Pei, I.M.

Kips Bay Towers

Added by Jorgen G Cleemann, last update: August 17, 2012, 11:53 am

Kips Bay Towers
Kips Bay Towers, South Building (Unit 1), source: Jorgen G. Cleemann, date: 31 January 2011
300-330 East 33rd Street
New York, NY 10016
United States
40° 44' 37.0752" N, 73° 58' 32.2896" W
Identity of Building / Site
Primary classification: Residential (RES)
Secondary classification:
Federal, State, or Local Designation(s) and Date(s):
History of Building/Site
Original Brief:

Kips Bay Plaza was one of two New York City sites that Robert Moses, acting in his capacity as Chairman of the mayor's Slum Clearance Committee, handed over to real estate mogul William Zeckendorf in 1957. These two sites--the other, on West 96th Street, was called Manhattantown, later renamed Park West Village--had both been designated as slums some years earlier, and, under the terms of Title I of the National Housing Act of 1949, had been sold to private developers, with the understanding that they would raze the existing buildings and erect modern housing projects. The developers, however, realized that they stood to make more money collecting rents on the extant properties than they did by proceeding with the redevelopment. And so they simply sat on their properties, failing to pay taxes all the while. In 1957, this situation erupted into a massive scandal that thoroughly embarrassed both Moses and Mayor Robert F. Wagner, Jr. In order to quell the public furor, Moses sought to push the projects through to completion as quickly as possible. He therefore reached out to Zeckendorf, who, as head of the real estate development firm Webb & Knapp, had developed a reputation as a person who could quickly and efficiently handle massive projects such as these.

The Manhattantown site had already been planned, allowing construction to begin quickly. The future Kips Bay Plaza--then called New York University-Bellevue, as it was intended to house employees from the New York University Hospital on the other side of First Avenue--had its own plans, drawn up by the firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM). As the principal architect of I.M. Pei & Associates, which was serving as a sort of in-house architectural firm for Webb & Knapp, I.M. Pei stood to inherit these plans. Allegedly, SOM partner Gordon Bunshaft advised Pei against taking the commission, writing off public housing projects as "lawyer's work." Pei communicated this sentiment to Zeckendorf, who was not to be dissuaded. The project, now renamed Kips Bay Plaza and transformed in purpose from employee housing to general middle-income housing, fell to Pei, who marshaled all of his creative resources in designing a public housing project that was both cheap and architecturally innovative, and that would eventually become a place where people would want to live.

Dates: Commission / Completion:Commission: 1957 Unit 1 (Southern Tower) Completed: 1961 Unit 2 (Northern Tower) Completed: 1962
Architectural and other Designer(s): I.M. Pei & Associates: I.M. Pei (Principal Architect), Gabor Acs (Design Architect), L. Brooks Freeman (Design Architect), Fred M. Taylor (Design Architect), James Ingo Freed (Design Architect), Edward Friedman (Concrete), A. Preston Moore (Project Architect), Leo Novick (Landscape Architect), Mattie Millstein (Staff Architect), T.J. Palmer (Staff Architect), John Laskowski (Staff Architect) S.J. Kessler & Sons (Engineers and Associate Architects) Sears & Kopf (Mechanical Engineers) Webb & Knapp Construction Corp. (General Contractor)
Others associated with Building/Site: William Zeckendorf - Head of Webb & Knapp, Inc., the real estate development firm that developed the site. Robert Moses - Chairman of the mayor's Committee on Slum Clearance (one of his many titles)
Significant Alteration(s) with Date(s): Closing off of public plaza, 1983: The plaza was open to the public until 1983 when the condominium board, responding to a spate of muggings and the presence of the homeless and “rowdy groups of teen-agers from outside” in the park, voted to fence it in and restrict access to residents of the towers.
Current Use: The site continues to be residential.
Current Condition: As access to the park, lobbies, and interiors of the towers are resticted to residents and their guests. This evaluation is therefore based only on visual observations of the towers' exteriors, and a necessarily cursory examination of the lobby interiors as viewed through the windows from the outside. On the exterior, the concrete is soiled, efflorescing in many places, and shows some cracks and unsympathetic patches. The metal window frames (presumably aluminum) also show signs of deterioration and soiling. Overall, however, the exteriors of both buildings appear to be in decent condition. None of the aformentioned concrete or window conditions severely affects the visual impact of the buildings, and there are no signs of structural compromise, such as rust stains that would suggest failing rebars. However, a more thorough conditions survey would need to be carried out before the foregoing statements could be either confirmed or denied. The interiors of the lobbies are sparsely appointed, but what is there appears to be in somewhat poor--or at least unclean--condition, as evinced by filthy and failing ceiling tiles.
General Description:

The three city blocks that were combined (into a "superblock") to form the Kips Bay Plaza comprise the two 21-story residential towers, the park between the two towers, a 10-story medical dormitory building along First Avenue, an underground parking structure, and a 3-story commercial strip and cinema along Second Avenue. Due to the lack of public access to the park, and the comparative architectural and/or social insignificance of the other structures on the site, this entry pertains only to the two residential towers.

