City Hall Plaza has long been a red-brick tundra where mayoral dreams came to die.
But soon, the dreary landscape will turn into something unrecognizable — a winter wonderland, with a giant ice skating loop, “chalets” selling ornaments, chocolate fountains, and copious holiday decorations.
“It’s magical, it’s beautiful, it’s creative,’’ said Patrick Brophy, the city’s chief of operations.
“Boston Winter,” which debuts Friday, seems like a smaller version of New York’s impressive Bryant Park. Though less ambitious than originally planned — the restaurant and “iconic observation wheel” proposals envisioned for next spring were scrapped due to logistics and finances — the site is the realization of Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s vision to reinvent the plaza.
“The city has been hungry for something like this for a long time. It’s all been on paper, but now it’s really coming to life,’’ said Amy Latimer, president of TD Garden, a subsidiary of Delaware North Cos., which won the bid for the plaza’s reinvention.
As the grand opening nears, crews from Delaware North and several contractors hurried Wednesday to install giant nutcrackers, lay out cooling lines for the skating path, lace up 500 pairs of rental skates, and set up Santa’s house. They stained the walls of the vendors’ stalls, decorated Christmas trees, and set up an exhibit that showed the history of wine making.
After he walked through the site, Brophy said everyone is striving to make the plaza something special.He said the holiday village won’t cost the city any money. Delaware North will pay the city a cut of the sales, expected to be at least $50,000, in exchange for use of the plaza.
“It feels very good that we’re starting to activate the site that Bostonians can come and enjoy,’’ Brophy said.
“Boston Winter” will be open to the public seven days a week, but there are costs for certain activities, including ice skating, and wine and chocolate tastings.
Vendors will stay open through December when the holiday shopping season ends, and the rest of the village will shut down the last week in February, city officials said. TD Garden had a three-year contract with the city for the plaza.
City Hall Plaza was built as part of the Government Center complex in the 1960s. Its intent, according to news reports, was to host rallies and outdoors events, plus serve as a central gathering spot for Bostonians.
Local preservationists said the plaza —like the Christian Science Plaza — is a product of its time, working best as a gathering spot for the public. City Hall Plaza had been the place where sports teams gathered to celebrate after they won a championship, and where politicians have tried to woo voters for decades. In September 1984, 10,000 people gathered on the plaza to hear the country’s first female vice-presidential nominee for a major party, Geraldine Ferraro, throw barbs at the Reagan administration.
Nearly a month later, President Ronald Reagan also made a stop to campaign.
Through the years, the plaza has played host to concerts, the circus, the Jimmy Fund Scooper Bowl ice cream festival, and other festivities, including the Donna Summer Roller Disco party. For the last three years, the plaza hosted the Boston Calling music festival.
Stephen Jerome a preservationist who lives in Charlestown, said the plaza gets a bad rap because the city has neglected it through the years. It should be remain the way it was intended, he said.
“I think it’s a problem,’’ said Jerome of the “Boston Winter” concept. “Anything that takes away the open space and the public aspect of an urban assembly is unfortunate.”
How to invigorate the plaza has baffled mayors through the years. In the 1990s, former mayor Thomas M. Menino, weary of looking at the bleak site he once called the city’s living room, hosted a contest to reinvent it. It attracted 190 entries from school children, design professionals, and residents, whose ideas ranged from a ballpark to a video village and an abolitionist museum.
Menino later convened a panel led by real estate developer Norman Leventhal to take a serious look at a plaza redesign. It included a 300-room hotel and parking garage as the centerpiece of the plaza.
In 1996, Grammy Award-winning cellist Yo-Yo Ma also chimed in, proposing a $4 million music garden on the plaza with a year-round greenhouse, a cafe, and hologram projecting scenes from nature.
But the panel and its ideas collapsed after being beset by criticism that too few residents were on the committee and that the panel was dominated by bankers, developers, and lawyers who donated at least $15,000 to a Menino-held trust.
All of that is behind the city now. Both Latimer and Brophy said they hope the village will become an annual fixture on the plaza that draws large numbers of families. They envision parents sipping beer or wine while their children skate or visit Santa outside.
“I think it becomes part of Boston’s tradition going forward,” Latimer said. “This is what people are looking for — communal places to gather.”