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
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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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