Preservationists had worried about the Baker administration’s plan to sell off Brutalist-era fortress
Love it or hate it, Boston City Hall has been saved from the wrecking ball. Now, its younger concrete cousin, the Charles F. Hurley Building, is poised for a similar rescue. As state officials move to redevelop the Hurley site at the edge of the West End and Government Center, they are making it clear that total demolition is unlikely.
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The state’s formal proposal, made public last week, represents a subtle but important shift in thinking since the Baker administration started this process in 2019.
Is it a beauty, or a beast? Depends on whom you ask. Like with City Hall around the corner, preservationists say the Hurley represents a distinct style of architecture that hearkens back to an era when government buildings were meant to be fortresses to endure the vagaries of time. For the haters, a flip side: These edifices recall an era when bureaucrats buried entire city blocks under concrete, all in the name of progress.
A year ago, fans of the Hurley were worried that this six-story fortress would not endure. The Baker administration had just announced it would divest the 327,000-square-foot building off Staniford Street and the 3.25 acres on which it sits, in a long-term lease arrangement for a massive redevelopment. The administration saw dollar signs: a potential windfall that could total in the tens of millions, or maybe in the hundreds of millions.
Developers would line up for this rare opportunity, a prime downtown location. The Hurley needs $200 million-plus in deferred repairs. Let the private sector take care of that by crafting a new, more modern home for the 675 office workers who used to go there every weekday before the COVID-19 pandemic, in return for maximizing the property’s development potential with a high-rise. Enlivening a walled-off, windswept stretch of Cambridge Street would be a bonus.
Sounds simple on paper. But this is Boston. History matters. Even recent history.
The nearly 50-year-old Hurley building arose out of a grand plan, envisioned by famed Brutalist-era architect Paul Rudolph: a “Government Service Center” complex that would mirror the contemporary concrete City Hall a couple of blocks away, but for state agencies. The Hurley ― meant to house labor and workforce offices ― and its twin, the Erich Lindemann Mental Health Center, were linked by a landscaped courtyard. The third piece, a 23-story tower, was never built; that corner of the plaza was eventually claimed for the Edward W. Brooke Courthouse. (The Lindemann is not part of this divestiture.)
Rudolph’s disciples have rushed to preserve the Hurley, considered a signature feature of an important phase of institutional architecture — one that some advocates prefer to call “Heroic” or “concrete modernist” instead of Brutalist. Rudolph was not considered to be the Hurley’s lead architect. But as the property’s master planner, his acolytes say, his fingerprints are all over it. Two dueling Rudolph foundations have issued calls to save the building. On this topic, at least, they can agree.
The Paul Rudolph Foundation calls the late architect’s 1963 plan for the Government Service Center “the most ambitious urban project to be realized by Rudolph in the United States.” All existing elements should be preserved, the foundation said, but it welcomes a new tower at the site, similar to what Rudolph originally wanted. And the Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation told state officials that tearing down the Hurley would partially unravel “the urban fabric that is now part of Boston’s unique history.”
Preservation presents challenges to would-be developers: a dearth of windows on the Hurley’s top level, a floor plate that does not line up evenly with Cambridge Street, a mental-health hospital next door that needs to share the block.
But because of its architectural significance, the Massachusetts Historical Commission has told the Baker administration that the Hurley building should be retained as the site gets redeveloped.
It’s not as if Governor Charlie Baker’s Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance started out certain that the place should be bulldozed, even if it seemed that way to some. However, a full demolition was once viewed as a more tenable option by the administration than it is today. The commercial real estate market, currently in a bit of an upheaval due to the pandemic, will have much to say about what the site looks like. DCAMM officials now say they no longer believe full demolition is a likely option. In its draft proposal, DCAMM emphasizes pursuing an “adaptive reuse approach that respects the significance of the site while allowing for much-needed improvements.”
Next up: a virtual public hearing on the plan to divest the Hurley, to be held on Dec. 17. The agency expects to issue a request for proposals to developers early next year, after getting a signoff from the state’s Asset Management Board, a panel of gubernatorial appointees.
The Baker administration has already heard the full range of opinions, from people who love the Hurley structure, with its corrugated concrete and distinctive terraces and columns, to those who see it as downright ugly, a blight. Kenzie Bok, a city councilor who represents the area, said she is less focused on the preservation debate and more on making sure developers are told to submit concepts that knit together the neighborhood and break up this “super block.” Her goal: to make it livelier and pedestrian-friendly, perhaps compensating for some of what was lost to urban renewal decades ago.
Greg Galer, executive director of the Boston Preservation Alliance, said he is glad that the Baker administration’s stance has evolved over the past year. DCAMM, he said, seems to be trying to strike the right balance.
Historic preservation, Galer said, should not only be about saving structures deemed to be aesthetically pleasant. It’s also about the stories these buildings tell about the era in which they were built, and their place in the patchwork quilt of an ever-changing city.
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From that perspective, the Hurley will have many more tales to tell by the time this redevelopment saga finally ends.