Opinion: Boston's Buildings Tell Its History

The city's buildings tell a story. Here's a decade-by-decade look at the changes during the past 100 years.

Boston is a city defined by its people, not by its buildings. However, by looking at the city's buildings, you can gather clues about what was going on in the city at any one time. Several of Boston's buildings stand out in significance, reflecting changes that had taken place in the city - or that were about to take place. 

1940s - The calm before the storm

In the early part of the 20th century, Boston was a city in decline. People (many of them foreign-born immigrants) continued moving into Boston including after World War II, but by mid-century, several of the city's downtown neighborhoods had deteriorated to the point they were considered "slums".

What then to make of the handsome John Hancock Tower, completed in 1947? This is the second of three Hancock towers, the one with the weather beacon on top, also known as the Berkeley Building.

Although much of the city was seen as neighborhoods made up of poor people living in squalid conditions, the financial services industry remained one of its few strengths. The construction of the Hancock tower reflects this.

Also of significance is the New England Telephone building, at 185 Franklin Street, finished in 1947. It is a beautiful, art-deco building where no expense appears to have been spared. Such is the life for a company with a monopoly!

1950s - Death and destruction in the city of Boston

The federal and state governments proposed dramatic plans to clean up the city, basically by tearing down much of its downtown, including Scollay Square, the West End and parts of the South End. So, the 1950s were a decade without significant private construction projects in the city core; in fact, it was a decade of destruction, as the US and Massachusetts governments began their urban renewal projects.

The city of Boston was involved, as well. There were several major-scale, publicly-financed developments in the 1950s, housing projects including Cathedral in the South End and Columbia Point in Dorchester. These developments helped house thousands of residents left homeless due to the land-grabs of the governments.

The idea was to wipe the slate clean and begin the city over again.

1960s - Urban renewal and a city in flux 

The publicly-financed destruction rout by urban renewal was supposed to be followed by major re-building projects that would re-invigorate the city's core. Instead, the West End was replaced with the dreadful Charles River Park, the chaotic Scollay Square became the dull, depressing City Hall Plaza, and the South End ended up with three public housing projects, abandoned buildings, and empty lots.

In East Boston, residents were faced with ever-expanding Logan International Airport. Neighbors were forced from their homes through eminent domain, all in the name of progress. The city as a whole began to turn the corner toward better times, but the fight had many casualties.

The Prudential Insurance tower was completed in 1964 and the State Street Bank building in 1966. These projects showed the resiliency and rebirth of Boston, focusing on its strength in the banking and financial services industry. Boston, of course, being the birthplace of the mutual fund (which was created at either Mass Mutual or Fidelity Investments, depending on who you ask). The significance of the Prudential Plaza project cannot be over-emphasized. It turned an (underused) rail yard into land on which was built housing, hotels, office towers, and parking, that over time firmly established Back Bay as Boston's business center, in some ways matching and in others supplanting the historic role of the financial district.

In 1969, the (new) Boston City Hall was completed on the Government Center Plaza, ultimately a grand failure of epic proportions, that has been with us for going on 60 years and probably there for another 60 years until someone has the good sense to tear it down and start over.

1970s - Banks save Boston

In the 1970s, the city showed its resiliency and began to gradually rebuild, with banks taking the lead.

The rebuilding of Government Center did jumpstart construction in the financial district, however. By the mid-1970s, all four major banking institutions completed headquarters buildings, including Bank of Boston, New England Merchants, Shawmut Bank, and The Boston Company.

Boston saw major construction projects completed, but many had their genesis in the 1960s and reflected the style of that time. The Boston Public Library opened its new (Philip) Johnson wing in 1971 and the Church of Christ, Scientist expanded by building three new buildings and its iconic reflecting pool between 1971 and 1973. The Hurley Building / Lindemann Mental Health Center was completed in 1971.

Several residential projects were completed during this time, even as the city continued to lose population (by another 12% between 1970 and 1980). The twin Harbor Towers (originally proposed to be three buildings) were finished in 1971.

