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Story 06: The Big Move

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Hancock Pavilion (1972–73)

Written by Mike Spock

In the 1970s, the John Hancock Insurance Company got it into their heads to build a grand new headquarters across the street from their old office building on a parcel they owned in Copley Square. It would be the tallest, sexiest building in New England and bring notice and fame to the leaders of its corporation. They had hired the architectural firm of I.M. Pei, who came up with a stunning, sharp-edged, mirror-clad, rhomboid plan—cheek to jowl with H.H. Richardson's iconic Trinity Church. The new tower, by itself a very handsome building, was completely out of scale with its low-rise Back Bay neighbors and would dominate the square, Trinity Church, and the Boston skyline. Preservationists were outraged. Still, the insurance company had used its Boston namesake and headquarters from the very start. Even the mayor, Kevin White, with his deep commitment to the revival of post-war Boston without compromising the historic fabric of the city, was not about to let such a prestigious and gorgeous prize for the city (White was a modern architecture buff) slip through his hands.

After tough negotiations, the city agreed that Hancock and Pei could go ahead if they would tear down the older of the two original office buildings—not the taller one with the hokey weather beacon on the top—and set aside the open space as a public gathering space. On the face of it, that scheme seemed a bad compromise: there already was an open, but not well used park, Copley Square, and the new Pei tower (actually designed by his partner, Harry Cobb) would become unapproachable on windy days as was the case in most high-rise urban canyons. Cobb let it be known to Chandler Blackington, in charge of community relations within the second level of the Hancock leadership, that he had an interesting alternative in mind. If the right mix of nonprofit organizations could be induced to collaborate, the old office building scheduled to be sacrificed for the sake of civic reparation, could be recycled instead into an accessible and useful indoor public amenity.

Working hard on the creation of the new Metropolitan Cultural Alliance, some of us had been getting help from Blackington, known as Blacky, and others in rationalizing corporate giving among mid-rank cultural organizations. Blacky shared Cobb's vision with some of us as a possible tradeoff for Hancock messing with the scale of the Copley Square neighborhood. Here was Cobb's idea. The old nine-story building was built around a central elevator core. Bridges connected the core at each floor to an outer ring of offices. Cobb's plan would scoop out the elevators and bridges, leaving the outer square donut intact, and the vast seven-story atrium at the center would be crowned by an indoor hanging garden covered by an equally vast glass shell bathing all the interior floors in natural light. What did we think?

We thought it would be terrific!

The Massachusetts Horticultural Society (MHS), also looking for a new home, could develop and maintain a wonderful conservatory on the top floor. The Children's Museum could take off from the Jamaica Plain Visitor Center model and create a giant jungle gym of floating platforms for exhibits in the central atrium. The outer ring could become shared classrooms and workshops for the Boston Center for Adult Education (BCAE) and The Children's Museum's Resource Center. Jointly occupied by the three organizations would be a common library, collections storage, and offices. The ground and first floors, reserved for retail and a daycare center for kids of working parents, would underwrite the cost and services of maintaining what we all began to call the Hancock Pavilion.

It even seemed reasonable, at least to us, that Hancock should be responsible for owning, developing, and maintaining the Pavilion and the retail, and that the three Alliance members (MHS, BCAE and TCM) should provide the money (donated and earned) for outfitting, maintaining, and programming the exhibits, resources and specialized facilities. Everyone would win! The three Alliance members would get a spectacular but affordable home. The corporation would discharge their obligation to the city and turn a contentious liability into a feather in John Hancock's three-cornered hat. The city would have a self-supporting, year-round amenity for its citizens and visitors to enjoy. It seemed fair and doable. We could barely hide our excitement!

The mirrored tower of the new Hancock building, as it was being closed in, began to reflect the beautiful cloudscapes of the city rather competing with the historic architecture. In certain lighting the tower actually became invisible rather than an intrusion.

Then the tower's individual panes of glass began to fall out—one by one—sailing in the wind like a kid's paper airplane. Many modern buildings during their shakedowns had spells of structural or materials failures like this. But the problem kept getting worse, not better. Hancock had to put spotters on the ground around the base of tower to look up to try to catch sight of the next window about to take off. Plywood gradually took the place of the mirrored glass. It was painful to watch. Wags began to call it "the world's tallest plywood skyscraper."

Blacky called to tell us that Hancock was putting the Pavilion on hold. It was too much for them to think about with all their glass popping out. He also inferred that the undisciplined façade had given Hancock time to worry about the inherent risks of getting into bed with not one but three underfinanced nonprofits. Would the Alliance partners be strong enough to not end up as wards of the corporation? Initially my impulse was to go over Blacky's head and challenge Hancock and make a convincing case to his bosses directly, but I had to acknowledge that they probably had already made up their minds. Besides, at that moment, they had more pressing things competing for their attention than the exciting Hancock Pavilion. In fact they were probably craving less excitement, thank you! It made more sense for all of us to move on and create another opportunity

Next: Program Committee Report (1973) Template for a New Museum