Old 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 In the 1960's the concept of recycling outdated public buildings was untried.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.
For pioneering work in adaptive reuse and development through preservation, Old City Hall has received recognition from the Boston Society of Architects, the American Institute of Architects, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, among others.
Saving Old City Hall
Memories of a Preservationist
In the mid 1960s my friend Tad Stahl, FAIA, board member of The Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (now Historic New England) and I, the founder and president of Architectural Heritage Foundation were commissioned by Ed Logue, Director of the the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA), and Mayor Collins to undertake a study of the Faneuil Hall Markets. We were commissioned to produce a plan to utilize the soon to be empty North and South Market Buildings of the wholesale food district. The city acquired these buildings from wholesalers to facilitate the removal of Boston's two hundred year old food market from Boston into the neighboring cites Quincy and Everett.
We completed our study in 1967 and we proposed the restoration of the much altered and decayed Faneuil Hall Markets to their original Greek Revival 1826 design by Alexander Parris. In addition to proposing this plan we had to determine if our plan was feasible. Another year of study determined our plan was not feasible -- unless the City of Boston and the federal government provided up to four million dollars of historic preservation grants that we determined may be available from the federal government and others.
We presented our plan to outgoing Mayor Collins and the soon to depart Ed Logue. Our plan was accepted. However, the job of finding up to four million dollars of historic preservation grant money fell to the incoming Mayor White and his BRA Director, Hale Champion. Tad and I made an appointment with the new Mayor White to present our plan for the restoration of the emptying wholesale Faneuil Hall Markets, next to Boston's nearly completed Government Center. Mayor White would have a spectacular office in the New City Hall with windows overlooking Faneuil Hall Markets and the Harbor.
At this meeting we were accompanied by Walter Whitehill, the renowned Boston Historian, and the esteemed Director of the Boston Athenaeum, and board member of my non profit Architectural Heritage Foundation. Walter was an early proponent of turning the New Boston towards the Harbor by establishing a Walk to The Harbor-- to start from the gold domed Bulfinch state capital on top of Beacon Hill, down through the new government center and the soon to be empty wholesale food markets and to a revitalized and attractive new waterfront of residential and commercial neighborhoods.
The three of us met at the Mayor's office in Old City Hall on School Street. Mayor White's forever cigar smoking Chief of Staff, Barney Frank, greeted us. He guided us into the Mayor's offices on the second floor. Our presentation to Mayor White was met with interest -- but not with enthusiasm. Instead, Mayor White challenged us with these questions --
"You want me to find you millions of dollars to restore YOUR Faneuil Hall Markets --- when my architectural advisors tell me to tear down MY City Hall -- that many of us love? " Mayor White continued his questioning..... "This old building that we sit in -- is now, and has been occupied by my people and my wife's people. Our parents, grand parents, and families worked for generations right here in this building on School Street. Some served as city council members. Now, I serve as Boston's mayor! " Shouldn't we be concerned and working to save this building? -- This one hundred year old landmark?"
We did not expect this response from the Mayor. We were unprepared. "So"-- continued Mayor White, "let's save this City Hall!"
We were surprised. He added more information. Mayor White's Blue Ribbon Committee that he assembled to advise him how to save the Old City Hall was chaired by the eminent Boston architect Nelson Aldrich. They had concluded it was not feasible. This panel alleged the cost to rehabilitate this 1865 Victorian structure was fifty dollars a square foot -- twice the cost of new construction! The mayor looked at us. He waited. We were tongue tied. "I'll make you an offer" proposed Mayor White. "If you come up with a feasible plan to save this city hall -- the building loved by my family and many Boston's Irish -- I will try to get the funding to restore your Faneuil Hall Markets."
" That's reasonable ", commented Walter Whitehill. " It makes sense. We will work on it. We'll get to work. " , volunteered Tad and I.
I contacted Nelson Aldrich and arranged a luncheon meeting to discuss the feasibility of saving Old City Hall and to request the use of his files. At that luncheon Nelson Aldrich noted that neither he or any of the Blue Ribbon panelist were paid for their service, and their study had been more of a discussion over several lunches. There was no file with their calculations he could give me to assist our investigation of the feasibility to save Boston's City Hall. Instead, Nelson Aldrich presented three ideas why he believed Old City Hall could not be saved by the City of Boston.
First, he asserted, the existing 19th century landmark building had only one open grand stairway, and that did not meet fire code that required two closed stairways. Secondly, the 1865 structure was over one hundred years old. Nelson Aldrich assured me old buildings have many surprise problems that double their restoration costs. Thirdly, architect Nelson Aldrich shared his opinion that the Victorian City Hall was "ugly", and had unsavory associations -- such as James Michael Curley and "that crowd". He wanted to know if I agreed with his feeling this building was "ugly".