The two towers, rectangular in plan and 410 feet long, are arranged with their long axes parallel to the east-west axis of Manhattan. One tower (Unit 1) occupies the southeast corner of the site, with an entry plaza and main access on 30th Street; the other (Unit 2) occupies the northwest corner with its plaza and entrance on 33rd. By pushing the buildings to the opposite corners of the site, Pei opened up the interior, which was landscaped into a public park. Although the natural lay of the land is such that the southern portion of the site has a higher elevation than the northern, the two towers were built with their entrance lobbies at the same elevation, meaning that one must descend a flight of stairs from 30th Street in order to gain access to the Unit 1, while he or she must ascend a flight from 33rd Street in order to access Unit 2. The ground floor of each building—which contains a glass-enclosed lobby, elevator and service shafts, and offices—is surrounded by the heavy concrete piers upon which rests a massive beam; between piers, the beam slopes inward slightly from top to bottom.

The dominant visual element of the towers are their buff, poured-in-place concrete façades, which also serve as integral components of the buildings’ structures. Each side of the building is thus rendered as a massive grid, with vertical members projecting slightly in their centers, rounded corners at the joints in order to clearly express the fluid qualities of the concrete (and to bolster stiffness), large windows occupying the voids between the intersecting members, and projecting window sills. The interplay of recessed and projecting components thus lends these facades a rich texture, and creates a constantly-shifting geometry of shadows as the sun travels across the sky. Each window is 5-feet-8-inches wide and nearly floor-to-ceiling in height, fixed in place except at the bottom, where there are hopper windows, and sometimes air conditioner units. This window size admits a large amount of light into the interior, while the fact that the windows are recessed 14 ½ inches within each bay provides a degree of shading and privacy. By combining the structure of the building with its façade, the interior spaces are freed from the sort of structural encumbrances that can create awkward spaces in typical curtain wall buildings.

The corners of the buildings are inverted slightly. At the top, the buildings terminate in a blank concrete wall.

Construction Period:


Original Physical Context:

Just prior to construction, the three blocks on which this complex was built were largely residential, the houses and tenements interspersed with a few lofts, a piano factory, and a garage. The most notable structures lying within this area prior to demolition were the Phipps Houses (Grosvenor Atterbury, 1906), the first of a series of model tenements sponsored by wealthy philanthropist Henry Phipps. Much like the Kips Bay complex that would later inhabit the site, the Phipps Houses were constructed with the intent of alleviating some of the worst conditions afflicting the urban poor, targeting specifically poor lighting and insufficient fresh air.

To the immediate east of the site, just over First Avenue, there originally lay, as there does today, a massive medical complex comprising several New York University Hospital buildings as well as Bellevue Hospital, founded in 1736, the oldest public hospital in the United States. To the north and south of the medical buildings, this area also contained several loft, factory, and warehouse buildings. Slightly father east than all of these buildings was Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive, and then the East River.

To the south of the site, the neighborhood character was defined by two large-scale public housing projects: The Peter Cooper Houses, and, below that, Stuyvestant Town. Although on a much smaller scale than either of these two older projects, the construction of Kips Bay thus represented the continued growth of a public housing corridor that had taken root in this general area.

To the west of the site, the initially residential character of the area gradually transformed to one dominated by the lofts and office buildings of this southern portion of midtown.

To the north of the site, the residential character of the area reached a logical border upon encountering the commerical corridor of 34th Street, where, a few blocks farther west, the Empire State Building loomed.

Technical Evaluation:

Kips Bay Plaza is one of several architectural projects undertaken during this period, and possibly the first in New York City, that reveled in the clearly-expressed use of reinforced concrete to enlarge popular notions of what tall buildings could look like, and how they functioned structurally. In a dramatic departure from the metal-and-glass curtain wall skyscrapers that proliferated in the 1950s and 1960s, in which the facade was reduced to a non-structural membrane that used the lightest materials possible to enclose the interior, Pei pushed the structural members of Kips Bay out to the facade. By making the facade structural, Pei freed the interior from the awkwardness of structural members, thereby allowing for more capacious rooms.

Pei originally wanted to construct the towers of pre-cast concrete, but when this proved too expensive, he agreed to use poured-in-place concrete instead. In order to create the necessary shapes, he commissioned a Brooklyn cabinetmaker to construct a revolutionary plastic-lined Douglas fir formwork. This may represent the first instance of working drawings being produced for concrete formwork, a practice that would eventually become the industry standard.

