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The story behind Boston’s ‘bleak’ City Hall Plaza and its new facelift

Elliott Eggleston and his daughter Tavi, 2, visited the new Plaza Play Scape at City Hall Plaza in Boston.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

It’s a much maligned space surrounding a much maligned building. “Bleak.” “Barren.” “Windswept.” Those are typically the adjectives used to describe Boston City Hall Plaza, which stretches outward from the concrete fortress that is Boston’s City Hall.

But on Friday, the public got its first look at Boston City Hall Plaza’s $95 million facelift, a project that broke ground two years ago and spanned three mayors.

At an afternoon ribbon-cutting, Mayor Michelle Wu said she hoped the renovations to the plaza would breathe new life into the 7-acre expanse of red brick and granite at Government Center. She called it “so much more than a space that people walk through and try not to get blown away” on their way to City Hall.

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“The spaces we build are a reflection of our city and our values. . . we have built something here that embodies our vision for Boston,” said Wu.

Wu’s administration views the plaza as a “civic space for all residents,” a sentiment that appears to align with the original vision of the architects of the plaza, who had hoped it would “ring with carols and rallies and political speeches.” Gerhard Kallman and Michael McKinnell were selected in the early 1960s from 250 finalists who presented a vision for Boston’s new City Hall to be located atop the old Scollay Square, which was demolished to make way for Government Center.

Kallman and McKinnell’s vision for the area was ambitious, but the plaza, like City Hall itself, has come in for criticism throughout the years.

“Whatever is done is superior to the status quo, which is a frozen tundra on a winter day,” said Larry DiCara, a former Boston city council president.

DiCara said he hopes the plaza’s sprucing up leads to the space being better utilized by the public. What to do with the space and how to make better use of it has posed a challenge to city leaders for decades, he said.

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At the time the plaza was created decades ago, the architects said the subways running underneath it made planting trees difficult. One of the architects, Kallman, told the Globe in 2004 that he regretted not “putting more life at the edge” of the plaza. But the plaza is becoming more green, thanks to the renovations.

The new look includes 250 new trees and thousands of shrubs, flowers, and plants, Amy Mahler, an official from the mayor’s office of new urban mechanics, said on a media tour of the plaza’s changes. The refurbishments also feature more than 3,000 new places to sit.

The changes are meant to make the space more accessible and enjoyable, she said.

The plaza is now home to a “kinder-brutalist” playground offering children the opportunity to play on slides and climb jungle gyms in a space mimicking the iconic Brutalist architecture of Boston City Hall, Mahler said.

A “gentle” slope made from smooth, flat bricks replaced staircases connecting Congress and Cambridge Streets, allowing for easy access to all parts of the plaza for people with disabilities. The plaza now includes amenities like shady seating and gathering areas, public art space, and a water feature. The main portion of the plaza can accommodate events up to 12,000 people, while the entire space could host as many as 25,000, according to the Wu administration.

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Despite designers’ initial vision of City Hall Plaza as a space for gathering and conversation, Daniel Abramson, an architectural historian and professor at Boston University said the space has been subject to decades of criticism from the public for being a “barren wasteland.”

But, Abramson said such critiques may be a misinterpretation of the space’s purpose. He views the plaza as a regional “fairground,” meant to be dormant most of the time, but come to life for special occasions like the Big Apple Circus, a Super Bowl celebration, or other more “commercialized” events, he said.

Today, the space has been more “democratized,” he said, by better incorporating feedback and suggestions from the public.

”The whole intention had been to create a magnet to help redevelop downtown Boston when it was suburbanizing,” Abramson said. “It’s no longer intended to be a regional draw. … There’s more popular input into it.”

While initially envisioned as a European-style piazza, today, the space has been “domesticated,” as city officials brand the space as “Boston’s front yard,” he said.

Maria Bellalta, the dean of the school of landscape architecture at the Boston Architectural College, thought the renovations represented an improvement for the plaza. She lived in the nearby North End for years, she said, and traversing the plaza through the biting wind and cold “is just not fun.”

“That warm fuzzy feeling you want out of your city? No way,” she said of the space.

The materials that define the newly renovated plaza, from the granite to the lighting and seating, have a warmer, more vibrant palette than the old plaza, which was cold and monolithic, said Bellalta.

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“I think it’s more inviting,” she said.

In a space that was filled with the sounds of construction in recent months, Friday brought different noises to the plaza, as public school bands performed for the couple hundred people who had come to celebrate the project’s completion.

Multiple luminaries, including some city councilors and cabinet chiefs, turned out for the affair, as well as Wu, former acting Boston mayor Kim Janey, and Angela Menino,the widow of Thomas M. Menino, the city’s longest serving mayor.

City Councilor Kenzie Bok applauded the green improvements to the space, saying it is designed to funnel water into irrigation for new plantings, rather just allowing rain to run off and potentially flood the area. She also liked that the Hanover entrance to City Hall is re-opening to the public, saying it would create a stronger connection between the city’s seat of government and the Boston Public Market, Haymarket, and the North End.

“Most of the key changes are semi-invisible,” she said. “Like having electricity in all different corners, so that you don’t need to bring in generators and can have multiple events going at once.”

City Council President Ed Flynn, meanwhile, applauded the accessibility improvements for the plaza.

“I’m glad to see that it is now an accessible and sustainable space that can be enjoyed by all,” he said.

Like the plaza, City Hall itself, as a leading example of brutalist architecture in the US, can be polarizing to the public. Known as a structure that architects love but average joes don’t, it’s drawn comparisons to a giant concrete harmonica, a fossilized space ship, a pigeon cage, and, perhaps most notably, the crate that Faneuil Hall came in.

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While some city leaders have called for it demolition or sale over the decades, Boston’s City Hall persists. Famously, the current denizen of its 5th floor corner office, Wu, is a big fan of the building, saying it has architectural beauty and calling it “down to earth” and “accessible.”






Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him @Danny__McDonald. Katie Mogg can be reached at katie.mogg@globe.com. Follow her on twitter @j0urnalistkatie