Old City Hall
Old City Hall
45 School Street
Boston, MA 02108-3204
Phone: 617-523-8678
Fax: 617-523-3782

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Old City Hall


Adaptive Reuse of Public Landmark Building

Old City HallOld City Hall is one of the first examples of adaptive reuse. In the
1960's the concept of recycling outdated public buildings was untried. The successful conversion (1969-1971) of Boston's City Hall into a restaurant and first class office building heralded the beginning of this new concept. It was widely publicized by the American Institute of Architects and became a model of successful redevelopment for underutilized municipal property. Old City Hall became an example, stimulating the reuse of landmark buildings across the United States in the 1970's and 1980's, and this pioneer rehabilitation continues to win recognition.

School Street Political Life

This site was the location of two Boston City Halls. Here in 1810, the Suffolk Country Courthouse was erected. In 1841, that courthouse was converted to Boston's second city hall. In 1865 it was replaced by Boston third city hall, the building you see today on School Street. In 1969, Boston built its fourth city hall at Government Center and vacated this site.

Thirty-eight Boston mayors served their terms of office on School Street at this site over a period of one hundred and twenty-eight years. All twenty of the Democrat mayors adopted the donkey as their party's symbol, while only five of the ten Republican mayors utilized the elephant.

donkey pic

In 1828, Andrew Jackson established the Democratic party and ran for president using the populist slogan, "Let the people rule", his opponents thought him silly and labeled him a "jackass". Jackson, however, picked up on their name calling and turned it to his own advantage by using the donkey on his campaign posters. Over the years this donkey had become the accepted symbol of the Democratic party.

The symbol of the Republican party in 1974 was born in the imagination of a cartoonist, Thomas Nast, in Harper's Weekly. Soon other cartoonists used the elephant to symbolize Republicans, and eventually, Republicans adopted the elephant as their official symbol.


French Second Empire Architecture

Original Floorplans

Boston's Old City Hall was one of the first buildings in the French Second Empire Style to be built in the United States and is now one of the few that survive. The design originated in France during the Second Empire (the reign of Emperor Napoleon III from 1852 to 1870). In Paris, this style gained popularity with the building of the new Louvre. After the completion of Boston's City Hall (1865), the French Second Empire Style was used extensively elsewhere in Boston and for many public buildings in the United States, such as the Executive Office Building in Washington D.C. as well as other city halls in Providence, Baltimore and Philadelphia.

The style became so closely associated with the Grant Administration (1869-1877) that it was also called the "General Grant Style." The major characteristic of this style is the mansard roof, a double-pitched roof with a steep lower slope that has a boxy shape. Often the building will have a projecting center that is topped by a dome, and tall windows and doors that are flanked by pairs of columns.

Architectural Points of Interest

· The granite exterior in the French Second Empire style characterized by ornamented columns, the mansard roof, and the projecting central bay.

· The massive front doors, unusual in the use of different wood, as well as the inlay of the marble circle in each door.

· The murals in the building entrances on School Street and Court Square illustrating the history of both the building and the site

· The marble plaque in the first floor lobby commemorating the laying of the cornerstone in 1862 by Mayor JM Wightman and the dedication of the building in 1865 by Mayor FW Lincoln, Jr.

· The statues in the courtyard:

Benjamin Franklin  (1706-1790) was born in Boston and attended school on this site as a boy before pursuing a distinguished career as an author, inventor, scientist, politician and statesman.  Scenes of Franklin's accomplishments appear in bas-relief on the square pedestal of the statue.  The statue (1856) was the first portrait statue to be erected in Boston.  Franklin is depicted as he would actually appear, rather than draped in toga, cloak, or classical attire.  The statue was designed by Richard Saltonstall Greenough, as are two of the bas-reliefs.

Josiah Quincy  (1772-1864) was the second Mayor of Boston and served six consecutive, one-year terms from 1823-1828.  During his tenure he was reponsible for the development that expanded the produce and meat markets in Faneuil Hall into three new buildings known as the Quincy Markets.  This statue (1879) was designed by Thomas Ball.

