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Ideas

Ideas

How to look at the Prudential

What a much-maligned building tells us about the city

Prudential Financial Inc.

You begin to glimpse it from your car when the sinuous ribbon of the Massachusetts Turnpike crests outside Boston: the dull gray tower that heralds the Prudential Center. Never the critics darling, the “Pru” is still one of the most recognizable landmarks in the city, with the letters of the corporation that built it affixed at the top like a typographical cornice line. From a distance, it resembles a modern campanile as iconic a mark on the skyline as a medieval bell tower in an Italian town.

A moment later, the image on the horizon splits and the view reveals a taller, shimmering slab: the 1976 John Hancock Tower, designed to outshine the Prudential. The Hancock—insubstantial, an iridescent mirage—is considered by many critics to be the more elegant and appealing of the two, although it is perhaps best known for the initial tendency of its mirrored glass panels to dislodge and crash to the ground.

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Along with the Hancock, the Prudential stands as a bold 20th-century emblem of a life insurance company and its intangible product: financial security. Where ordinary businesses could heedlessly pursue profit, insurance companies carried the responsibility of providing security for families, and to that end they cultivated an image as social institutions. The Prudential Center represented one company’s efforts both to cement its own reputation and to insure the future of a struggling city.

Prudential’s sign of confidence in Boston helped open the floodgates for new office development. The Prudential Center was dedicated in 1965, when this photograph was taken. Though this was the first major building project since John Hancock’s 1947 tower, by the end of the decade Boston was in an office-building boom. The tide was turning from an industrial to a post-industrial, service-based economy, and the Prudential played a key role in that transition.

The building also illuminates another significant postwar transition: Boston’s evolution from a 19th-century metropolis, organized around rail-based transport and a concentrated business district, to a regional city organized around highways and easy parking. Today, the mid-century landscape has altered once again. The Pru has a new streetscape, with many new buildings, an indoor mall, and walkways, reflecting a movement back toward a denser, more pedestrian-friendly urban fabric. Two more towers are currently planned for the site.

Many critics have cast a jaundiced eye at the architecture of the Prudential Center—it was out-of-scale, dull, even ugly. But the Pru has been resilient and, over the years, it has garnered a distinctive status in Boston. Love it or hate it, few locals would trade this blocky tower for another building.

The Site

Before the Prudential Center, this site between Boylston and Huntington avenues was a rail yard. In 1956, with rail in decline, the Boston & Albany Railroad sold the Back Bay yard to Prudential, which soon announced plans for a massive complex of office, retail, residential, and hotel buildings. Prudential also purchased and demolished Mechanics Hall, a red-brick structure built in 1881 along Huntington Avenue.

The Architect

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Prudential hired Charles Luckman (originally paired with William Pereira) as master planner and coordinating architect. A former businessman and president of Lever Brothers, Luckman cared more about pleasing the client than pushing an aesthetic agenda; his motto was “Architecture IS a Business.”

The Tower

Even before it was completed, the Prudential Tower was a building that architecture critics loved to hate. By the ’80s, Globe critic Robert Campbell was handing out “Pru Awards” for worst new buildings. Prudential considered reskinning the façade in the 1980s, but the ticky-tacky, staggered metal frame remains. It hasn’t got much style, but in certain light, especially from across the Charles, the Pru is subtle and elegant, the grey and green panels glinting in the sun.

The Plazas

Architect Charles Luckman called it “humanation”: the provision of large, open plazas for pedestrians, away from congested city streets, and framed by shopping pavilions and a watery moat. But the Pru’s retail plazas—windy, overexposed—never worked. Prudential plotted renovations, and by 1993 shoppers could amble through skylit “street arcades” to the “central city square” of the Prudential Center.

The Ring Road

The ring road was designed to mitigate the traffic impact of the Prudential Center by funneling cars from city streets into parking garages. But it also cut off the city from the complex. As the tide turned back to more pedestrian-friendly streets, new buildings ate into the ring road, making the Pru more integrated with its surroundings.

The Sign

Newark-based Prudential planned the Prudential Center as one of several “regional home offices” across the United States; each was built in a city center, on a large, accessible, midtown site. Like its cousins, the Northeastern Home Office in Boston had the name of its patron emblazoned across its top—an advertisement for the fiscal soundness of the company that built it.

The Opening

The Prudential Center was dedicated on Patriots Day 1965—it would have looked much like this picture. The finish line of the Marathon was moved to the north plaza (Japanese runner Morio Shigematsu won the race). A symposium on “The Free Society and Its Posture in World Affairs” was held in the grand ballroom of the Pru’s Sheraton-Boston Hotel, moderated by Walter Cronkite. The opening was intended to demonstrate the company’s commitment not only to Boston’s landscape and financial life but also to its culture.

The Pike

The Pru sits astride the Massachusetts Turnpike, and together they form an urban highway interchange. The “Boston Extension” allowed Pike chief William F. Callahan to connect the statewide toll road to the newly constructed Central Artery, following the old Boston & Albany rail corridor. Where the Pike and the Pru might have been rivals, instead they became allies. Ultimately, Prudential bought nearly a quarter of the $180 million bond issue required to finance the new road.

The Competition

The next tallest building in this picture is the 1947 John Hancock tower, just beyond Copley Square, designed by Cram and Ferguson. The Hancock had anchored the midtown insurance district, along with buildings for the Liberty Mutual and New England Mutual companies. After the Prudential went up, Hancock planned a new building to outshine the Pru; its iconic mirrored tower appeared in 1976.

Elihu Rubin is the Daniel Rose (’51) Visiting Assistant Professor of Urbanism at the Yale School of Architecture. His book,
“Insuring the City: The Prudential Center and the Postwar Urban Landscape,” has just been published by Yale University Press. Contact him at www.elihu.info.

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