Government Center, Boston

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The Government Service Center building within the complex

Government Center is an area in downtown Boston, bounded by Cambridge, Court, Congress, and New Sudbury Streets. Formerly the site of Scollay Square, it is now the location of Boston City Hall, two Suffolk County courthouses, two state office buildings, and two federal office buildings, a major MBTA subway interchange station, and City Hall Plaza.

Major structures[edit]

Boston City Hall[edit]

Boston City Hall, circa 1968

The dominant feature of Government Center is the enormous, imposing, and brutalist Boston City Hall, built in the 1960s as part of Boston's first large Urban Renewal scheme. While considered by some to have architectural merit, the building is not universally admired, and is sharply unpopular among locals. Furthermore, it is resented for having replaced the Victorian architecture of Boston's Scollay Square, a lively commercial district that lapsed into squalor in the Twentieth Century.[1]

Former mayor Menino has proposed moving City Hall to a new building (most recently in July 2008) elsewhere in the city and selling off the land. Some urban planners propose to bulldoze the complex and redevelop the area in the future.[2]

John Fitzgerald Kennedy Federal Building[edit]

John Fitzgerald Kennedy Federal Building is a United States Federal government office building located in Government Center. It is adjacent to City Hall Plaza and is located diagonally across from Boston City Hall. An example of 1960s modern architecture, it is a complex that consists of two 26 floor towers that sit on-axis to each other and a low rise building of four floors that connects to the two towers via an enclosed glass corridor. The two towers stand at a height of 117.96 metres (387.0 ft).

City Hall Plaza[edit]

City Hall area construction,circa 1964-1968

City Hall Plaza is not a well-loved space, either. As Bill Wasik wrote in 2006, "It is as if the space were calibrated to render futile any gathering, large or small, attempted anywhere on its arid expanse. All the nearby buildings seem to be facing away, making the plaza's 11 acres (45,000 m2) of concrete and brick feel like the world's largest back alley. … [It is] so devoid of benches, greenery, and other signposts of human hospitality that even on the loveliest fall weekend, when the Common and Esplanade and other public spaces teem with Bostonians at leisure, the plaza stands utterly empty save for the occasional skateboarder…" (Wasik 2006, 61) The plaza is often colloquially referred to as "the brick desert."

Government Service Center[edit]

Another very large Brutalist building at Government Center, less prominently located and thus less well known than City Hall, is the Government Service Center, designed by architect Paul Rudolph. The building is unfinished as the tall central tower in the original plan was never built. The adjacent space was filled with the Edward W. Brooke Courthouse in the mid-1990s. This irregularly shaped, sloping lot was the last parcel to be developed of the Government Center urban renewal plan; in the interim the space was used as surface parking.

Geography and transportation[edit]

Entrance to Government Center MBTA station, prior to its 2014-2016 reconstruction

Government Center is located between the North End and Beacon Hill neighborhoods. It is directly across Congress Street from historic Faneuil Hall and popular Quincy Market and very near the Old State House. It is two blocks away from Interstate 93 (the 'Big Dig') which runs through the historic bloodline of the city.

There has been a subway station here since the first subway in America was built in Boston in 1897. Initially named Scollay Square Station, it was made famous in 1959 when The Kingston Trio performed a cover of a 1948 Boston protest song, originally known as "Charlie On the MTA" but became a national hit as "M.T.A.," about a man who is trapped to ride on the subway forever due to exit fares, an unpopular fare-collection method that survived until 2007 on some MBTA extensions. Today the station, with its brick ziggurat-shaped entrance is known as Government Center Station and is the interchange for the Blue and Green Lines.

Several major city streets either surround or lead to the plaza, including Tremont, Congress, Cambridge, Beacon, State, Washington, and Devonshire Streets. Hints of another street, Cornhill, still exist along one edge of City Hall Plaza—one of the few remaining old buildings (Sears Crescent) facing the square follows the original curve of the street, and one Cornhill Street address is still in use by a veteran's shelter.

In popular culture[edit]

  • Boston-based seminal proto-punk band The Modern Lovers recorded a song called "Government Center". It was originally released on Beserkley's Chartbusters sampler album. It has been included in re-release versions of The Modern Lovers album. In it, singer Jonathan Richman humorously croons about his intent to "Rock non-stop tonight at the Government Center" to "Make the secretaries feel better / As they put the stamps on the ledgers." The song appears in the film Harmony and Me.
  • Ska/punk band Jaya The Cat recorded a song titled "Government Center". The song references the Ashmont and Central MBTA stations.
  • Long Island rock band Brand New, on their debut album Your Favorite Weapon, included a song called "Logan to Government Center".
  • The Government Service Center building played the role of the Massachusetts State Police headquarters in the 2006 film The Departed.
  • Government Center is featured prominently in several scenes of the 1973 film The Friends of Eddie Coyle.

See also[edit]

Areas nearby

History of the site



  1. ^ Mapping Boston, Krieger, Alex, ed., MIT Press 1999, p.163-165. Lost Boston, by Jane Holtz Kay, p.110.
  2. ^ Southworth & Southworth. AIA Guide to Boston, 3rd ed. 2008; p.52.

Further reading

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 42°21′38.52″N 71°03′33.22″W / 42.3607000°N 71.0592278°W / 42.3607000; -71.0592278