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Architect Henry N. Cobb dies; his designs helped transform the look of Boston

Henry Cobb (center) with images of Boston buildings in which he has been principally responsible. From left to right: One Dalton, Harbor Towers, John Hancock Tower and John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse.
Henry Cobb (center) with images of Boston buildings in which he has been principally responsible. From left to right: One Dalton, Harbor Towers, John Hancock Tower and John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse.

Henry N. Cobb, an architect whose buildings and plans helped change the face of Boston in the second half of the 20th century and well into the 21st, died Tuesday at his Manhattan home, according to his firm, Pei Cobb Freed & Partners. He was 93.

Mr. Cobb’s Boston buildings include 200 Clarendon, the former John Hancock Tower, in Back Bay; Harbor Towers, on the waterfront; and the John Joseph Moakley US Courthouse and Harborpark, on Fan Pier. His most recent local design, the One Dalton skyscraper, in Back Bay, opened in 2019. Mr. Cobb also helped create the master plan for what would become Government Center.

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“Harry, you’ve taken away my Boston,” his father once said to him.

In an e-mail, Associate Justice Stephen Breyer of the US Supreme Court wrote, “Harry was a great architect , a natural teacher, and a thoroughly decent human being.” Breyer, then a US appeals court judge, worked closely with Mr. Cobb and US District Judge Douglas P. Woodlock on the Moakley courthouse design in the early 1990s.

He was not the high-profile figure that his longtime partner I.M. Pei was. Pei died last May. The late James Ingo Freed was Pei Cobb Freed’s third name partner. Yet within the profession Mr. Cobb was a much-respected elder statesman.

“All my friends who were architects loved and admired Harry,” said Laurie Olin in a telephone interview from his Philadelphia office. A landscape architect, Olin worked with Mr. Cobb on multiple projects. “He was a great collaborator. He was a great intellect. He was a very warm friend. Usually, you might get one or two of those qualities, but you don’t get all. You did with Harry. He was an architect’s architect."

I.M. Pei, Governor John Volpe, Robert Slater, and Henry Cobb in November, 1967.
I.M. Pei, Governor John Volpe, Robert Slater, and Henry Cobb in November, 1967.Joe Dennehy Boston Globe Staff/The Boston Globe - The Boston Gl

The New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman once described Mr. Cobb’s best designs as “geometrically eloquent and deceptively simple.” Yet his Modernist partiality to the rigor of glass and metal did not keep him from employing the tactility of brick and granite for the Portland Museum of Art (1983) in Maine or limestone for the National Constitution Center (2003) in Philadelphia. At the Moakley courthouse, those two approaches to materials converge, with its brick-and-granite front and a 88-foot-tall curving glass wall in back, facing Boston Harbor.

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Mr. Cobb’s mastery of imposing scale did not blind him to the need for a nuanced and varied approach to urban space. Five years spent working with the New York developer William Zeckendorf in the early ’50s, Mr. Cobb later recalled, would provide a crucial “post-graduate education in the role of speculative enterprise as a catalyst in the ever-shifting interplay of competing interests that shape a city.”

The Harvard historian Lizabeth Cohen interviewed Mr. Cobb for her 2019 book, “Saving America’s Cities: Ed Logue and the Struggle to Renew Urban America in the Suburban Age.” In an e-mail, she recalled how Mr. Cobb "valued what he called the populist ‘cure’ to the top-down ‘urban renewal disease,’ yet he regretted that in recent years, we have failed to reconcile that need to respect and involve communities with an ability to think ambitiously about cities as a whole. Cobb’s critical relationship to what a city is and can be, which he put to work on multiple scales from designing beautiful buildings to imagining more perfect — and democratic — cities, will be hard to find again.”

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Among Mr. Cobb’s other designs are the Place Ville Marie in Montreal (1962); the campus of the State University of New York Fredonia (1968); Johnson & Johnson world headquarters, New Brunswick, N.J. (1983); the UCLA Anderson School of Management, Los Angeles (1995); and the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City and Torre Espacio in Madrid (both 2008).

Harry Cobb with a model of the John Hancock Tower.
Harry Cobb with a model of the John Hancock Tower.Pei Cobb Freed & Partners

Mr. Cobb was a notably eloquent writer. His memoir, “Henry N. Cobb: Words & Works 1948-2018," offers an impressively articulate overview of a career — an ongoing career. Several projects, such as the International African American Museum in Charleston, S.C., are in progress.

Mr. Cobb was also notably candid. “Disastrous” he called Harbor Towers, in a 1998 Globe interview. "A fundamental problem . . . for which I hold myself responsible, is the idea of towers [there] to begin with. It’s a misuse of a very precious asset. It’s not what one would wish to see there.”

City Hall Plaza, he said in 2018 Globe interview, is “overscaled, underpopulated, coldly institutional, and obdurately resistant to the many efforts that have been made to bring it to life.” In fairness, Mr. Cobb had envisioned “a quiet lawn” underfoot rather than brick.

