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opinion | Webb Nichols

Clean up City Hall

Paint chips away from a trash container along the Cambridge Street edge of the plaza.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff/Globe Staff

What is happening at Boston City Hall is an embarrassment for which all who love Boston must take responsibility. Like so many familiar things, we sometimes become blind to the reality:

• With the Massachusetts and City of Boston flags fraying in the wind, three grimy flagpoles, scarred by time, stand out in front of City Hall.

• Dusty municipal cars and trucks are parked and scattered randomly on City Hall Plaza, often leaving the main entry looking more like a truck dock than an entry to a major public building.

• In some locations, sections of steel police fencing, remnants of some prior event, still block access to the plaza.

• Three redundant metal signs, placed awkwardly at the base of the lobby wall, greet visitors at the main entry.


Parked municipal cars near the main entranceSuzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

A coated paper handicapped sign, torn with age, is taped to an exterior concrete column opposite the entry.

• The light from a lonely, high-intensity industrial light, fastened on an adjacent wall, attempts to lift the gloom engulfing the entry.

Inside in the lobby, improvised security stations, a portable construction light standing in the corner, and an abandoned reception desk are further examples of insensitivity, apparent indifference, and detachment from the historic nature of Boston City Hall and its plaza.

A handicap sign is held up with electrical tapeSuzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Forget all the whining about their inappropriateness. Here at the center of one of the most important historic cities in the world, City Hall and its plaza — our symbol of governance and nexus of civic activity — is evidence suggesting deeper issues relating to lack of awareness, respect, and civic pride.

Is this really a matter of spiritual fatigue and indifference on the part of those who occupy City Hall as well as all of us for whom this building should represent our best instincts?

A few changes could make City Hall more welcoming to workers and visitors alike:

• Restrict parking to a designated area adjacent to an entry onto the plaza.


• Place a structure at an edge of the plaza for the storage of barricades.

• Replace the metal signs with an information kiosk in or at the entry to the lobby of the building.

• Redesign the lobby so that it effectively integrates security, reception, and storage.

• To deal with the “gloom” of the exterior and interior spaces, replace the broken and remaining functioning recessed lights with stem-mounted or wall-mounted lights that use the ceiling as a natural reflector. Light can indeed transform the darkness and also one’s spirit.

• To visually activate these newly lighted environments and add energy and enjoyment, place hanging sculptures in the dramatic, eye-catching vertical and horizontal spaces of the building.

A sign propped awkwardly against a windowSuzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

• Remove the barricades leading to the upper terrace level and enclose the courtyard to make it a habitable space for both users and visitors.

Architecture is a pitiless window through which one sees the true nature of the times and its people, their values and aspirations, and their commitment to both the past and the future.

Could this current picture of City Hall truly be how we feel about ourselves? All of us who love Boston can do better.

Webb Nichols is an architect who lives in Watertown.