While officials in Boston push ahead with plans for a new city hall, advocates are stepping up efforts to save the existing structure. The Boston Landmarks Commission agreed this spring to review a petition seeking protections for the building’s exterior and main lobby. Supporters view the case as a local and national bellwether for preserving Modernist architecture, which increasingly finds itself in developers’ crosshairs.

Boston City Hall
Photo: © Chris Mottalini
Boston City Hall, designed by Kallmann McKinnell and Knowles, could be sold if the city’s mayor has his way.

Kallmann McKinnell and Knowles’s Boston City Hall has been controversial since its completion in 1968. Many architecture critics praise its Brutalist aesthetic—with characteristic features including exposed concrete, bold forms, and monumentality—and its Classical references. But detractors, including Mayor Thomas Menino, cite the building’s massive scale, labyrinthine interiors, and vast windswept plaza as unwelcoming and inefficient.

Menino has revived a 1998 scheme to sell the downtown site for private development and then construct a new city hall and civic center several miles southeast in the South Boston seaport district. The city is still studying this new site and reviewing its space requirements, according to a spokesperson. But a number of city councilors, including the council president, oppose the plan and contend that such a move would push municipal offices to a peripheral location that lacks adequate infrastructure.

A timetable has yet to be set for a Landmarks Commission hearing. Preservationists worry that the process can be slow—and that the mayor holds a veto. Failing designation as a local landmark, the city hall might qualify for National Historic Landmark status or the National Register of Historic Places. While neither would prevent the building’s destruction, says preservation advocate Gary Wolf, AIA, “both have certain types of protection and would make it challenging from a PR standpoint to tear down.”
Even if Boston decides to construct a new building, admirers of the existing City Hall hope that it will be put to other uses. For their part, municipal officials stress that Menino has not called for its demolition.

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