Hall of Shame: Government Center, Boston

Government Center, Boston, MA

Government Center, Boston, MA

The picture above is that lovely, wide-open vista that seemingly landed in Boston like a meteor shower, creating a giant crater. It’s a trainwreck of a public space that I am unfortunately well acquainted with – Government Center, in Boston, MA.

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS: Being a Bostonian, and studying the History of Boston at Harvard, I am painfully familiar with all the reasons why Government Center happened. What I cannot imagine is why, 30 years later, it remains one of the most awful public spaces in the country.

Boston itself is a superb city, with a rich and varied history. Packed with historic treasures, it is a haven for tourists, who flock to its spectacular sites routinely. Government Center has become the eyesore that won’t go away, in an otherwise magnificent city.

Scollay Square, the unfortunate area which was decimated to make way for Government Center, was a far more interesting and historic area, albeit a tad dicey. Since Boston was a seaport, it was always a haven for immigrants, and with them, came a rather unseemly lot of folk. One infamous place for congregating near the waterfront, which later became a den of iniquity, was Scollay Square. This area was a hotbed of activity, where international seamen and merchants frequented rather bawdy taverns, took in vaudeville and burlesque shows, and other intriguing entertainment.

Scollay Square Before and After

Scollay Square in the black and white photos above: Before (Above) and After (Below)

Scollay Square started out as Boston’s home to the elite and ruling class. John Winthrop (the founder of Boston and first Governor of Massachusetts) lived nearby, as did many other city and state officials. During the siege of Boston in 1775/76 the Brattle Square Church housed British troops. Today, this site would be the base of City Hall at City Hall Plaza.

As immigrants who followed in the mid- to late-1800s, changed the character of Boston, the elite began to abandon the Square, and by the 1880s, it had become the center of commercial activity in Boston.

The Square played a large role in the 1919 Boston Police Strike, brought on in part by the dramatic cavalry charge, ordered by Governor Calvin Coolidge, to disperse the “15,000 ruffians” who had gathered there.

It might not have been perfect, but it sure had character. The city officials were sick of the bar-room brawls, and occasional all-out riots that occured there. By the 1940’s and 50’s, Boston’s economy had become quite depressed in this area, prompting officials to take drastic measures to clean the place up.

The Last Days of Scollay Square – The Old Howard Theater…

The Old Howard Theater goes down in a puff of smoke

The Old Howard Theater goes down in a puff of smoke

Their solution? Government Center. Built by Kallmann, McKinnell and Knowles between 1963 and 1968, the design for Boston City Hall and its accompanying plaza won a national competition to replace a 90-acre “urban renewal” site with today’s Government Center. How ironic that nearby – but now effectively cut off thanks to the design of Government Center – is Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market, birthplace of another trend in urban planning: historic preservation via the “festival marketplace.”

Why is Boston still stuck with this bloody thing? First off, the new attempts at redesigning it fail to take in the concept of the community, and how it congregates, as well as its nearby neighbors.

“It proves once again that design competitions accomplish little if nothing in creating great places. What does this say about design in a city with so many prominent designers (as opposed to placemakers) – a city where all the truly successful places are older?

While some places in the Hall of Shame have at least a few redeeming characteristics, everything about City Hall Plaza and the surrounding Government Center is all wrong. Bleak, expansive, and shapeless, it has an exceedingly poor image in a city where image should be paramount.” [Great Public Spaces, PPS Project for Public Spaces]