The result is a richly-textured facade comprised of strong vertical and horizontal lines, repeating bays, and various projecting and recessed members. The aesthetic qualities of this facade are recorded elsewhere in this entry; here it is only necessary to note that the rounded corners of the bays contribute to the stiffness of the joints, a property that is necessary in order to counter the lateral wind load encountered in buildings of this size. In curtain wall buildings, the wind bracing components were hidden in the internal steel structure; at Kips Bay, they are clearly expressed in the external concrete; furthermore, this structural necessity is exploited for aesthetic effect.

Because it was employing technology that had not been tested elsewhere, the Kips Bay construction site became a veritable test laboratory for structural concrete, with several full-scale models of portions of the structure being produced in order to examine their behavior under various stresses and conditions. Different pouring and finishing techniques were also studied. In order to achieve the desired color, Pei selected a light tan cement from the Lehigh Valley.


At Kips Bay, Pei was attempting to design a public housing project that exceeded the aesthetic and functional standards that were normally applied to such buildings. The construction of public housing was usually constrained by very small budgets, which resulted in the repetition of several variations on the same basic building type. The characteristics of this type were largely determined by the economies of construction and materials costs. While dealing with these same financial constraints, Pei sought to break free from the architectural forms that had been accepted as the standard for housing projects. By his own calculations, he could build to his own designs at Kips Bay for the same cost as the standard brick-and-balcony designs that proliferated in the public housing realm. And in so doing, he would create large, open living spaces filled with ample ambient light--spaces that would be vastly superior to those found in standard projects. Initially facing opposition from his own contractors, who would have preferred to work off of the standardized plans, as well as the bureaucrats of the Federal Housing Administration, Pei, backed as always by Zeckendorf, persisted with his plans, and was eventually allowed to pursue them after making only minor modifications.

Pei encountered a major hurdle at Kips Bay from the Federal Housing Administration, which provided developers with mortgage insurance based on room count. According to their own arcane logic, the FHA counted a balcony as a half room. Pei, however, was ardently opposed to balconies, which he believe served as little more than "dust collectors," and that internal space was infinitely more important to tenants. He therefore persisted with his original plan, and eventually won a partial victory when the FHA agreed to grant him partial balcony credit for the deeply-recessed windows in his design. Of course, it must have helped his case that he was at that point serving on the Multi-Family Housing Committee of the FHA.

Among his first design decisions was to reduce the number of buildings on the site from seven, as had been suggested in the Skidmore, Owings and Merrill designs, to two. The two remaining buildings were then pushed to opposite corners of the site, which opened up a large central park. This park speaks of the intentions that the designer had for the project to promote a shared public life among the buidlings' inhabitants, as well as the residents of the larger neighborhood, who were originally welcome in the park. As if to emphasize the importance he attached to this public space, Pei had originally wanted to place a large Picasso sculpture in the middle of the park. Zeckendorf, who was struggling with finances as much if not more than the architect, told Pei that he could have the sculpture or that he could have fifty saplings. Pei chose the trees, a testament to his desire to make this space into a tranquil bucolic haven.

The towers were converted from rental properties to condominiums in the 1980s, a highly controversial conversion that provoked the ire of some renters. Charging that the owners of the towers needed city approval in order to proceed with the conversions, the renters brought suit against Kips Bay Towers Associates, which had recently purchased the site. This suit failed, however, and the units were converted to condominiums.

Cultural & Aesthetic:
The first floor of the Kips Bay buildings consist of a central lobby, enclosed on either side by glass walls, contributing to a sensation that the massive concrete structure above is floating on a cushion of air. Of course, any such sensation is moderated by the massive piers that surround the first floor, and create a sort of modernist concrete loggia around the lower story. These piers run continuously upward into the facade, becoming every fourth vertical member of the upper portion of the building. A firm connection is thus established between the upper parts of the building and the ground, establishing a sense of solidity in spite of the interruption of the airy lobby. The upper portion of the building is massive and repetitive, nearly monotonous in its composition. Each facade consists of a grid composed of the same identical window units. These units are, as noted, richly textured, creating a varying play of light and shadows upon the facade. The deeply recessed window units, designed to create a sense of privacy from the inside, succeed in creating the same effect when viewed from the outside: one gets the impression of a multiplication of private lives, each one contained in its own impervious concrete box. The recessed windows have the additional effect of minimizing for the viewer--especially when viewed from an angle--the visual impact of individual window treatments applied by tenants. The buildings' possess a severe rectilinearity when viewed from a distance, an impression that is alleviated upon closer inspection of, for instance, the gentle upward slope of the beam above the first story, or the radiused corners of the bays. The earthy color is also somewhat warmer than one might expect from raw concrete. Furthermore, the spatial relationship of the two towers--they are staggered, not perfectly aligned--adds additional excitement to what would otherwise be a dull symmetrical arrangement. These details have the effect of transforming something that might be simply monumental architecture into a place in which one might want to live.

