5. Planning Development

Courtesy of Bostonian Society

Early rendering of Government Center. 1961 City Planning Report (Courtesy of Bostonian Society)

Government Center was envisioned to revitalize the downtown core of Boston. Its conception in 1954 was supported by the city’s desire to encourage massive private investment. The site chosen was Scollay Square, a run-down red-light district that was important due to its need for development and its accessibility and centrality to already established major landmarks which include the Suffolk County Courthouse, the State House, and Filene’s Department Store.

BRA Map (Courtesy of Bostonian Society)

BRA Boston project map (Courtesy of Bostonian Society)

The Street Plan

The masterplan was originally drawn up by the BRA in 1958 but given its final form by the architectural firm of I.M. Pei and Partners in 1961. As new amenities were brought to the project the street network was revised. [13] A 1959 Master Plan of the area shows the absence of the Cities Service Center. In addition, earlier figure grounds by the BRA show greater east-west circulation.

Courtesy of Bostonian Society

1959 BRA proposal (Courtesy of Bostonian Society)

The planning of the street network for Government Center was based on a short set guidelines that was believed to improve circulation in the entire downtown area. After the 1930s, the Boston Redevelopment Authority observed that many of the original colonial streets were too narrow for automobile traffic. During the 1950s streets that could not be enlarged would eventually become one way streets. [13] In Government Center, the superblock model was based on the scale of the car and not the pedestrian.

Current street plan with original street network. (Courtesy of Boston Public Library)

Current street plan with original street network. (Courtesy of Boston Public Library)

According the 1959 BRA report the streets that would be implemented in Government Center would accommodate the biggest existing streets to the vision of the Artery and the Tunnels as means of producing new efficient flows only in the north-south direction. Four corridors were planned.[7]

I. Cambridge-Tremont connection would allow for traffic in downtown to be efficiently supplied to the Longfellow Bridge. It connected the one way Chardon-Sudbury street pair. The design team believed that since Government Center would incorporate a public open space, little traffic must flow in and around, thus this thoroughfare was the only “surface arterial”.

II. The New Congress Street channeled traffic south of the project towards the West End and eventually to the McGrath Highway leading north out of the city.

III. The street beneath the central artery was a means of directing traffic around the pedestrian realm and northward into Charlestown.

IV. The Central Artery was envisioned to carry the bulk of traffic congestion.

Street network diagram showing connectivity to major thoroughfares in the city. 1961 City Planning Board Report (Courtesy of Bostonian Society)

Street network diagram showing connectivity to major thoroughfares in the city. 1961 City Planning Board Report (Courtesy of Bostonian Society)


Apart from the desire to create a major public space and major arterials for efficient circulation, the question remains why superblocks? According the evolution of Government Center’s design one of the reasons the BRA desired this was to control density. Massive buildings which would eventually be placed on the site would gain efficiency in terms of floor area ratios (the total square footage of the building divided by the total square footage of the site). [8] After all land-use decisions were made in 1960, the area was divided into 13 major parcels and 2 minor parcels. Given the lack of streets, the continuity of pedestrian walking streets was a major issue Pei and his firm contended with. Pei made use of existing sight lines coming off City Hall which already fell upon historic landmarks. [11]

Courtesy of Bostonian Society

Parking studies by the BRA. 1961 City Planning Report (Courtesy of Bostonian Society)

Courtesy of Bostonian Society

Parcel floor area ratio studies. 1961 City Planning Report (Courtesy of Bostonian Society)

The design review brought the creation of many trials through models and data configuration of FARs. The Design Advisory Committee met every six weeks to review the most important buildings in the design. When the Planning department approved land use they also approved densities for each of the buildings on each parcel. Each parcel was given a developer’s kit which documented the design process and reasoning behind each of the BRAs decisions. [8] One important reason for large super blocks and little parcels due to timing and money in the design for each building. Each kit had four stages of development: schematic design, design development, details, and submission. Since the firms involved had different visions and it was necessary for all members to be in accordance with the approved designs it made sense for the BRA to balance the number of parcels with the attention needed for each building standing on it. [9]

Courtesy of Bostonian Society

Government Center Parcels. 1961 City Planning Report (Courtesy of Bostonian Society).

• Parcel 1 was most recent of the additions to Government Center’s amenities the State Service Center. It was originally envisioned as three distinct structures, for an employment security center, a health and wellness out-patient clinic, and a health education and welfare facility, however due to the location of the site on the far west corner, it was eventually conceived by Paul Rudolph to be one building. [5]

• Parcel 2 consists of buildings that could not be acquired for the project. The original plan consisted of two massive buildings built along Chardon Street. Parcel two was subdivided into 3 sub-parcels accommodating a chapel, a new police station, and a press club with buildings that were not demolished.[2]

• Parcel 3 was created to serve the buildings on parcel 2. The Jewish Welfare Center was relocated to this site. The overall material palette of the new building was meant to echo the adjacent buildings on parcel 2.[2]

• Parcel 4 is the Government Center Parking Garage. It was located in this location due to its access to the Central Artery. The size of this building was based on a study of the occupancy each of the parcels. The omission of setbacks in the design were unnoticed during the schematic phase by the Design Review Committee officials, hence by the time the building entered detailing it was the decision of the BRA to move forward with the drawings produced. [5]

• Parcel 5 is the JFK Federal Office Building. As the first building constructed in Government Center it had a floor area ratio of 5 the highest of any building in the project. Its design was a collaboration between Walter Gropius and Samuel Glaser. Gropius subdivided the original skyscraper in half and conceived the tower as a way to avoid windowless office space which most of the cubic buildings in the project had. [10]