· The hopscotch in the School Street sidewalk recognizing this as the site of the first public school in America (1635), Boston Latin School

Public Art at Old City Hall

BENJAMIN FRANKLIN, 1856, Bronze, larger than life.

In front of Old City Hall

Richard Saltonstall Greenough (see Cambridge [Harvard University]: Governor John Winthrop).

This may be Richard Greenough’s finest work: here he understood that Bostonians wanted their “very own” Franklin, not an abstraction.  The Massachusetts Historical Society provided a suit of Franklin’s clothes, and the sculptor labored to render Franklin, he said, as “thoughtful, dignified, of kindly expression, and un(self)conscious.”  Two of the bas-reliefs on the pedestal (scenes from Franklin’s life) are by Greenough; the other two, the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the Treaty of Paris, were Thomas Bali’s first public commission.

Franklin (1706-1790) most famous scientist, inventor, journalist, philosopher, and ambassador of colonial America and the young Republic, was born on Milk St. in Boston.  He apprenticed here to his brother James, publisher of The New England Courant, sometimes called “the first sensational newspaper in America.”  At age seventeen he left for Philadelphia.  Funded by public subscription.

JOSIAH QUINCY, 1879. Bronze, larger than life.

In front of Old City Hall.

Thomas Ball (1819-1911).

Son of a Charlestown house and sign painter, Ball began his career as a self-taught portrait painter.  It did not go well, and he found other income as a church choir soloist.  Turning to portrait busts, Ball found success with images of Jenny Lind and Daniel Webster, later mass-duplicated for public sale.  At age thirty-five Ball went to study sculpture in Florence, returned to Boston for eight years during which he constructed the equestrian Washington for the Public Garden and other works, then settled in Florence for the next thirty years, dean of the expatriate American artistic community.

Josiah Quincy (1772-1864), third of at least six generations to bear that name, lawyer and author, served in the Massachusetts Senate, the U.S. Congress, as mayor of Boston (1823-29), and finally as president of Harvard College.  Before the century was out his son and great-grandson, also Josiah Quincys, served as mayors of Boston. 

CITY CARPET, 1983.  Ceramic, brass, and stained concrete, 25’ sq.

In front of Old City Hall.

Lilli Ann Lillen Rosenberg (see Newton: Five Concrete Mosaic Sculptures).

It was on School St. That Boston Latin School, with its unique concept of free education (for boys only, however), was established I n1635.  Although it has long since moved, Boston Latin remains a prestigious public school and the oldest educational institution in the country, antedating Harvard by a year.  Rosenberg’s “carpet” is a hopscotch diagram, but details within its borders recall old-fashioned games and Boston traditions.  Latin’s motto, beneath its image, translates “Work conquers all – Opportunity for all,” Commissioned by Townscape Institute.

BOSTON: THE SHAPING OF A CITY, 1993.  Acrylic, four walls, each 18’ X 15’, and ceiling, 15’ X 15’.

School St. lobby.

Joshua Winer (see Back Bay: Newbury Street Mural)

Campari Knoepffler (see Cambridge [Harvard Square]: Harvard Square Theater Mural).

Olga Voronina (1960-    ).

Built in 1865 in elaborate Second Empire style, Old City Hall served the city until the development of Government Center in 1968.  In rehabilitating the structure, the new owners were required by city fire codes to gut the interior.  The mural on the wall facing the entrance was painted in 1984 by Winer and his original partner, Knoepffler.  Along with fool-the-eye architectural detail, the names of Boston’s mayors are inscribed in typestyles reflecting the eras in which they served.  The rest of the vestibule has been decorated by Winer and Voronina, a Russian-born artist trained at Leningrad Academy of Art.


Inside Old City Hall, Court St. entrance.

Elizabeth Carter (see Cambridge [Central Square]: Floating Down Mass Avenue).