|Scollay Square in 1906 - a thriving |
commercial center (click on any of
these photos for a full-screen view).
In 1795, a merchant named William Scollay purchased a four-story building at the intersection of Court and Cambridge Streets in the burgeoning town of Boston, Massachusetts. With his name affixed to the structure, it wasn’t long before everyone began referring to the intersection as ‘Scollay’s Square’. By 1838, the city of Boston officially named the site ‘Scollay Square’ and, through the 19th Century it was a thriving shopping and entertainment area, just a few blocks from the refined precincts of Pemberton Square and Beacon Hill.
|Scollay Square in 1947|
By the middle of the 20th Century, the venerable Scollay Square neighborhood, like the adjacent West End, had declined in social standing. The buildings were still solid, but the commercial activity ran to tattoo parlors and bars. Some theaters closed; the ones that remained tended to show low-budget horror and ‘peep’ shows. If you were on shore leave, it was the place to go. If you were a proper Bostonian, it was to be avoided.
By the early 1960s, a new movement had taken hold in America. The concept was ‘urban renewal’ and it posited that the answer to gritty neighborhoods like the West End and Scollay Square was to simply bulldoze them out of existence and build anew. Drawing from the French model championed by Le Corbusier and his Plan Voisin school, slums were cleared and modern apartment blocks built on the same site. In America, it was called ‘The Radiant City’.
|1962 - Scollay Square is razed|
Convinced that the ‘Hub of the Universe’ was sliding into insignificance, the city of Boston, armed with $45 million of federal funds, conceived of a vast ‘Government Center’ with tall buildings and broad avenues that would bring people downtown and be a magnet for further development. The site of this bold venture? Scollay Square.
|I.M. Pei's inspiration: Siena's Piazza|
In 1962, bulldozers began clearing 90 acres – more than 20 city blocks. No less an architect that I.M. Pei was commissioned to create a master plan for the site. His centerpiece was a public square modeled on the concept of Siena’s Piazza del Campo which, like its Old World cousin, would be at the foot of City Hall.
Interpreted by the architectural
firm Kallman, McKinnell & Knowles, an eight-acre plaza was designed. Construction began in 1963; the resulting ‘City
Hall Plaza’ was dedicated in February 1969.
Honors followed: that year, the American Institute of Architects named Boston’s new city
hall, “the sixth greatest building in American History.”
|In theory, Kallmann, McKinnell &|
Knowles designed a plaza that mimicked
the Piazza del Campo. In practice...
|City Hall. The less said, the better.|
This being a gardens and gardening blog, I'll focus solely on City Hall Plaza, billed as ‘Boston’s front yard’.
|From Congress Street, City Hall Plaza|
is an inaccessible two-story-high
|From Cambridge Street, a bleak, |
alienating and uninviting prospect of
brick as far as the eye can see.
|In 2002, a million people|
jammed City Hall Plaza
to cheer the Patriots.
What is baffling is that the site has been recognized as a failure almost from the day it opened. It has hosted a few memorable moments – mostly tied to celebrations of championships by Boston sports teams – but it usually deserted. How can a failure go un-rectified for 44 years? It has not been for a lack of design competitions. Beginning in 1968 and continuing to this year, there have been a steady stream of re-design invitationals that are international in scope. (One such design is show below). None have been implemented (Mayor Menino’s trial balloon of moving City Hall may have a lot to do with the lack of action since 2008), but what of the prior decades?
|One 2010 entry to re-design the plaza.|
|The Piazza Del Campo 'works' because|
it is enclosed by human-scale
buildings with things that attract
lots of activity
Would horticulture help? At present, greenery in the plaza is restricted to a pathetic rectangular grid of trees adjacent to an office building. The 'grove' is almost painful to look at. Could the bricks be torn out and the entire eight acres turned into a park along the lines of Boston Common or, even better, the Norman Leventhal Park at Post Office Square? It would be an improvement. Like that park, such a project would need to be built with private donations (my next mystery envisions a murder potentially tied to fund-raising for ‘The Garden at Government Center’).
In the end, though, I think Mayor Menino got it right back in 2008. City Hall Plaza was an ill-conceived and horribly executed idea; the product of a design era of which, today, we shake our heads and wonder, "what were they thinking?" After fifty years, it's time to admit that it was a mistake. Sell the site to the highest bidder and require that it include a publicly accessible park, a la Post Office Square. Use some of the proceeds to build a new City Hall, with the lone proviso that it look nothing like the current one. In short, let a new Scollay Square bloom.