Kips Bay Plaza was under construction at the time of the publication of Jane Jacobs' seminal Death and Life of Great American Cities, and it may safely be grouped together with those public housing projects that Jacobs believed to be such blights on the urban landscape. Indeed, scores of houses and other residences needed to be demolished in order for Kips Bay Plaza to be built; and when it was finally built, it was opened up for middle-income renters, and not the low income residents who were often the victims of slum clearance. Thus, there certainly does exist, in the history of this site, a history of destruction.

But recent reevaluations of urban renewal may suggest that this building, and other public housing projects like it, were not solely the products of cynicism and wreckless destruction. Developers like Zeckendorf and architects like Pei--and possibly even power brokers like Moses--sincerely believed that buildings such as Kips Bay were at the vanguard of a new, nearly utopian model for the city. Furthermore, Pei's obsessive care in the construction of Kips Bay produced buildings of a significantly higher quality than most of those public housing projects that were produced in this era.

The building is also of great significance to the history of architecture. As has already been noted, its distinctive structural system was among the first of its kind, the brutalist typology that presented a way in which a modern building material could be exploited to produce specific functionalist results. The structural rationalism of this building's exterior form, combined with the maximization of interior useable space, result in a building type that is consummately modern.

General Assessment:
As one of many Title I public housing projects erected in New York City in the postwar years, the reputation of Kips Bay Plaza will forever be affected by the largely negative associations attached to "urban renewal." This perception unfortunately obscures the site's many qualities. Chief among these are the overwhelming optimism embodied in the buildings, expressive of the designer's belief that quality housing could be cheap to construct, architecturally fresh, and pleasant to inhabit. Pei sought to achieve these ends through a revolutionary new design in concrete. He would continue to design blocky, structurally-expressive buildings with this material, as would many others. Kips Bay could thus be considered among the first representatives of the brutalist style that would become popular in the decade or so following its construction. In Kips Bay, however, the style was utilized not just for the sake of being architecturally innovative, but rather as an answer to several financial and design-related problems, the ultimate objective of which was recreating public housing as a positive environment that conferred upon its tenants all of the benefits of modernity. In this, Kips Bay succeeds.
Text references:

2009 Sanborn Manhattan Land Book, First American Real Estate Solutions.

Gero von Boehm. Conversations with I.M. Pei: Light is the Key. Munich, London, New York: Prestel Verlag, 2000.

William G. Blair. "Closing of Kips Garden Draws Fire." New York Times. 9 November 1983. Pg. B12.

William G. Blair. "Condominium Sales at Kips Bay Towers are Upheld by Judge." New York Times. 10 May 1984. Pg. B7.

Mitchell T. Cannell. I.M. Pei: Mandarin of Modernism. New York: Carol Southern Books, 1995.

James Marston Fitch. “Housing in New York, Washington, Chicago and Philadelphia.” The Architectural Review. Sept. 1963. V. 134. Pgs. 192-200

Christopher Gray. " Millionaire's Effort to Improve Housing for the Poor." New York Times. 23 November 2003. Pg. RE7.

Walter McQuade. “Pei’s apartments round the corner.” Architectural Forum. August 1961. v. 115. Pgs. 106-114

Philip Jodidio and Janet Adams Strong. I.M. Pei: Complete Works. New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 2008.

“Variety and Open Space for New York.” Architectural Record. July 1958. v. 123. Pg. 175.

Elliot Willensky and Norval White. AIA Guide to New York City. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988.

Carter Wiseman. The Architecture of I.M. Pei. London: Thames and Hudson, Ltd., 1990.

