Downtown View:When Should A Building be Landmarked?

February 26, 2016
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By Karen Cord Taylor

Mayor Walsh wants to illuminate Boston City Hall, which opened in 1969. William Rawn’s redesign of architect Philip Johnson’s 1971 addition to the Boston Public Library is coming to fruition.

These two events bring home the complications of deciding what architecture to preserve in a history-obsessed city.

These buildings have commonalities. They are public, built with taxpayers’ money at about the same time. They both employ the Brutalism style, although the Johnson building uses granite, not concrete. Architects and architectural historians appreciate them. The public mostly detests them.

The Johnson building was landmarked by the Boston Landmarks Commission in 2000. Landmarks oversees Boston’s historic districts, imposes demolition delays on historic structures, and designates buildings as landmarks, according to chair Lynn Smiledge. In the Johnson building’s case, this means the commission must approve changes to its exterior, entry hall and the voluminous staircase atrium.

City Hall is not landmarked. When the mayor wanted to illuminate it, however, he had to obtain Landmarks’ approval because the building’s landmark status is “pending.” In 2007, several residents, including Douglass Shand-Tucci, Sue Prindle, and Friends of the Public Garden founder Henry Lee, submitted a petition to landmark City Hall. The next step would be for Landmarks to commission a study describing the building’s architectural and historic importance to the city and to the state, region or nation. That study was not undertaken.

“There has been a drum beat against mid-century modernism,” said architectural historian Keith Morgan, a professor at Boston University. Morgan believes City Hall’s poor condition is a reason the public doesn’t warm to it. He was one of several individuals who urged Landmarks to move forward with the City Hall study.

“City Hall is clearly of landmark quality,” he said. “It’s the exceptional nature of its design and its historic significance. It was the building that reversed Boston’s downward spiral. We owe it a debt of gratitude.”

Such exhortations have fallen on deaf ears. Lauren Zingarelli, Director of Communications and Community Engagement in the Mayor’s Office of Environment, Energy, and Open Space explained it this way:

“Each year the BLC Work Plan prioritizes two or three study reports for pending landmarks,” she said. “These priorities are based on available funding, owner support and perceived threat.”

With little “owner” support—i.e. two mayors—and threats to the building proposed only by them, Landmarks probably saw few benefits from moving forward on City Hall.

The Johnson building’s story is different. Both library buildings were designated at the same time. They were not threatened. No one would probably object to landmarking the 1895 McKim building that faces Copley Square.

But the Johnson building’s architectural significance is unclear. The report said, “The Johnson addition looks reverently to the McKim building for several of its architectural guiding principles and yet utterly disregards it many ways . . . The starkness of the Johnson addition continues the refined grandeur of the McKim without competing with its visual richness. The disdain for the human scale evident in the Johnson design, however, undercuts the effectiveness of utilizing classical principles in its arrangement and renders its academic ideal lifeless.”

Not exactly a ringing endorsement of architectural significance.

The Johnson building’s historic significance is also dubious.

The report said it shows how “library philosophy” has changed. For example, open stacks were the norm in the mid-20th century as they had not been in the 1800s. Perhaps that can be construed as history.

The report dwells on Philip Johnson’s importance as a scholar, a taste-maker, and a person whose “sympathy with the Beaux-Arts . . . [gives] his work an altogether more serious character.”

The Kardashians are taste-makers too. It’s hard to see Johnson’s sympathy with the Beaux-Arts in any of his buildings except maybe in symmetry.

Keith Morgan pushed back on me. Johnson and others like him had a profound influence on other architects, he said. That is important.

These buildings’ stories leave one feeling that landmarking, like much of human endeavor, is fraught with subjective feelings despite the principles in place.

Questions still need to be answered.

  • Should a certain amount of time pass before a building is considered for landmarking—say 50 years? The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s original “palace” and its 2012 Renzo Piano addition were landmarked in 2011, before the addition was finished. The addition is fine, but is this another case of a celebrity architect trumping a measured judgment of how a building works with the city over time?
  • To what extent should the public’s affection for a building affect landmarking? Victorian buildings we now appreciate were dismissed by some 20th century critics as vulgar. A future example could be the Hurley Building and its mental health facility, the Lindemann Center, on Cambridge Street. Keith Morgan praises its sculptural quality, but its unpleasant relationship to the street, even without the temporary, dirty steel fences around it, makes pedestrians want to walk on the other side. Its maker was celebrity architect Paul Rudolph.
  • To what extent should materials be considered? We’ve learned that concrete ages poorly, and it’s not only because the public concrete buildings have been left to rot.
  • Can we consider how a building contributes to a sense of place, a sense of Boston? The old Shreve, Crump and Low building at the corner of Boylston and Arlington did not receive landmark status and sits empty, destined for demolition. Its removal will affect the sense of early 20th century Boston within a whole block.

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I hope more regular citizens get involved in these matters so we can hash them out.

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