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Paul Rudolph’s Government Center architecture is at a dangerous crossroads

The Charles F. Hurley building in Boston is being eyed for redevelopment.
The Charles F. Hurley building in Boston is being eyed for redevelopment.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

To walk around the Charles F. Hurley office building, a few blocks from City Hall, is to witness society’s disinvestment in the public sector in concrete form. Opened in 1971 to house workers for the state Division of Employment Security, the building suffers from years of not-so-benign neglect. The monumental stone columns meant to communicate power and stability are stained and forlorn. Trash and chain-link gates block stairway entrances. Pigeons appear to be roosting in the building’s ledges, where protective netting is full of feathers and guano. No wonder the Baker administration wants to find a private developer to renovate the building, squeeze some value out of the 3.25-acre site, and rid the state of this troublesome chore.

But hold on. The Hurley building may be unloved, but it isn’t unlovely. “When you go to a park and the grass is dead, you don’t blame the grass,” said Greg Galer,director of the Boston Preservation Alliance, one of many groups taking a critical look at the state’s redevelopment plans. The stark, ambitious Hurley building is a victim of deferred maintenance, fickle tastes, and government’s ceaseless hunt for revenue.


Boston's Charles F. Hurley Building.
Boston's Charles F. Hurley Building.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Designed as part of the Government Service Center by the renowned architect Paul Rudolph, the Hurley building contrasts ponderous concrete material with curving, even sculptural lines. Rudolph, then chairman of architecture department at Yale, was reacting to what he considered the sleek, soulless Modernism of glass and steel office towers by favoring materials that are rough and tactile (indeed, you wouldn’t want to brush up against the Hurley’s hammered concrete walls wearing an expensive sweater). “It’s a tour de force of design quirkiness and complexity,” says architect Mark Pasnik, coauthor of the book “Heroic,” a survey of Boston’s extraordinary collection of so-called Brutalist buildings by prominent architects during the postwar years. “These buildings represent a time when monumentality was embraced as a reflection of the importance of the civic realm.”


But has that time passed? In January, the state’s Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance (DCAMM) released a Project Notification Form outlining four scenarios for private redevelopment of the Hurley, ranging from partial to complete demolition, with construction of a new office tower. The state would consolidate its need for more space in a brighter, accessible, more energy-efficient building while the private development partner would build out the rest of the site with a mix of uses.

Attached to the notification form is a preservation report by the Boston architecture firm Bruner/Cott (and others) — significant because Bruner/Cott oversaw the successful renovation of Josep Lluís Sert’s law school building at Boston University, and his former Holyoke Center at Harvard University, which are from the same era and presented some of the same challenges as the Hurley. While recognizing the magnitude of Rudolph’s vision for the complex, the report finds the Hurley “unworthy of the building’s prime downtown location, which should be Class A office real estate.”

Although it lacks formal landmark status, the Hurley building’s proposed overhaul has galvanized the historic preservation community, not just in the United States but worldwide. The lobby of the building features fantastic two-story high murals by the Italian-born artist Costantino Nivola, depicting scenes of government solace to needy families. The site-specific frescoes, etched directly into the walls, are public — but hidden — gems that could be seriously threatened in any demolition.


A two-story mural in the Charles F. Hurley Building.
A two-story mural in the Charles F. Hurley Building.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Proponents of the redevelopment argue that Rudolph’s vision was never completely realized; a prominent 24-story tower in his original design was scrapped as uneconomical. But by this logic, Antoni Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, also unfinished, would be unworthy of preservation. Others contend that Rudolph’s involvement in the Hurley design was merely tangential to his overall role as “co-ordinating architect” for the entire Government Service Center, which includes the adjacent Erich Lindemann mental health building (considered by most to be the more architecturally significant building). Yes, other firms were involved, but Rudolph’s powerful design influence on the whole complex is obvious.

Last month the Massachusetts Historic Commission issued a blunt response to DCAMM, saying its proposal in current form would have an “adverse effect” on the Hurley, and that the state “should promote retention and rehabilitation” as the first among the options outlined. The historic commission is required by law to review any plans to dispose of state-owned property, and its determination will trigger a consultation process with DCAMM and other relevant parties, including preservation groups. Pro or con, it’s clear this is just the beginning of a long campaign.

What’s less clear is whether the state can pull off the delicate balancing act among competing imperatives: preservation of important architecture; the state’s needs for more office space; and improvements to the degraded urban fabric surrounding the building. A sensitive adaptive reuse of the Hurley should be possible, but only if the right partnerships are forged. This is not a project for an off-the-shelf design.


Rudolph, who died in 1997, leaves a fractured legacy. His majestic style is enjoying something of a popular revival, but too late for several of his buildings — schools, courthouses, municipal offices — that have been demolished. His Orange County Government Center in Goshen, N.Y., was unpopular with locals, poorly maintained, shuttered for six years, and partly destroyed in a 2015 remake. It’s hard not to conclude that part of the public’s disdain for Rudolph’s architecture stems from the fact that so many of his buildings house government bureaucracies.

The Hurley is a case in point. Rudolph’s original plan, sketched in the early 1960s, reflected the ambitions of President Kennedy’s New Frontier, when the government was seen as a benevolent force in people’s lives. By the time construction stopped, in 1970, the country was exhausted by war, assassinations, and urban unrest. The dawn of neoliberalism, with its focus on deregulation and privatization, could be glimpsed on the horizon.

Even if the Hurley and all its glorious eccentricities is physically preserved, commercial redevelopment would take the building partly out of the public realm. Who knows what will become of its civic life once it is handed over to private developers? If it is not done very carefully, Rudolph’s Boston treasure could become a mere remnant, a dim reminder of a time when government was valued enough to engage the services of a world famous architect.


Renée Loth is the former editor of ArchitectureBoston magazine and a columnist for The Boston Globe.

Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.