Story 06: The Big Move

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Part 2: Downtown - Trolling for Sites

Written by Mike Spock

In 1961, Mayor John Collins brought Ed Logue in from New Haven to head up the new Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) and preside over the planning and development of a revived downtown. Working against expectations, they turned their backs on the Second World War model of the wholesale clearance of America's decaying downtowns, and instead committed themselves to finding new uses for the handsome 18th and 19th century brick and granite commercial and wharf properties, bringing these underused and unappreciated urban buildings back to life. Thus we were biased from the start toward picking an existing building that could be creatively recycled into a new home for The Children's Museum. "Adaptive reuse" became our mantra.

We explored many site and building combinations. Each was tempting but not exactly right: it was not really at the hub (Watertown Arsenal, Boston Navy Yard); it was everyone's idea of a trendy property for harbor-side housing (several old granite warehouses along the waterfront); someone else already wanted to develop it (Old City Hall); it would be years before it would become available (Charles Street Jail, reserved for expansion of Mass General Hospital); or parking would be a problem and probably too expensive to buy or renovate when expansion was eventually needed (First Corps Cadet Armory).

Although we didn't always agree on which sites were worth a second look, it turned out that there were places "that felt like us," and others that didn't. We began to settle on criteria that became a rough template we could hold up to sites worth considering.

  • It had to be downtown where rails and highways came together.
  • It should be on neutral turf, not "owned" by anyone.
  • Parcels without much real estate value were good, but could not be so spooky that timid visitors would stay away.
  • Wonderful old building could be recycled and adapted to new uses.
  • Where possible, the fabric of old street patterns should be preserved.
  • Sharing space and services with related and compatible organizations might make sense.
  • And again, it should feel like us.
Designing and constructing a brand new building from scratch had some appeal, but the process increases the chance of bringing new and unexpected problems to the table. On the other hand, starting with an existing but adaptable building would cut down on the number of bad decisions you are apt to make and might even cost less.

Even while making the most of Jamaica Plain—staff loved working in our old-fashioned buildings, buying a sandwich and frappe at our neighborhood Brighams, and then walking around the gentle Jamaica Pond—we became even more certain that downtown was the place we had to be. It soon became clear that our old Jamaica Pond site would not work for us much longer: parking was already a problem for both neighbors and visitors, and we needed to grow so we could continue to remain financially self-sustaining.

Next: Hancock Pavilion (1972–73)