Not coincidentally, all of these buildings were built in the Brutalist style, so by name alone, you can tell what they look like. Huge concrete slabs plopped down on top of each other. With few windows, the insides are similar to women's prisons you see on TV. (Architects will tell you the BPL addition is actually "Modernist". w/e.)

What does this say about Boston? That it was without original ideas, that it had no faith in itself and relied on others to tell it what to do. Edward Logue was in charge of the city's planning and development at this time; what did he know about Boston - he was born in Pennsylvania and educated at Yale. The architecture of the time tells you we relied too strongly on outsiders to determine our own destiny.,

Starting in the mid-1970s, the city was rocked by the public schools' busing crisis that led many families to leave the city. Boston's population continued its downward spiral, dropping by about 240,000 people (30%) between 1950 and 1980. The destruction of major parts of the city was not reflected in what was being built at the time.

1980s - The go-go years and aftermath

The country had gone through a tough recession in 1981-1982, but things were looking up, by mid-decade. Boston's population stabilized. Abandoned buildings in the South End were bought up and renovated. Emerson College unveiled plans to relocate its campus to Lawrence, which would have opened up the Back Bay to more residential development and an improved neighborhood experience. (These plans were eventually canceled.)

Downtown Boston saw the development of several significant buildings that reflected the success of the banking and financial services industries. Showy projects such as One International Place were completed during this time. Exchange Place came online in 1984, a strikingly-beautiful glass tower that incorporates the existing stone building located at the corners of Congress and State streets.

The health of the city was an illusion, however. The mid-1980s was a period of strong economic growth, both locally and nationally ("It was the best of times, it was the best of times," as my boss at the time said), but it was also a decade of excess, the "Bonfire of the Vanities". Eventually, the world imploded on itself.

The new 1990 decade was welcomed in with the stock market reeling, the housing market in disarray, and everyone living in the midst of a grueling, never-ending recession.

1990s - Excess and success

The city's people persevered.  Even as the country suffered through (another) recession in the early 1990s, the Clinton years brought renewed faith to a lot of people. Boston's population began to increase, slowly. The downtown Boston neighborhoods held steady and even gained ground, with many buildings in the South End and Back Bay being renovated and turned into condominiums.

There weren't many major commercial construction projects completed during this time. Two International Place is the only project of note.

It's almost as if the city was on hold, recovering from the recessions of the 1980s, with people taking a breather as they rebuilt their financial and personal lives.

2000s - Residential development takes center stage

The first decade of the new century brought the dawn of a new age, with new construction in Boston focused on residential housing including the city's first high-rise condominium building (two, actually), the Ritz-Carlton Towers.

Living in the city became an appealing idea for many people. The city's population increased by more than 9% between 1980 and 2010. 

There were several large commercial projects completed during the '00s including 111 Huntington Ave, the R2-D2 building. The building is of note because its design, with a "crown" on top, was reportedly influenced by Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino. A fitting tribute to a man who had won re-election three years earlier ... against no one.

The Clarendon condominium project and One Back Bay apartment complex was completed in 2008. This residential project reflects the return to Boston of its upper class and a renewal of the city as a place for business and fun and for living, as well.

2010 - Lost chances and broken dreams

Unfortunately, the city has not been immune to the national and international economic crisis that hit in 2008 and continued the next three years (and longer?). Major development projects that had been proposed during the "good" years ended up being mothballed.

Only in the last six months has Boston seen new proposals presented. Some development projects have even broke ground.

2011 and beyond - Universities, hospitals, and non-profits

The city seems poised for great things in the future. Many of the city's universities and hospitals have major expansion plans. This seems to be the direction the city is going in. The banking and financial services industry has been a major part of the city for decades; this isn't going to change in the future, apparently. The uncertainty it brings is stressful, to say the least. Boston is spreading its risk, however, by encouraging major expansions of its universities and hospitals. And, it looks as though the life sciences and pharmaceutical / bio-tech industry will bring new jobs to the city, and with it, new opportunities for its residents.

This story appears on Back Bay, South End, Charlestown and Jamaica Plain Patches.

Carter Jefferson November 23, 2011 at 04:56 PM
Thank you very much for an excellent history of Boston's Ups and Downs.
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