A grim 20th-century plaza deserves a green makeover

Renderings of the final schematic design for City Hall Plaza conducted by Sasaki, the city's architectural firm, and provided by the City of Boston.
Renderings of the final schematic design for City Hall Plaza conducted by Sasaki, the city's architectural firm, and provided by the City of Boston. Sasaki

‘The Soiling of Old Glory,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph taken by Stanley Forman, depicting a white teenager using the American flag to assault Ted Landsmark, a black civil rights attorney, unfolded in a corner of its brick-covered expanse. To the delight of an adoring crowd, Larry Bird uttered a profanity there, after a Boston Celtics NBA victory. At a pivotal juncture in Boston politics, mayoral candidate Ray Flynn told rival David Finnegan not to call him “a lizard” — and then went on to win the mayor’s office. Sports rallies, concerts, and circuses have taken place there, along with Pride festivals and beer and ice cream extravaganzas.

City Hall Plaza has provided a setting for more quintessential Boston moments, high and low, than newer residents might realize. Yet, despite its history, the plaza is unloved and unappreciated. So the plan from Mayor Martin J. Walsh to turn it into a venue worthy of community pride and loyalty is welcome. A Boston Herald editorial calls for demolishing the entire “iconic eyesore” and rebuilding in a new location. But at a time when fewer people do their government business in brick-and-mortar municipal offices, why bother? The $60 million renovation proposed by Walsh to upgrade the area makes more sense.


Scorn for the plaza, and the building at its heart, is nothing new. As detailed in a Globe Ideas article, City Hall and the surrounding plaza were the product of a design competition launched by Mayor John F. Collins in 1961. When the winning design was unveiled, in the spring of 1962, one person reportedly exclaimed, “What the hell is that?” A Globe headline said, “You will grow to love it, 3 architects predict.”

Although marriages take place in it, love is not a word used often in connection with it. While some purists laud it as a bold example of Brutalist architecture, a Globe columnist once reviled it as “an atrocious waste of space,” whose worst crime is not ugliness, but being “anti-urban.” During his first mayoral run, Walsh campaigned on tearing it down and selling the property for private development.

But after making his peace with the building, he perked up the surrounding plaza with Astroturf and plastic Adirondack chairs. His new proposal holds out hope for an attractive, modern gathering place. There would be a civic engagement building for community group meetings, an open play area, and an event space. One hundred trees would soften a plaza that now broils pedestrians in the summer and buffets them with icy winds during the winter.

It would be wonderful to think of the plaza as a warm and welcoming destination, not a cut-through from hell. Such a transformation takes more than imagination. It requires a thoughtful plan, and to his credit, Walsh offers one.