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Architects, other supporters rally to save the Hurley building

The Baker administration views the aging Charles F. Hurley Building as a prime redevelopment opportunity in the heart of Boston.

But cashing in on this potential windfall could be challenging now that preservationists have launched a campaign to rescue the nearly 50-year-old structure from the wrecking ball.

Among those in the “save it” camp: Kelvin Dickinson, president of the Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation. Dickinson trekked to Boston from New York on Monday to meet with a few like-minded supporters at the site, at the corner of Staniford and Cambridge streets. The Rudolph foundation helped launch a new online petition to protect the Hurley. To these enthusiasts, the concrete walls should stand as a lasting testament for architect Paul Rudolph’s vision for the block, and for the broader Brutalist movement. A related concern: the uncertain fate of two murals by Italian artist Costantino Nivola that adorn the lobby walls.

Tearing the Hurley down would be an easier way for a developer to make the most money – to maximize assets, as they say. But Dickinson and others want a more thoughtful approach that keeps the Hurley intact while still reaping a profit for the state.

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Can they pull it off? That remains to be seen. It’s still early. The state Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance stirred up this storm in late October by unveiling plans to seek a redeveloper for the 3.25-acre site. The next step: filing a notice with the Massachusetts Historical Commission, indicating that dramatic changes are coming. The division will work with the historical agency on development parameters, before drawing up a request for proposals. “Preservation considerations” will be one factor in picking the winning bid, a spokesman said. But there will be others, including design, finances, project team diversity.

In short, there are no guarantees at this point.

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To some, the six-story Hurley building is a hulking reminder of the urban renewal that swept away entire blocks of the city decades ago; bring on the bulldozers. To many others, it’s just another nondescript government bunker; no huge loss.

To the Hurley’s supporters, though, the building represents an essential piece of Boston’s history. Rudolph initially planned the Government Services Center block (it’s often spelled with the singular “Service”) as an answer to its more famous Brutalist neighbor, Boston City Hall. Instead of a wind-swept plaza, Rudolph envisioned a Roman-style amphitheater with gardens, encircled by government offices.

That vision was never fully realized. The Hurley and its twin, the Erich Lindemann Mental Health Center, went up, but a 23-story government tower remained on the drawing board. (Eventually, the Edward W. Brooke courthouse was built in the tower’s place.)

The Division of Capital Asset Management has said it will keep the Lindemann intact. But probably not the Hurley: At least $200 million in renovations would be required to modernize the building, work that still wouldn’t address flaws such as an inefficient layout and a dearth of windows on the top floor.

The roughly 675 government workers in the Hurley will need to move during construction, expected to occur in 2023 and 2024. Because federal Department of Labor funds were once invested in the property, the future redeveloper will need a place on the Hurley site for state labor and workforce development workers. Other state agencies will relocate for good, while private-sector offices get built there.

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The building’s future had already stimulated discussions in the architectural community. Haril Pandya at CBT Architects once asked his students at Roger Williams University to design ways to reuse the building; one team came up with a hotel, for example. Mark Pasnik engaged in a similar exercise a few years ago in his classes at Wentworth Institute of Technology, in part showing a new tower could coexist with the Hurley. (Pasnik, by the way, prefers the term “concrete modernist” over “Brutalist.”)

Greg Galer, head of the Boston Preservation Alliance, says he remains cautiously optimistic about the Hurley. He notes that the capital asset division often works with his group to preserve older state buildings, and cites the agency’s good-faith efforts to remove chain-link fences that once blocked off some of the Hurley campus. Others are far more concerned that there won’t be much left after the dust settles. That’s why Dickinson, from the Rudolph foundation, is working to rally supporters who can make the case that the Hurley is a treasure, one that should be preserved.

The Hurley opened not long after City Hall, which has been vilified by some as one of the city’s ugliest buildings, and the structures echo each other in several ways. City Hall’s survival was once an open question, too; Thomas M. Menino, the former mayor, made no secret about his desire to tear it down. But Mayor Martin J. Walsh has taken a different approach with City Hall, an effort at making the concrete fortress and its brick plaza more inviting.

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Beauty can be in the eye of the beholder, of course. Preservationists hope enough people see the beauty in the Hurley to ensure its survival.


Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.