Next Score View the next score


    Hancock Tower architect now seen as a visionary

    The John Hancock Tower under construction in 1971.
    Globe File
    The John Hancock Tower under construction in 1971.

    Just days before construction was to begin in earnest on what would become the crown jewel of Boston’s skyline, the Hancock Tower’s architect hurried across the windswept and barren construction site.

    It was late summer 1968, and Henry N. Cobb’s father had died just days before. And now he was intercepted in Copley Square by an old family friend, a vestryman from the tower’s neighbor, the sandstone-and-granite masterpiece that is Henry Hobson Richardson’s Trinity Church.

    “Your father was such a fine man,” the friend said to Cobb. Then, as the man pointed dramatically to the construction zone, his voice acquired an edge. “How could his son have done such a thing?”


    It might seem impossible to grasp today, but before the Hancock Tower rose to become an acclaimed, 60-story architectural icon — tall and blue and forever graceful above the Back Bay — it was assailed as a “monster” and an “outrage,” condemned by the Boston Society of Architects as “an egotistical monument.”

    Get Metro Headlines in your inbox:
    The 10 top local news stories from metro Boston and around New England delivered daily.
    Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

    Nearly a half-century has passed since those dark days, but Cobb remembers the sting, a sting that must make vindication for the ex-villain that much sweeter. “My father and my mother, who lived on Beacon Hill, had to live through this storm of protest,” he said. “It was really considered a crime against humanity.”

    Cobb’s crime was having the temerity to place a glass tower next to the magnificence of the Trinity Church. But the Brookline-raised, Harvard-educated architect knew something his critics did not. Its mirrored glass walls render his tower moot, deferring to and affirming the church as the square’s centerpiece.

    It’s something he would never have done except in Boston. “I’m intimately familiar with Boston,” he told me the other day in the lobby of the Charles Hotel in Cambridge. “It was only for that reason I was able to withstand the onslaught of opposition to the Hancock Tower. The only reason I felt I could and, indeed, must do it in Boston is because I believed I understood the problem better than they did.”

    It is not hyperbole to say no one has had a greater imprint on the skyline of our city than Cobb, who is still designing buildings on 8½-by-11-inch paper that younger colleagues convert to whiz-bang computer graphics.


    Yes, at age 89, he’s still at it. Still engaged enough, excited enough to grab the notebook from my hand and sketch for me his vision for his latest addition to the high spine of skyscrapers that stretches from Boston’s downtown waterfront to the Prudential Center complex.

    When finished, it will give him two of the city’s three tallest buildings, a 60-story tower of ritzy condos and what will be Boston’s most conspicuous residential structure, a $700 million project shaped like an equilateral triangle at 1 Dalton St.

    “This will be kind of an exclamation point,” Cobb explained.

    Cobb has designed buildings across America and around the world. He has been at work on some skyscraper or another every day for the last 65 years. But ask him about his favorite work, and he’ll instantly transport you to the Seaport District and the red-brick courthouse where the Boston Marathon bomber received his death sentence last week.

    Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff
    John Hancock Tower

    The design concept for the Hancock Tower fell into place during two frenetic weeks in the fall of 1967. The building next to Christian Science Plaza, in collaboration with Gary Johnson of Cambridge Seven Associates, came together almost as quickly. He labored over the Moakley federal courthouse for years. It is splendid.


    “The challenge here is to give you 27 courtrooms and 600,000 square feet of space without losing the dignity and identity of that one-room courthouse,” he said. And that is precisely what he delivered.

    There hasn’t been a whisper of discontent about the new residential tower that will rise next to Christian Science Plaza.

    There are no angry exchanges or expressions of outrage. He’s a visionary now, not a villain.

    In fact, vastly unlike what played out in Copley Square nearly 50 years ago, here’s what happened when Cobb unveiled his latest big building to city planners:

    Make it taller, they told him.

    Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at