Recorder/Date: Jorgen G. Cleemann/2-3-2011
Additional Images
Kips Bay Towers
Kips Bay Towers, North Building (Unit 2), Source:, date: 14 July 2010
Kips Bay Towers
Kips Bay Towers, South Building (Unit 1), South Facade, Source: Jorgen G. Cleemann, date: 31 January 2011
Kips Bay Towers
Kips Bay Towers, South Building (Unit 1), East Facade, Detail, Source: Jorgen G. Cleemann, date: 31 January 2011

John Hancock Tower

Added by Lindsey Schweinberg, last update: December 8, 2015, 12:12 pm

John Hancock Tower
Tomtheman5. John Hancock Tower. 7 July 2007. Wikimedia Commons.
200 Clarendon Street
Boston, MA 02116
United States
42° 20' 58.2324" N, 71° 4' 27.8688" W
Identity of Building / Site
Primary classification: Commercial (COM)
Secondary classification:
Federal, State, or Local Designation(s) and Date(s):
History of Building/Site
Original Brief:

Commission brief: In 1965, the John Hancock Mutual Insurance Co. (under the leadership of chairman, Robert Slater) commissioned the firm of I.M. Pei to design a new building for their company in Copley Square.  Nothing was documented, but there was an implicit understanding that the tower would surpass that of their rival insurance company, the Prudential, in height. (The Prudential had been built in 1964 as the tallest building in Boston.)
Design brief: Pei’s original designs (1966) included demolishing Hancock’s earlier Berkeley building (across the street) and creating 1.5 million sf of office space on 4 acres.  His design called for a cylindrical masonry shaft with a portion sliced away, leaving a flat surface faced in glass, which would be separated from the cylinder by narrow vertical slots.  The design included two low-rise buildings flanking the tower, leaving a triangular plaza facing Trinity Church.  Also planned was a below-grade parking lot for 800 vehicles. In 1967, Hancock hired Max Philippson to consult on real estate planning and building costs.  Armed with his analysis, Hancock decided to revise the building specifications, calling for greater square footage over a smaller footprint.  Instead of 1.5 million sf, the new specs required 2 million and instead of distributing the office space over the entire 2 block site, Hancock decided to keep their original Berkeley building and only build on ½ the original acreage.  (Thus the floors needed to be 30,000 sf instead of 22,000.) There was also a change in materials: instead of a concrete building, Hancock called for structural steel. In the fall of 1967 overwhelmed with other commissions, Pei turned over the redesign of the Tower to partner, Henry Cobb. November 27, 1967: Hancock unveiled Cobb’s final design: a 790-ft parallelogram tower (tallest in New England), skewed so that the mass would be slimmest on the side facing Copley Square and Trinity Church.  Clad in glass, the building was designed to reflect the images of surrounding architecture, rather than impose on them.   However, the architecture community in Boston as well as the general public find the design to be a towering hulk of a building, a monstrosity out of scale with the neighborhood. Building/construction:Groundbreaking was delayed a year as the city of Boston refused to grant building permits due to possible zoning violations.  Hancock owned the adjacent property and swapped zoning credits; however, hearings and appeals dragged on. On May 23, 1968, a year and a half after the Hancock building committee was formed, the Boston Redevelopment Association approved Hancock’s first permit application.  Permits were granted only after Hancock threatened to move its headquarters to Chicago. During construction in the summer of 1968, the removal of 500 million lbs of earth and the effect of 3,000 steel piles being driven into the bedrock, caused ground settling to occur effecting nearby Trinity Church, Sheraton Copley Plaza Hotel, streets, sidewalks and utility lines.  Trinity experienced damage: cracking of transept walls and 6 John La Farge murals.  The transept began leaning at an angle, no longer able to support the roof.  Trinity sued for damages. By 1972, window installation began (at 5 ft x 11 ft, the largest windows ever to be installed in a tower). The last window was installed in August of 1972, but throughout the fall a series of storms caused windows to break.   By July 1973, 2,472 windows had shattered. A group from MIT, led by Prof. Robert Hansen (a structural engineer who had previously worked on the Chicago Hancock Tower),. placed 70 wind sensors in locations around the exterior to assess the building’s conduct in the wind.  They also constructed a mockup of the Tower and the surrounding area and test in a wind tunnel.  Libbey-Owens-Ford, the glass manufacturer, retested the strength of their glass. All 10,348 double-pane windows were replaced by ½ inch thick reflective tempered glass.  Two 300 lbs. dampers were installed on the 58th floor to prevent sway. Bruno Thurlimann (a Zurich-based expert on tall buildings from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology) and Dr. A. G. Davenport (Director of the Boundary Layer Wind Tunnel, University of Western Ontario) were employed by Hancock at Cobb’s urging to do a thorough structural examination.  Their analysis persuaded Hancock to stiffen the steel skeleton by adding 1,650 tons of diagonal struts at a cost of $5 million.

