of this column was a draftsman in the office of the structural engineer for that tower and can attest that Rudolph`s design was incredibly inefficient. There were other mistakes. The Center occupied a superblock, created from the demolition of six intimate blocks of the old West End neighborhood. The loss of human scale was irrecoverable. And there were purely architectural problems. In the modernist 1960s, no self-respecting architect felt free to use ornament to enrich his work. Rudolph tried instead to create visual interest by contorting his building into sculptural shapes. The shapes felt strange to most people and never served the building`s purposes well. Despite all that bad news, you still have to be impressed by Rudolph`s bold talent and ambition. Author and architect Donlyn Lyndon summed it up best: ‘The building is a genuinely astonishing performance but one that finally and sadly makes the people who use it seem clumsy, frail, and incongruous.` Today, a new Suffolk County courthouse is filling the old tower site. And a tree-filled, terraced park will finally complete the central courtyard." -Robert Campbell and Peter Vanderwarker, "CITYSCAPES - State Service Center," Boston Globe, 1997

Constructed, 1971