Both before it was built and since, people have been boosting and bashing Boston’s Prudential Center, whose construction began in earnest fifty years ago. Insuring the City: The Prudential Center and the Postwar Urban Landscape, by architectural historian Elihu Rubin and published today by Yale University Press, captures and explains what the conversation has been about.
Here, Rubin offers some memorable remarks about the building from a variety of observers — politicians, architects, critics. Each quote is followed by a bit of context, in boldface, courtesy of Rubin.
“We believe in Boston. We believe in the entire New England area.”
-Prudential Insurance Company president Carrol Shanks in 1957, announcing plans to build the Prudential Center as its Northeastern Home Office. Despite its “belief in Boston,” the Prudential suspended the project in midstream and didn’t resume it until it succeeded in getting a major tax break, based on new state legislation and a Supreme Judicial Court decision that building the Pru over an old rail yard was part of the fight against “urban blight.”
“[The Prudential Center] is the biggest thing that has ever happened in Boston in a physical sense. There has never been anything here faintly resembling it.”
-Mayor John Hynes, cheering the budding project on. The Pru was big not only “in a physical sense” but also in the way it signaled the mid-century shift to a new Boston, characterized by an expanded downtown, a daily influx of commuters, and an emphasis on highways, parking lots, and plazas.
“Our concept required that we make a firm decision at the very start on the shape and height of every building in the project, because we had to build the foundations for all the structures at the same time that the plaza level and garages were being built.”
-Principal architect Charles Luckman in his later autobiography, recalling in the haze of memory the planning of the Center. In fact, the plans for the location and heights of the buildings were changed many times over the course of the project’s development.
“Luckman sold soap better than he designed buildings.”
-Robert Campbell, architecture critic at the Boston Globe, commenting on Luckman, who had been a business chieftain and the president of Lever Brothers before he returned to architecture. Campbell took to presenting annual “Pru Awards” for the ugliest Boston buildings of each year. Other critics shared his view of the Pru as “an ugly alien.”
“It is easy enough to refer irreverently to a major undertaking as a burden on the artistic sense of the public — but . . . why don’t we wait and look at the complete relationships before we offer negative opinion?”
-Mayor John Collins, defending the Pru from criticism as its opening drew near.
“Secretaries, executives, clerks, salesmen stream from the tower through tree-lined plazas. Passing fashionable shops, gliding down smooth escalators, and filling subways and the new Massachusetts Turnpike extension – they head for home. The working day is over for the tower’s thousands.”
-June Bibb in The Christian Science Monitor at the time of Prudential Center’s opening, observing the commuter-oriented midtown mega-structure that the Pru exemplified.
Today, when some of us cast a jaundiced eye on the Pru – while commuting to work on the Pike, or strolling on the esplanade by the Charles River, or cheering from the stands at Fenway Park – we should remember that, at a time when American cities were struggling, the Prudential company took a gamble and made a decisive investment in its new home. And perhaps the fact that we’re all still here, criticizing it some fifty years later is a sign that the gamble paid off.
Elihu Rubin is an architectural historian, city planner, and documentary filmmaker. He is the Daniel Rose (’51) Visiting Assistant Professor of Urbanism at the Yale School of Architecture. You can follow the “Insuring the City” blog for more updates and information about the book.