The August 1976 ribbon-cutting ceremony for the reinvented Faneuil Hall Marketplace was planned as a modest affair. But a crowd of 50,000 flooded the complex, kicking off an impromptu four-day party with street performers and revelers filling the historic site. The frisson in the air no doubt came from the wide realization that this was the beginning of something new.
After more than 10 years of struggle to secure permits and financial backing, from 1976 to 1978 the office of Benjamin Thompson & Associates, with developer James Rouse, transformed Boston’s original public market: a derelict trio of block-long brick-and-granite buildings designed by Alexander Parris and built between 1824 and 1826 on 6 acres. Rather than restoring the complex back to one specific time, Thompson’s approach was to celebrate the variety of styles — Greek Revival, Federal, Victorian — that had contributed to the complex’s evolution over the years, and to distinguish contemporary additions. Even in the ’70s, the architects recognized the sustainable value of salvage and adaptive reuse on a large scale. Focusing on fresh and prepared foods and other goods provided by local vendors, the complex was envisioned as an urban gathering center, and has become known as the forebearer of the festival marketplace.
At a time when American cities were withering, Thompson’s vision was to “reassert the values of urban life and to preserve urban quality, vitality, and beauty on a human scale.” Faneuil Hall, or Quincy Market, was an immediate success. “It was the engine for the city for the next two decades,” says Thompson’s widow and professional partner, Jane. “Downtown development went off like fireworks after it opened. It brought people off the highways, and pedestrians are the life of the city.” The message resonated, and the project has been widely imitated, helping to spawn an American urban renaissance.
This project and the Design Research Headquarters Building in Cambridge, Massachusetts (winner of the 25 Year Award in 2003), represent the firm’s commitment to urbanism, says Jane Thompson. “The activation of the street has finally been accepted into the vocabulary of what good architecture does,” she notes.
As for the marketplace, physically and conceptually it endures. Though it has weathered the inevitable storms of chain commercialization and tourist merchandising, and though, like the city around it, it is now all grown up, Faneuil Hall Marketplace has maintained its vitality, and to this day emanates a youthful optimism.