Tom Menino’s City Hall vision

Tom Menino’s City Hall vision

Bostoncityhall Boston’s City Hall has got to be one of the ugliest public buildings in America. It is a monstrosity of post-modern deconstructionist design so popular in the 1960s and 70s. A popular urban legend says it was designed to look like the Lincoln Memorial upside down, which might be comforting, if true, because it would mean that there was some overarching vision for it. Instead, it looks like haphazard piles of concrete blocks piled on top of brick, overlooking a vast wasteland of a plaza that is a parody of the great public squares of old Rome. And my disregard for the building (shared by many Bostonians) is not like the initial hatred by Parisians of the Eiffel Tower that has since grown into an affection for has become a symbol of all France, because the ill feelings toward the City Hall have not faded one whit in the nearly four decades it’s been around.

You can probably tell I’m not a fan.

Thus you might be surprised that I didn’t greet Boston Mayor Tom Menino’s proposal to tear it down, sell it off, and rebuild a new City Hall elsewhere with cheers and applause.

Mayor Thomas M. Menino , saying he wants to make a statement that will lead Boston into the future, announced he intends to build an “architecturally magnificent” City Hall on the South Boston waterfront, an undertaking that would turn over to developers the current controversial behemoth on City Hall Plaza and shift the locus of city government to a more mote outpost of the city.

Here are my objections. For one thing, I am not convinced that Menino’s first interest is an interest in posterity. The vast tract of land in the center of Boston on which City Hall sits has been estimated to be valued at $300 million. When fully developed, it would likely be worth a whole more. Think billions. Who stands to benefit the most from that? Perhaps some well-heeled constituents who might even offer ole Tommy a job when he finally steps back from the hackerama trough? In any case, such largesse would be worth continued backing in elections in perpetuity.

I also object to the stealing yet another piece of Boston’s precious waterfront property for yet another government building. Soon the whole harbor will be lined with water-view hack offices, while the public will only get to enjoy it while waiting in line at the City Clerk’s office.

Plus South Boston?! If you’re not from Boston, let me just tell you that there’s no easy way in or out of South Boston. It’s either tunnels, bridges, or the neighborhood streets. Oh yes, the Silver Line buses run there and that’s about it. Of course, Tommy probably knows this and has the solution prepared. Happen the Commonwealth expand the MBTA subway system to the seaport. After all, the even the Big Dig has to end eventually and then what massive public works project will there be to enrich cronies and stash do-nothing relatives in do-nothing jobs? I propose we call it the Brown Line in honor of the amount of ... bovine ... product that will be shoveled to get the public to buy into it.

The only question will be whether the residents of South Boston will be any more interested in a City Hall on their doorstep than they were with a stadium for the New England Patriots. At least the Patriots would only have eight home games a year. Think of the traffic caused by the City Hall and its payroll patriots every day of the year (except Saturdays, Sundays, federal holidays, state holidays, Evacuation Day. Wait, never mind.)


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City Hall image courtesy of the Digital Imaging Project. Copyright Mary Anne Sullivan.

  • Actually, Domenico, it looks sort of like a elaborate (as elaborate as you can get with plywood) 50s hamburger joint, but then I don’t have a sense of the scale of it, only having seen that photo.

    You’ve even got the tarmac.  Now all you need is waitresses with trays on roller skates.

  • You’re right, the building is UG…Lee, but the brick plaza is even uglier. I remember the homeless seemed to not mind the recesses of the building. Maybe Menino’s idea can include some outreach to the homeless as well.

  • I don’t like the idea of city halls moving away from their cities’ traditional downtowns.Had that already happened or is that only proposed now?

  • Personally, I think this idea is doomed due to logistics: The Silver Line can’t cut it: DOA.

    The current city hall, which is superbly located for access by residents of the city in terms of access, is ugly and poorly maintained. The building is not used the way it was intended to be used. Residents are supposed enter the building via that vast ramp system and descend from the top main level down; when the building occassionally hosts public functions that way, it actually creates an almost Italian sense of processional grace and order in terms of people flow. But that perhaps happens only once or twice a year, it seems.

    The real problem with city hall is the windswept, barren plaza; and the subway and easements of the federal office buildings make that difficult to remedy well.

    I do find funny the idea that for-profit private development of the dry dock is any more likely than public or non-profit development to provide public access: one thing we know from the travails of the Harborwalk is that private developers have used every trick in the book to frustrate or undo public access to the harbor.

  • If you think that is ugly, you have to check out it’s younger sister in Fall River.

    Our monstrosity is built over the highway and is crumbling. What ever possesed people to think these building were beautiful?

  • As much as I want it to go, I don’t want my tax money wasted on something which will probably take as long as the big dig and will not improve the overall efficiency of city hall.  No matter how well connected it is, it will still be a bureaucracy.

  • I’m an old enough Bostonian to remember the civic pride we thought that we’d have when city hall and the “government center” (fed + state offices, courts and passports and all manner of “public business”) were finished. Cardinal Cushing even had plans for a “St Botolph Chapel” at the northern side of the area.

    It was and remains one of Boston’s greatest stupidities of the 20th century (along with killing the west end, and misconceived housing projects in several neighborhoods).

    Yet the answer is not to move to Southie. Government Center is great for transit; there has got to be a way to ameliorate the brutal bunker’s impact and enliven th plaza (even in winter); as you wrote Dom, there are better ways to develop the waterfront than making another political palace; many of today’s architects would love the challenge of making the city hall interior workable.

    Finally, if city government must be moved, then go back to School Street and/or Downtown Crossing. The old building is still there; added room needed can be found in replacing the kind of shabby buildings on Province St and Bromfield.

    In all planning, the last thing the city needs is more moving out to other areas and killing off downtown.
    Tom Ryan