Boston City Hall Celebrates 50 Years of Controversy

Boston City Hall, which remains one of the most divisive buildings in the city’s history, turns 50 this year. While those who love the building appreciate its unabashed modernism, others loathe the building with claims that it is simply ugly. As a means of tapping into the ongoing debate about the building’s appearance, the city is launching a contest inviting participants to reimagine the building in the way they think would “take the building to the next level”.

The Creation of Boston City Hall

The current design for Boston City Hall was developed as part of a national design competition announced by city officials in the spring of 1961. As part of the design contest, city officials asked for a building that would serve as a centerpiece of a massive urban renewal project in order to create a governmental hub to include state and federal buildings. Today, that hub is known as the Government Center.

With Boston’s population peaking in the 1950s, city officials were also looking for a building design that would be forward-looking in an effort to signal the city’s renewal. In all, the city received more than 250 submissions. Much to the dismay of some, two relative unknowns from Columbia University, Gerhard Kallmann and Michael McKinnell, won the competition. It was so unappealing to some, that Boston Mayor Johns Collins was said to have gasped when the jury of local businessmen and architects unveiled the design to him.

A Divisive Design

While some immediately found the design of the new City Hall to be offputting, many within the architecture field felt differently. As architect Robert A.M. Stern put it, it “is a building that architects love and the public doesn’t love”. One of these fans was critic Ada Louise Huxtable, who praised the building’s openness and “monumentality”. Ultimately, open was precisely what the designers hoped to achieve, creating a building that visitors can easily pass through just as easily as they can enter.

At one point, Mayor Collins is said to have considered not moving forward with the proposal, but he relented and construction got underway in 1963. 5 years later, construction was complete and the building officially opened with its first City Council meeting on January 13, 1969.

The Ongoing Debate

Despite the warm reception that the building did receive from some, discussions about modifying or even demolishing the building are ongoing. In December of 2006, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino proposed selling the building and the adjacent plaza to private developers and then moving city government to South Boston. The following year, a group of architects and preservationists submitted a petition with the Boston Landmarks Commission to designate the building a local landmark. Soon after, members of the group Citizens for City Hall opposed the Mayor’s plans to move City Hall to the South Boston waterfront, saying it would be a major inconvenience to city residents.

While the Mayor did suspend his plans to move City Hall in 2008, the Boston Society of Architects did hold a competition two years later for ideas for modifying the building. In 2015, the “Rethink City Hall” program was also launched to gather ideas for making changes to the building.

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