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CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

At Post Office Square, a skyscraper transforms while office workers aren’t looking

A view of the One Post Office Square renovation in progress, with the old exterior on top and the new glass façade on the bottom.
A view of the One Post Office Square renovation in progress, with the old exterior on top and the new glass façade on the bottom.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Sometime in the future when more people return to what is now a decanted downtown, they will see all kinds of transformations, from new bike lanes to closed-off streets to parking spots given over to outdoor cafes. And they will also encounter this: an entire skyscraper peeled of its façade and rebuilt as an energy-efficient tower, adorned with multiple new outdoor spaces from bottom to top.

While the usual throngs have been away due to the pandemic, construction workers have been steadily dismantling the concrete skin of One Post Office Square, swapping in the new glass exterior, piece by piece. From the outside, the project looks about halfway done, giving the 1981 building — Boston’s 12th tallest tower at 41 stories — the work-in-progress look of C-3PO in “The Phantom Menace.”

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The rehabilitation is a fitting symbol of a city that is constantly reinventing itself, bouncing back from disasters, accommodating changing needs, and using technology to become more sustainable and resilient.

The project also illustrates how 21st-century city-building is mostly about redevelopment — a constant process of reusing and retrofitting existing structures, blending old and new. Arguably, that evolution of the city, revealing multiple layers of architectural styles and building functions, is being sped up by COVID-19, as construction equipment can be moved into place with fewer worries about traffic jams or pedestrians.

While some might have seen a nondescript, obsolete ′80s office tower, the development team came to appreciate the “good bones” of a structure in a prime location, at the corner of Pearl and Milk streets overlooking the Norman B. Leventhal Park, said Douglas Gensler, principal at the architectural firm Gensler, which has partnered with Jones Lang LaSalle and Anchor Line Partners to produce what will be 775,000 square feet of new office space.

And while others are tearing down buildings and starting over — the planned Raffles Hotel across from the Hancock Tower, for example, or JP Morgan’s 270 Park Avenue in New York City — it didn’t make economic sense to “scrape” this skyscraper, Gensler said. Remaking the tower in situ was also a better deal for the environment, saving thousands of tons of carbon emissions that would be associated with demolition.

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Preserving the “embodied energy” in original construction is important, said Holly W. Samuelson, associate professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. But developers retrofitting existing buildings ultimately need to calculate how much harmful greenhouse gas emissions are saved over the life of the new building. “You have to think about what happens operationally year after year,” she said.

One Post Office Square was designed to achieve gold status under current LEED green building standards, with an overhauled heating and cooling system that promotes natural ventilation and daylight, coupled with the energy-efficient triple-glazed glass of the building’s new skin.

This energy retrofit will have no “tiny windows,” as President Trump bemoaned some weeks ago; only larger ones. (It’s worth noting, though, that some environmentalists quibble with all the new glass, questioning its effectiveness while fretting about birds that might smash into it.)

The renovation means large windows and natural daylight.
The renovation means large windows and natural daylight.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Though the project was designed before COVID hit, there will also be seven new roof decks, providing ample access to the outdoors. The project includes a new appendage, on the site of a former parking structure, and a deck will be placed on top of that, at the 19th floor.

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Visually, from the outside at least, the end result will be another glass tower, so common for corporate headquarters, whether in Boston or Charlotte or Houston. Yet it’s clear that the renovation, set for partial completion by the end of next year, fits within a historical context. On the lower floors it will be joined to the landmarked 1922 Renaissance Revival building housing the Langham Hotel next door, currently also being renovated.

And that will be one more illustration of all the layers involved in the city’s evolving urban landscape.

Before it was the Langham Hotel it was the Meridien, and before that it was the original headquarters for the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. The Post Office Square area was by the turn of the 20th century a kind of town green for Boston, surrounded by public buildings, civic institutions, and palaces of commerce. One Post Office Square sits on the site once occupied by the Boston Elevated Railway company, which was a big deal at the turn of the 19th century and had grand headquarters to match.

Over years, traditional classical architecture gave way to art deco, at the former federal courthouse building at the corner of Milk and Congress streets, and the New England Telephone & Telegraph headquarters on Franklin Street. Then came more concrete office buildings adopting the style of Brutalism, the hallmark of mid-century modernism. The former Bank of Boston tower at 100 Federal Street, universally derided as the “pregnant building,” arose in 1971 in a kind of final spasm of 20th-century corporate architecture.

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For this part of the city, the only constant has been change, from the Great Fire of 1872, which razed the entire area and provided a blank slate for building anew, to the extraordinary swapping-out of an ugly 20th-century parking garage to make way for the area’s centerpiece park.

The prime triangle-shaped parcel now occupied by Norman B. Leventhal Park was home to the stately and ornate New England Mutual Life Building, which was demolished and ultimately redeveloped as a multi-level above-ground parking garage during America’s mid-20th-century era of urban renewal. That eyesore was torn down and the parking thrust underground, with the revenue helping to finance the Paris-caliber green space on top. For a younger generation, that park looks like it’s always been there.

A view of the One Post Office Square project from Norman B. Leventhal Park.
A view of the One Post Office Square project from Norman B. Leventhal Park.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Can One Post Office Square, and the renovated Langham Hotel for that matter, really pull off a similar transformation? There are all kinds of questions about the future of the Financial District, Back Bay, and the Seaport, in terms of demand for commercial office and hotel space. Even after the pandemic, more employees may end up working remotely, with only periodic check-ins at physical corporate headquarters.

A number of transactions and plans are on hold, “until things stabilize and they figure out how we are going to work in the future,” said Kristin E. Blount, executive vice president at Colliers International real estate firm. In the long term, the thinking is that larger office tenants will still want to be in the city with access to transportation, Blount said. They are looking at “what tasks will be done in the office and what will be done off-site. They anticipate needing less space than pre-pandemic but not significantly less.”

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The One Post Office Square team won’t disclose the cost of the project, which was launched before the March shutdowns. The investment capital will have to be patient, however, looking to 2022 and 2023 and beyond. Further adjustments will likely be part of the project as it opens in stages. Elsewhere around the nation, there is talk of converting surplus office space into housing, though the floor plates of high-rises can be a challenge to reconfigure.

What seems clear is that the pandemic — and the climate crisis — will continue opening the door for change and innovation and adaptation, just as surely as cholera led to water and sewer infrastructure, and fires and earthquakes prompted new building methods, materials, and fireproofing. It’s a constant revision, fueled by unhappy events, to be sure, but ultimately also spurred on by the hope for a better day.

Anthony Flint, a senior fellow at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, writes about architecture and urban design. He can be reached at anthony.flint@lincolninst.edu.