At our next meeting with Mayor White we told him we saw nothing to prohibit the reuse of this historic structure. However, Mayor White said his hands were tied and he could not disregard Nelson Aldrich's Blue Ribbon Committee determination of "not feasible" for city reuse.
"If you believe what you say.... " suggested Mayor White, "Why doesn't Architectural Heritage Foundation make a proposal to save and reuse this wonderful landmark building?"
My role as preservation consultant changed that moment to preservation developer.
Shortly after this meeting I was contacted by Hale Champion the newly appointed Director of the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA). Hale informed me Mayor White's suggestion that the Architectural Heritage Foundation (AHF) save and reuse City Hall for its private use -- could only be accomplished by the City of Boston making the same offer to the entire development community. By issuing a Request For Proposal (RFP), Hale Champion was about to begin this process. Tad and I immediately began work to submit our proposal in response to the soon to come RFP.
With in the month the city produced an attractive brochure and widely circulated it among the major developers in Boston and beyond. However, when the RFP submission date arrived there were only two proposals and none from the traditional development community which had rejected Mayor White's offer to save Boston's City Hall. Of the two proposals received, one was from Architectural Heritage Foundation and the other proposal from four Harvard Business School (HBS) students who were completing a course requirement. As required the city took these two proposals under review. Within a matter of days the HBS student proposal improved somewhat with the addition of a young lawyer, Michael Dukakis, an experienced real estate development advisor. Nevertheless, Hale Champion advised us AHF would be designated developer at the next BRA board meeting on Thursday afternoon.
We were ready but surprised at that meeting when Michael Dukikis challenged the BRA's decision. Dukakis stated two of AHF's team members, Tad Stahl and Walter Whitehill, were in conflict of interest and could not be part of AHF's team. The BRA board postponed their decision until the following Thursday while this charge was investigated.
The next day Mayor White' Corporation Council, Herbert Gleason, met with me. Herb upheld Michael Dukakis' charge. Tad Stahl and Walter Whitehill served on many review boards and as advisors to the city on matters of historic preservation, and Tad would become the City Architect to supervise the exterior restoration of the Faneuil Hall Markets. However, Herb noted, if these persons resigned from the AHF team -- then AHF's conflict of interest charge would be solved. Tad and Walter willingly withdrew from our AHF team. Tad was replaced by Tim Anderson and George Notter as architects and Walter resigned from AHF's board.
At the next BRA board meeting AHF was designated developer. AHF secured a 99 year lease from the City of Boston for Old City Hall. Mayor White soon vacated Old City Hall and AHF hosted a memorable LAST HURRAH party at Old City Hall. The Old City Hall was filled with former employees and Irish music. Walter Whitehill danced Irish jigs with Mayor White and stamped out musical rhythms with an old Irish cane. By 1971, our first tenant opened their restaurant, Maison Robert, on the ground floors of Old City Hall to celebrate Bastille Day, a party that became a tradition for over thirty years.
In that year, 1971, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) made a major shift in their attitude towards the conversion of historic buildings and adaptive reuse. The traditional attitude was "old is bad (ugly) and new is better" was evidenced by the generation of architects like Nelson Aldrich. They were replaced by the next generation of architects like Tad Stahl, Tim Anderson and George Notter, who went on to become the national President of the AIA. The national AIA showed Boston's Old City Hall as their prime example of the new direction and the "most promising trend" of the AIA in 1971 -- in hundreds of ads appearing in a number of leading national publications -- such as:
"You're looking at the most promising trend in modern architecture. This magnificent City Hall came dangerously close to becoming a magnificent rubble. Just five years ago the common way to handle an obsolete masterpiece was to bulldoze it down and truck it away. Now it's a brand new challenge that architects relish -- how to make a silk purse out of a silk purse." So stated the American Institute of Architects (AIA) in their many national advertisements in 1971. Mayor White set the example that spread across the nation, and it was widely promoted by the American Institute of Architects (AIA).
We were riding a new wave of architectural taste. Boston's Old City Hall became a pioneer of "SAVE the _______” movement. Five years later Faneuil Hall Markets followed Old City Hall using many of the techniques we devised for Old City Hall -- such as the long term lease with rent based upon the level of occupancy. The Federal government commissioned AHF to advise and consult on many buildings such as the Old Post Office in Washington, D.C. Many government buildings across the nation such as schools, firehouses and other city halls were no longer "bulldozed down and trucked away". Architects strove to make "silk purses out of silk purses".
Founder and Chairman Emeritus
Architectural Heritage Foundation
June 4, 2015
To read more, visit www.iamrogerwebb.com