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500 Boylston in Back Bay to fill in its courtyard

Owner wants 80,000 square feet more at 500 Boylston St.

From the start, 500 Boylston, designed by Philip Johnson, was a controversial project.
From the start, 500 Boylston, designed by Philip Johnson, was a controversial project.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

The tiled courtyard at 500 Boylston St. is one of the Back Bay’s most distinctive street-level landmarks, with tourists posing before the stone colonnade that frames the postmodern skyscraper. But now, the building’s owner says the courtyard is underutilized and wants to fill it in with five stories of stores and offices.

Equity Office Properties notified the Boston Redevelopment Authority Friday of its plans to build an 80,000-square-foot addition in front of the 25-story tower and its main entrance. The company also wants to convert up to 50,000 square feet of office space in the tower to retail.

Details were scant. Equity Office said it would submit more complete plans next month.

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“Our proposed reinvestment in 500 Boylston Street is a reflection of our belief in this terrific building and the overall strength of the Boston market,” senior vice president John Conley said in a statement. “We are just starting the process and look forward to working with the city of Boston and the Back Bay neighborhood to ensure a great outcome.”

The move by Equity Office, one of the city’s largest commercial property owners, comes as Boston’s real estate market continues to surge. With little undeveloped space available in the Back Bay, real estate companies are eyeing plazas, courtyards, air rights over the Massachusetts Turnpike, and other scraps of land as sites for construction projects.

500 Boylston was the subject of controversy even before it opened in 1989. Designed by the celebrated architect Philip Johnson with John Burgee Architects, its postmodern style was divisive.

At the time, Boston Globe architecture critic Robert Campbell called the building “an example of architectural costume design,” a mish-mash of columns, arches, and windows that “seems to be made of papier-mache.”

The backlash was so strong the developers scrapped plans for a similar Johnson-designed tower next door, instead choosing Robert A.M. Stern and Jung/Brannen Associates of Boston.

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“The architecture was very controversial,” remembered Elliott Laffer, a longtime Back Bay resident who served on a neighborhood group that oversaw the original project. “The whole discussion quickly devolved into an argument over what it looked like. Some people liked it and some people loathed it, and that’s probably still true.”

Meg Mainzer-Cohen, president of the Back Bay Association business group, said she thought the courtyard wasn’t used much. “It tends to feel vacant,” said Mainzer-Cohen, whose office overlooks the courtyard. “There are awkward angles, it’s almost never sunny, and it seems cavernous. I think [the addition] is a good move.”

Johnson died in 2005, but his name is still attached to a New York architecture firm run by Alan Ritchie, a longtime collaborator. Ritchie said Monday that Johnson was fond of the courtyard, which provides a break from the wall of shops on the block.

“The courtyard was something [Johnson] felt was appropriate for a city that was trying to reduce the scale and massing of buildings at the street level,” Ritchie said. “I always thought it was very attractive and inviting.”

Ritchie said that he and Johnson expected buildings would change over time. But, he cautioned, some changes made to Johnson buildings after he died have been better than others.

“If I thought it was ugly and not well-handled, I would object,” he said. “I’ve seen buildings of his that somebody came along and absolutely butchered. That’s a shame.”

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Dan Adams can be reached at daniel.adams@globe.com Follow him on Twitter @DanielAdams86.