• Parcel 6 is the site for Boston City Hall. It was intended to be the center piece of the project from the beginning. Eventually it shared that glory with State Services Center. Not designed for the majority of the design phase of the master plan (it is envisioned as a cube in early renderings), the selected design was drawn by Kallmann, McKinnell and Knowles, a young design firm based in New York. [11]

• Parcel 7 was a major challenge in the design and was the first place where a conflict arose behind accessibility with the planned street network. The relatively small size was also an issue behind the developers who wanted to get the most of the opposite side of Congress Street. When construction progressed on the other buildings it was seen by the BRA that any building built here would block “splendid views” to the harbor and the North End. Approvals were made for a short tower but these proved uneconomic so these plans were scraped. [5]

• Parcel 8 is currently occupied by the New England Merchant’s Bank and its design proved the most controversial of any of the kits. Originally it was not meant to be a part of the project however once it was incorporated there was a debate as to how tall a building would be and the setbacks needed because it was adjacent to the Central Artery. The final design was a product of Samuel Glazer and Pier Luigi Nervi and incorporated a granite skin meant to blend with the palette of historic materials in the adjacent Blackstone Block. [5]

• Parcel 9 is also known as One Washington Mall. This international style skyscraper is adjacent to the Ames Building which faces the State House to the south. The design was meant to reference the earlier skyscraper in terms of pedestal and cornice forms on the façade. [5]

• Parcel 10 was the restoration of the Sears Crescent Block. The preservation of these historical structures was prompted by preservation advocates who mourned over the loss of many Scollay Square and West End landmarks. Its significance lies in its contribution to the Underground Railroad as one of the final stops. [4]

• Parcel 11 is the public space in front of city hall plaza. From Government Center’s conception the dimensions of this space changed very little. Conflicts between the MBTA and the BRA would have changed the dimensions had the MBTA not relocated existing tunnels into the new subway lines. Most of the design constraints lay in the handling of the local topography and because it was unanimous that the dimensions of the space not change, a system of terraces and steps were incorporated into the design. [14]

• Parcel 12 is the Centre Plaza Building. Its design was meant to reference the Sears Crescent Block and meant to frame the major Cambridge-Tremont north south thoroughfare. The building was designed by Walton Beckett was conceived to be a major connection between old and new in terms of materiality and form. Behind the Centre Plaza Building is an open space that sits on the original site of Pemberton Square.[1]

• Parcel 13, 14, and 15 are the peripheral buildings on the edge of the complex. The BRA had very little control over the design of these buildings thus each project here was very disconnected from the guidelines of the other buildings. Reasons for this are primarily economical since the BRA was focusing on the realization of City Hall and the State Services Center. [5]

Government Center BRA Pamphlet (Courtesy of Bostonian Society)

Government Center BRA Pamphlet (Courtesy of Bostonian Society)


Was it an easy process? Did all things go as planned? Government Center is a product of its time. An era when historic preservation was in its infancy and the true detriments of automobile traffic and large scale urban structures were still not fully comprehended. Regardless, the methods by which Government Center was realized and the fact that each decision was done without caprice is evident of the Boston Redevelopment Authority’s awareness and thorough efforts to improve on earlier projects. Overall the BRAs involvement with the project is early evidence of a post-modern way of thinking where major decisions involved the input from multiple figures and every detail was consciously designed with the context of the city in mind.

Sebastian Torrente

Tufts University ’17



[1] Boston Redevelopment Authority, Government Center; Final Drawings for Office Building on Parcel 12 (phase 1), 1963-3171, Boston Public Library (Mass. 1963).

[2] Boston Redevelopment Authority, Government Center; Preliminary Drawings for Office Building on Parcel 11, 1963-3159, Boston Public Library (Mass. 1963).

[3] Boston Redevelopment Authority, Government Center Project: Developer’s Kit for Parcel 2, 1965-74, Boston Public Library (Mass. 1965).

[4] Boston Redevelopment Authority, Government Center – Redevelopment of Parcel 10 including Rehabilitation of the Sears Crescent, 1963-3158, Boston Public Library (Mass. 1963).

[5] Boston Redevelopment Authority, Government Center Urban Renewal Plan and Final Project Report, 1963-3077, Boston Public Library (Mass. 1963).

[6] Boston Redevelopment Authority, Parcel 10: Sears Crescent, Government Center, 1963-77, Boston Public Library (Mass. 1963).

[7] City Planning Board of Boston, Mass. Government Center – Boston. Boston, MA: Boston Redevelopment Authority, 1959.

[8] Hilgenhurst, Charles. “Evolution of Government Center.” Boston Redevelopment Authority.

[9] Howard, Adams. “Government Center.” 1959. Bostonian Society. Boston, MA.

[10] Kenney, Robert T., ed. The Boston Redevelopment Authority Fact Book. Boston, MA: Boston Redevelopment Authority, 1972.

[11] Knowles, Kallmann McKinnell. Preliminary Drawings for City Hall. 1963. Illustration. 3155. Loeb Design Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

[12] Kruh, David, comp. Images of America. N.p.: Arcadia Publishing, 2004.

[13] Looking Forward with Pride to a Better Boston through Urban Renewal. Boston, MA: Boston Redevelopment Authority, 1960.

[14] Whitehill, Walter Muir, and Lawrence W. Kennedy. Boston: A Topographical History. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.

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