John F. Kennedy Federal Building, Boston, MA

Building History

The John F. Kennedy Federal Building in Boston, Massachusetts, is one of the federal government's most noteworthy Modern designs. Master architect Walter Gropius (1883-1969) and his firm The Architects Collaborative (TAC) designed the complex with the assistance of Boston architect Samuel Glaser.

One of the most influential architects of the twentieth century, German-born Gropius founded the world-renowned Bauhaus school in Weimar, Germany, in 1919. Throughout the 1920s, the Bauhaus was the European center for modernist thinking and design. In 1928, Gropius left the school. After the Nazi government forced the Bauhaus to close in 1933, many of its current and former faculty fled Germany. Gropius arrived in the United States in 1937 and began teaching at Harvard University. He is credited with bringing the International Style of architecture to the United States and for promulgating Modernist design principles. In 1945, he founded TAC, which promoted teamwork as a critical component of the design process.

Gropius's Modern designs make no reference to regional or local architectural influences. Uniting new social demands with advanced technological possibilities, he radically simplified building design. Building forms were basic and usually built of glass, steel, and concrete with minimal ornamentation.

The U.S. General Services Administration retained Gropius and TAC to design a Modern federal building in Boston in 1961, and construction began two years later. The site cost $1.2 million and construction cost $24 million. The architects included many features to enable employees to work both efficiently and comfortably. A staffed health unit, administrative supply store, credit union, and duplicating plant were present when the complex opened. All offices in the building were located no more than 150 feet away from stairways and restrooms.

After President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, officials decided to name the complex after him, an appropriate gesture to honor him in his home city. The president's mother, Rose Kennedy, and his brothers, Senators Edward and Robert Kennedy, attended the building's dedication on September 9, 1966. At the ceremony, Cardinal Cushing stated that "in this steel and stone we make [President Kennedy's] monument."

Architecture

The John F. Kennedy Federal Building is bounded by Cambridge, New Sudbury, and New Congress streets. The construction of the federal building contributed to the improvement of this part of the city.

Technically one building, it consists of twin 26-story high-rise towers, which sit on axis to each other, and a low, 4-story building. This combination of tall towers paired with low buildings is a common Modern form that is used extensively throughout the United States and abroad. The double towers increase the number of offices lit by natural light and decrease the visual bulk that a single monolithic building would create. The building contains 839,000 square feet.

The exterior of the towers is constructed of pre-cast reinforced concrete. The lower sections are faced with polished granite. All aluminum work has a dark anodized finish in a medium gray tone, which the architects designed to contrast with the white concrete facade. Overall, the exterior lacks ornamentation, instead displaying a stark functionality. Bands of windows wrap around the towers; corner windows have rounded edges. The bases of the towers have arcades with entrances set back beneath a covered area supported by piers. The tops of the towers are distinguished by metal louvers. An exposed glass atrium connects the two towers at the ground level.

A glass-enclosed walkway connects the four-story building to the towers. Like the towers, the low building's facade is comprised of concrete and glass. Vertical slabs form piers that interrupt the horizontality of the building and create the off-center entrance, which is articulated by a cantilevered porch. A protruding second story creates a covered pathway to shelter visitors.

The building occupies only 45 percent of the 4.6-acre site. The remaining portion contains terraces, plazas, extensive landscaping, a sunken patio, and driveways. Plazas are surfaced with stone in most sections. Paved walkways are interspersed throughout. A tiered stair platform of cement and brick leads to the low building. Unusual concrete structures shaped like concave cylinders provide bench seating throughout the plaza. Trees and shrubbery are located around the four-story building.

The two-story main lobby was modernized in 1994 and features polished granite-clad walls to complement the original granite columns; the original bluestone flooring was replaced with flame-finished granite pavers. The original ceramic tile ceiling, which began failing some time after construction, was replaced with a sheet rock and plaster ceiling during the renovation.

In 1963, Gropius and Glaser saw sculpture by artist Dmitri Hadzi, who worked in Modern abstract forms, and decided Hadzi's style would be appropriate for the federal building. They commissioned Hadzi to produce a beautiful complex bronze sculpture called Thermopylae, which is located in front of one of the towers. The heroic abstract sculpture was created in 1966 and inspired by President Kennedy's book Profiles in Courage and his exemplary war record. Two other artists created tributes to John F. Kennedy. Herbert Ferber designed an abstract sculpture of welded copper and stainless steel titled Full Circle: Profile in Courage, which is in the interior light court. New England Elegy, a controversial mural by Robert Motherwell, occupies the area between the towers and the low-rise building. Revolving exhibits in the building often focus on aspects of Kennedy's life and presidency.

Significant Events

1937: Walter Gropius immigrates to the United States and espouses Modern architecture

1945: Gropius founds The Architects Collaborative

1961: Gropius, TAC, and Glaser retained to design federal building in Boston

1963: Construction begins; building is named to honor President Kennedy after he is assassinated

1966: Construction completed and building occupied

Building Facts

Location: 15 Sudbury Street

Architects: Walter Gropius and The Architects Collaborative with Samuel Glaser

Construction Dates: 1963-1966

Architectural Style: Sixties Modern

Primary Materials: Steel, Reinforced Concrete, and Glass

Prominent Features: Monolithic towers; Landscaped Plaza; Public Art

John F. Kennedy Federal Building, Boston, MA
No Historical Significance available at this time.
Year
Start
Year
End
Description Architect