Much has been written about Boston City Hall, with its neglected condition and Brutalist architecture—it’s ugly, outdated, demolish it! But City Hall, far from being beyond salvation, is loaded with opportunities.
Here’s one: For years, Bostonians have bemoaned the lack of a civic museum—a single place to celebrate the city’s extraordinary history for visitors and residents alike. Efforts to build one, perhaps on the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, have foundered in part over the prohibitively expensive cost of construction.
It just so happens that there is a big enough space right in City Hall—one that has been vacant since the building opened. It has terrific visibility, is located in the heart of historic Boston, and is accessible by all four subway lines.
Officially it’s the fourth floor—the open-air atrium courtyard and terraces that make up the middle of City Hall, above the brick base and below the stepped upper floors that give the building its distinctive look. Exposed to the elements, it’s responsible for much of the heat loss that makes the building so difficult to keep warm.
Why not put it to use? Glass in the fourth floor, and create a home for a new public celebration of Boston. Call it Boston 360. It can be something between a museum, with a range of exhibits, and a visitors center showcasing all the city has to offer: museums, Freedom Trail attractions, parks, hidden treasures, fun facts, and trivia. It can include an awesome multimedia show that tells the story of Boston—its history, culture, and unique identity. Lest you doubt the potential, keep in mind that the multimedia exhibition “Where’s Boston?,” created nearly 40 years ago for the Bicentennial and located at the Prudential Center, drew over 1.5 million visitors during its run.
Boston 360 is a readily achievable addition to the planning mix for City Hall. Once the city does the basic construction work, the project could be privately run and self-funding; there is no shortage of private interests in Boston that would contribute if asked. The results would be truly transformative—not least for City Hall itself, a building whose public potential has never been fully realized. It might be one of the easiest decisions a new mayor can make.
Michael Williams is an architect who for 23 years oversaw the planning of public building projects in Massachusetts. He teaches at Boston Architectural College and is working to advance the idea of Boston 360 in City Hall.