Dates: Commission / Completion:Design period(s): c. Summer 1966 – e. November 27, 1967, start of site work: c. August 1968, completion/inauguration: e. September 29, 1976
Architectural and other Designer(s): Architect(s):I.M. Pei and Henry Cobb Other designer(s):Office of James Ruderman, NY, NY (Structural), Cosentini Associates LLP, NY, NY (Mechanical/Electrical), Mueser, Rutledge, Wentworth & Johnson, NY, NY (Foundations) Consulting engineer(s): Max Philippson , Professor Robert Hansen, MIT , Bruno Thurlimann, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology , A. G. Davenport, Director of the Boundary Layer Wind Tunnel, University of Western Ontario Building contractor(s):Gilbane Building Co., Providence, RI (General Contractor), H.H. Robertson Co. (curtain wall subcontractor)
Others associated with Building/Site: Original owner(s)/patron(s): The John Hancock Mutual Insurance Co. (1965 – 2003)Beacon Capital (2003 – 2006) Broadway Real Estate Partners LLC (2006 – Present) Name(s):Robert Slater Association: Chairman of John Hancock during Design Period Event(s): See above Period: See above Name(s):Gerhard Bleichen Association:Chairman of John Hancock during Construction Period Event(s):See above Period:See above
Significant Alteration(s) with Date(s): Type of change: Alteration Date(s):Winter 1979 Circumstances/ reasons for change: Poor design of original entrance: the original series of plexi-glass bubble canopies break due to a combination of fatigue, wind and cold. Effects of changes: Henry Cobb designs a new entrance – a continuous sky lit shed resting on the round frames of the former bubbles. Persons/organisations involved: Henry Cobb, original design architect Type of change:  Renovation Date(s): c. 1980s Circumstances/ reasons for change: Lobby and cafeteria get a new updated interior design. Effects of changes: Removal of brightly colored elevator signage for more sedate lettering.  Security desk installed in the lobby. Persons/organisations involved: Unknown.
Current Use: Of whole building/site: The building was designed for office space and maintains that use.  All 60 floors are rented out to various companies and organizations, or retained by the John Hancock Company. Of principal components: The observatory was closed in 2001 and converted to office space, but all other areas retain their original function: cafeteria, lobby, lounge, etc. Of surrounding areas: Copley Square is still used as public park and Trinity Church retains its function as a religious institution. Comment(s):The building and surrounding area have retained their original use and there has not been anything in the way of addition or major renovation to the building or its immediate surrounding landscape.
Current Condition: Of whole building/site: The tower is well-maintained, with regular window-washing and thorough maintenance.  There are regular checks of fire alarm equipment and of the damper system that minimizes the effects of sway. Of principal components: The public spaces including the lobby, lounge and cafeteria are well-maintained, with some interior design changes from time to time. Of surrounding areas: Trinity Church has just undergone a major restoration process and Copley Square was redesigned 1984-1990 by Clarke & Rapuano, Dean Abbott.
General Description:

The John Hancock Tower has a parallelogram shaped floorplate (with the bottom 7 stories extending out on one end to fill out the northwest corner.) The Tower extends up 60 stories into the sky, making it the tallest building in the 6 New England states.  A vertical v-shaped notch is cut into each of the shorter ends of the parallelogram, in contrast to the completely flat planes of the wider sides.  On a steel frame, the curtain wall is completely made of reflective glass, which on a clear day reflects the buildings that surround it below and the expansive sky above.  The Tower is situated at an angle to the lot, with one of its short sides at angle pointing to the corner of Copley Square.  1.6 million sf of office space (3 floors @ 47,000 sf, 51 floors @ 30,200 sf) Lobby 1,000 seat cafeteria and lounge (36,000 sf)Originally a 29,000 sf observatory on 60th floor, now office space

Construction Period:
Original Physical Context:

Name(s) of surrounding area/building(s):Trinity Church, Copley Plaza Hotel, “Old” John Hancock Tower Copley Square
Visual relations: Trinity Church and Copley Square are directly across St. James Street from the JHT (facing one of its two shorter sides).The Copley Plaza Hotel is directly across Trinity Place from the JHT (facing one of its two longer sides).The “Old” John Hancock Tower is directly across Clarendon Street from the JHT (facing the other of the longer sides).The YWCA is directly across Stuart Street from the JHT (facing the other shorter side).The JHT’s windows reflect the images of these structures on sunny days as well as cast shadows on them. Functional relations: The “Old’ John Hancock Tower is accessible from the JHT through an underground tunnel.  They were built by the same owner (John Hancock Mutual Insurance Co.) 30 years apart for the purpose of housing the operations of the insurance co. and have been sold together through the years.
Other relations: The JHT’s mighty size at 60 stories high creates wind tunnels on the ground level of the blocks surrounding it.
Completed situation: In May of 1975, reglazing was completed.  However, lawsuits abounded as Hancock sued Libbey-Owens-Ford (glass manufacturer), H. H. Roberston Co. (subcontractor for the curtain wall), Gilbane Building Co. (general contractor), Aetna Causalty and Surety Co. and Federal Insurance Co., performance bonding companies, and Pei’s office. On September 29, 1976, the Tower finally opened – 5 years behind schedule and costing an extra $100 million. Original situation or character of site: The building is set at an angle with its shorter side towards the centerpiece of Copley Square and Trinity Church.  This was purposely done so the Tower would be minimally imposing on the nearby buildings.  The reflective quality of the glass façade also causes the building to dematerialize, proving to be more of a foil for the surrounding architecture, than an imposition.Currently there are no threats to the building.  It has recently changed ownership (December 2006); however, there are no known plans to change its use or its structure in any major way.