Candor also took the form of self-deprecation. An evaluator of an aptitude test Mr. Cobb took in 1942 specifically urged against architecture, adding that, “with your aptitudes, manufacturing executive’s work would be ideal for you.” Mr. Cobb included a facsimile of the report in “Words & Works.'' He also noted there with puckish pride that his first built work was an outhouse on North Haven, Maine. His family long summered there.

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Mr. Cobb’s most celebrated building was also, for a time, his most notorious: the Hancock. The architectural historian Douglass Shand-Tucci once described it as “Boston’s steeple,” and its cool reflective presence now seems as much a part of the fabric of the city as its neighbors Trinity Church and the Boston Public Library’s McKim Building.

Yet the idea of placing next to those buildings a skyscraper (still Boston’s tallest building, at 60 stories) was at first considered an outrage. “It wasn’t a question of whether the design was good,” Mr. Cobb said in a 2003 Globe interview, “but was it the wrong thing to do to begin with? The underlying premise of the project was considered unacceptable by a great many people.”

Mr. Cobb, with the John Hancock Tower, still the city's tallest building.
Mr. Cobb, with the John Hancock Tower, still the city's tallest building.AP/The Boston Globe - The Boston Gl

Mr. Cobb believed that had the project been proposed as little as two or three years later, the city would not have approved it.

Pei had executed the original design. It consisted of a concrete tower and a pair of low-rise buildings on two blocks with open space between. Hancock rejected it as too expensive. Mr. Cobb’s design consciously sought to downplay the project’s impact. The building’s reflective surface and rhomboid shape have led to the Hancock being likened to a sail, a sculpture, an immense mirror, and a pure volume. Olin recalled saying to Mr. Cobb “You know, Harry, you’ve just done the largest color-field painting anyone’s ever done. It’s always beautiful, it’s always there, it’s always in the sky.”

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“It’s a silent building,” Mr. Cobb said in that 2003 interview. "The reason it’s silent is it’s designed to respond to Copley Square. If it weren’t silent it would really be offensive in its presence there.”

Cacophony, not silence, marked much of the next decade. After an August 1968 groundbreaking, the excavation was botched. Settling affected surrounding buildings and streets, including Trinity. Once the building was erected, things got worse: Windows began to pop out. With plywood covering 33 floors of the exterior, the Hancock’s opening was delayed five years, from 1971 to 1976. “No building in our time has been more cursed,” The New York Times wrote. Mr. Cobb wasn’t at fault. A flaw in the design of the windows was the problem.

The curse soon lifted. The American Institute of Architects bestowed a National Honor Award on the Hancock in 1977. A 1994 Globe poll of architects and historians rated it Boston’s third-best work of architecture, after Trinity Church and the McKim Building. "Clearly, from where it began, its reputation could only go up,” Mr. Cobb noted in 2003, with characteristic dryness.

What he described as the other “most important” building of his career was the Moakley courthouse. It makes for a striking contrast with the Hancock: low slung rather than tall, civic not commercial, defining a new urban space rather than responding to an existing one, and with the most important architectural element concealed within: the building’s 27 courtrooms.

His aim, Mr. Cobb wrote in response to a set of questions posed to finalists for the commission, was that the courthouse should “both fit in and stand out.”

What mattered most about his design, Mr. Cobb later wrote, was “the unambiguous assertion . . . that the courthouse and Harborpark belong to the public, and the courts and their proceedings are open to all."

In his e-mail about Mr. Cobb, Breyer wrote, “Harry was a craftsman who understood the importance of detail. He designed buildings that both work effectively and bring beauty into the lives of those whom they touch.”

Henry Nichols Cobb was born April 8, 1926, in Boston. He grew up in Brookline. His father, Charles Kane Cobb II, was an investment counselor. His mother, Elsie (Nichols) Cobb, was a homemaker. He was educated at Phillips Exeter Academy and Harvard College. At Harvard, he was treasurer of the Lampoon. He participated in the Naval ROTC program and later served in the Naval Reserves.

At Harvard’s Graduate School of Design he first met Pei, who was his teacher. “We shared certain enthusiasms and aspirations," Mr. Cobb recalled in 1998. They formed their partnership in 1955. He would himself teach at the design school, serving as chairman of the department of architecture from 1980-'85.

For his thesis project, Mr. Cobb designed a tower cluster for the then-moribund India Wharf. Boston, he wrote nearly seven decades later, “seemed to me full, self-satisfied, and deeply resistant to change.”

He soon moved to New York, he told the Globe in 1998, “because I was an ambitious young architect and I didn’t think anything was going to happen here.” In doing so, he joined a starry tradition: a long line of natives, from the historian Henry Adams to the poet Robert Lowell to the composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein, who left Boston — yet continued to shape it even as it had shaped them.

Mr. Cobb leaves his wife, Joan (Spaulding) Cobb; three daughters, Sara and Emma, of New York, and Pamela, of Northampton; a brother, John W.; and three grandchildren.

Plans for a memorial are incomplete.



Mark Feeney can be reached at mark.feeney@globe.com.