Technical Evaluation:

The John Hancock Tower plays an important role in the history of building technology for its technological advances through its early structural failures.  The vision of the architects went beyond the era’s technological capabilities and thus pushed the envelope as to what materials could be used and how much and what kinds of testing need to occur.  The John Hancock Tower served as a lesson on how to install large glass plates in a high rise building, how to minimize sway in such a structure and was the case study that led to the development of additional testing procedures in the construction of skyscrapers.


The John Hancock Tower has been the recipient of many prestigious prizes: In 1977, the John Hancock Tower was bestowed with the AIA’s National Honor Award. After being chided by the Boston Society of Architects in 1967, the Tower received the BSA’s most prestigious design prize – The Harleston Parker Award – in 1983. In 1994, a Boston Globe poll of architects and historians rated it Boston’s third best work of architecture (after its neighbors, Trinity Church and the Boston Public Library). There is also a social irony in the development of the John Hancock Tower and its publicized weaknesses.  John Hancock had built its earlier buildings in Boston after the style of insurance buildings – those that would portray solidity and assurance.  Despite its modern ethereal qualities, the “new” John Hancock Tower was also designed to assert that power by standing taller than any other building in Boston.  However, the building was troubled with structural problems with the breakage of its windows and issues of reinforcement and sway.  With its problems highly publicized, the building for which Hancock had such high hopes, was ridiculed as the “Plywood Palace” for its boarded up windows, and had to be monitored by a vigilant ground team armed with binoculars who would watch for any further sign of breakage.  Yet, now known for overcoming its shaky beginnings, the Hancock Tower has become a tower of strength for the city, housing many of its most prestigious businesses.

Cultural & Aesthetic:
In a low-rise city, the John Hancock Tower is a visible symbol of a new vision for Boston.  Though early plans were derided by all in the Boston architectural community as a mammoth which would overshadow the surrounding great works of architecture, the JHT triumphed as a monument that reflects the history surrounding it and doesn’t impose on it.  The JHT is surrounded by prestigious neighbors: National Landmarks such as Trinity Church, the Boston Public Library and the YWCA, as well as the famous Copley Square, Copley Plaza Hotel and Old John Hancock Tower.  Yet it doesn’t stand apart from its neighbors, but mirrors their beauty in its expansive glass.  The building appears to disappear on a sunny day, when the surface reflects the blue of the sky and dissolves against it, looking almost invisible.  On a cloudy day, the glass looks grayish-green and impenetrable and at sunset, the building gleams with a red-yellow radiance.   It stands taller than any other structure in Boston (8 stories higher than the previous tallest – Prudential), and stands apart among all low-rise buildings.  Only seen as a plane – very minimalist – with mullions almost undetectable so as to perceive an undifferentiated sheet of glass, it serves as an example of how new construction can co-exist with the old.  With ideas like its reflective surface and situated at a slimming angle, it demonstrates how the modern can complement and enhance historic fabric, rather than detract or overshadow it. Canonical status: Though once ridiculed by Bostonians as a “Plywood Palace” and feared by passerbys for its potential to shed its glass panes, the John Hancock Tower has evolved to overcome its troubled past and has become a beloved symbol the city.  Like Paris’s Eiffel Tower or New York’s Empire State Building, Boston’s identifying skyline Icon is the John Hancock Tower.
General Assessment:
The John Hancock Tower plays an ironic part in Boston’s history.  Boston has long known to be an anti-high-rise city, and as late as 1919, Hartford had the tallest building in New England.   Ironically, today’s tallest building in New England (the JHT) sits on the site of the old Westminster Hotel, which when it was built in 1903 violated the 90 ft limit on the Copley Square area, leading to a fight which was taken all the way to the Supreme Court, whereupon the court upheld Boston’s zoning rights.In comparison to the stocky Art Deco masonry building that is the “Old” John Hancock Tower with its distinctive pyramid roof and weather reporting lights, the new building signified a new life for the John Hancock Company and for the city of Boston.  The “old” tower was already behind the times in 1947 when it was built, and the “new” tower provided a stark contrast.  The company was founded on the strength of the past, but was looking optimistically and futuristically to a new era, by building taller yet in a light and airy manner.  With its clean and graceful stature, it seems more appropriate for the historic Boston than the hulking solid mass of the 1964 Prudential Tower (home to its industry rival).  The John Hancock Tower is more sensitive to its place in history and reflects the rich architectural and natural fabric that surrounds it.
Text references:

Palmer, Thomas C., Jr., “NY Firm Buys Hancock Tower.” ( December 29, 2006.
Farragher, Thomas, “60 Stories and Countless Tales.” <(" September 24, 2006.
“Boston’s John Hancock Tower Tops New England’s ENERGY STAR Class of 2005.” (">,) February 21, 2006.
Phillips, Frank, “Governor Leases Pricey Office at Top of Hancock Tower.” Boston Globe, Sep 15, 2005, p. B1.
Park, Madison, “Searching for an Answer on 60th Floor: Councilor Wants Hancock Site Open.” Boston Globe, June 15, 2005, p. B2.
Feeney, Mark, “Long Way to the Top Initially Plagued by Controversy, the John Hancock Tower Has Become a Prized Part of the City’s Skyline.” Boston Globe, Apr 29, 2003, p. E1.
Kay, Jane Holtz, “Lost Boston.” Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999.
Cannell, Michael, “I. M. Pei: Mandarin of Modernism.” New York: Carol Southern Books, 1995.
Southworth, Susan & Michael, “AIA Guide to Boston.” 2nd edition. Chester, Connecticut: The Globe Pequot Press, 1992.
Vanderwarker, Peter, “Boston Then and Now.” New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1992.
Miller, Naomi and Keith Morgan, “Boston Architecture 1975-1990.” Munich: Prestel-Verlag, 1990.
Wiseman, Carter, “The Architecture of I.M. Pei.” Great Britain: Thames and Hudson, 1990.
Moneo, Rafael, “Concerning the Hancock Tower By I.M. Pei and Partners.” Harvard Architecture Review, Vol. 7, 1989, p.176-181.
Shand-Tucci, Douglas, “Built in Boston.” Amherst: The University of Massachusets Press, 1988.
Cushing, George M. Jr., “Great Buildings of Boston: A Photographic Guide.” New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1982.
Lyndon, Donlyn, “The City Observed: Boston.” New York: Random House, 1982.
Campbell, Robert, “Evaluation: Boston’s John Hancock Tower in Context.” AIA Journal, Vol. 69, December 1980, p.18-25.
Marlin, William, “Some reflections on the John Hancock Tower.” Architectural Record Vol. 161, June 1977, p. 117 – 126.

“John Hancock Tower, Boston. I.M. Pei & Partners.” AIA Journal, Vol. 66, May 1977, p. 37.
“Boston firm acts to cure ‘panes.’” Chicago Tribune, October 10, 1973. Proquest Historical Newspapers.
Von Eckhardt, Wolf, “Breakage Afflicts Hancock Tower.” The Washington Post, August 19, 1973.
Kifner, John, “Boston Tower’s Plywood Windows.” The New York Times, July 18, 1973, Proquest Historical Newspapers.
Freeman, Donald, editor, “Boston Architecture.” Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1970.

“The New John Hancock Building: an Example of Public and Private Decision-making.” Boston Architectural Center, 1968.
“60-Story Tower to Rise in Boston,” The New York Times, December 3, 1967, p. 457, Proquest Historical Newspapers.
“John Hancock to Build 60-Story Tower in Boston.” The New York Times, November 28, 1967, p. 58, Proquest Historical Newspapers.(
5.3  visual material (state location/ address) original visual records/drawings/photographs/others: <
Photograph Sources:“60 Stories Countless Tales” – a slideshow narrated by Harry Cobb, posted September 24, 2006 (")h
Marlin, William, “Some reflections on the John Hancock Tower.” Architectural Record Vol. 161, June 1977, p. 119.
Campbell, Robert, “Evaluation: Boston’s John Hancock Tower in Context.” AIA Journal, Vol. 69, December 1980, p. 22-23.
Miller, Naomi and Keith Morgan, “Boston Architecture 1975-1990.” Munich: Prestel-Verlag, 1990, p. 134-135.
Kay, Jane Holtz, “Lost Boston.” Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999, p. 283.
Loughran, Patrick, “Falling Glass.” Boston: Birkhauser – Publishers for Architecture.
Vanderwarker, Peter, “Boston Then and Now.” New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1992.
Wiseman, Carter, “The Architecture of I.M. Pei.” Great Britain: Thames and Hudson, 1990.(">

Recorder/Date: name of reporter: Julianne Maila address: 614 West 114th Street New York, NY 10025< fax:  N/A     e-mail: date of report: March 1, 2007
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