Old John Hancock Building (now Berkeley Building)

Added by Michael Dyer Frigand, last update: August 17, 2012, 12:41 pm

Old John Hancock Building (now Berkeley Building)
Old John Hancock Building (now Berkeley Building), source: wikipedia.org, date: 2/15/2011
200 Berkeley Street
Boston, MA 02116
United States
42° 20' 59.1324" N, 71° 4' 21.342" 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:

One of Boston's largest corporations, John Hancock Insurance, outgrew its offices by the 1940s. It had formerly occupied 197 Clarendon Street, which was constructed in 1922. They commissioned the Old John Hancock Building in 1945 to be constructed right next to the old corporate headquarters. Ultimately, John Hancock Insurance outgrew the Old Hancock Building and constructed the Hancock Tower, which was completed in 1976, next to its other two buildings. John Hancock Insurance has recently reaquired the Old John Hancock Building.

Dates: Commission / Completion:Commissioned: 1945 Construction Begun: 1946 Building Completion: 1947 Auditorium Completion: 1949
Architectural and other Designer(s): Cram and Ferguson
Others associated with Building/Site: Turner Construction Company, New York John Hancock Insurance, owner
Significant Alteration(s) with Date(s):
Current Use: The Old Hancock Building is currently used as commercial office space. Together with 197 Clarendon Street the building has a 95% occupancy rate. The 1100 seat auditorium in the building also hosts events regularly.
Current Condition: The building is in generally good condition.
General Description:

The Old John Hancock Building was constructed by Cram and Ferguson in Boston just after World War II. It was a late example of Art Deco skyscraper by comparison to New York's Empire State and Chrysler Buildings. Nevertheless, its construction was crucial to Boston, as it was the city's second tallest building, making it a vital addition to Boston's skyline.

Construction Period:


Original Physical Context:

The Old Hancock Building was built next to Richardson's masterful Trinity Church in Copley Square. It also stands nearby McKim, Mead, and White's Boston Public Library. The Old Hancock Building is attached in its lobby to the older Hancock building at 197 Clarendon Street. This smaller structure was constructed by Parker, Thomas, and Rice in 1922.

Technical Evaluation:

The Old Hancock Building is a steel framed, masonry clad structure reaching 26 stories and 495 feet high. This 747,000 square foot building consists of a tiered structure with a stepped roof and a spire equipped with blue and red neon lights.


The Old Hancock Building is loved by Bostonians, who rely on it for quick and easy weather predictions. The lights in the spire are blue when the skies will be clear, flashing blue when it will be cloudy, red when it is going to rain, and flashing red when it is going to snow. This weather forecast function began in 1950.

Cultural & Aesthetic:
The Old Hancock Building has a sense of solidity and gravity to it that the Custom House Tower, Boston's tallest building at the time of construction, does not possess. It was constructed in the Art Deco style with tiers and a shallow stepped pyramid on top. The shallowness of the pyramid helps emphasize the heaviness of the building. This heaviness to the building also helped inform I.M. Pei's design for the Hancock Tower. He constructed a foil to the Old Hancock Building. Even though the new Hancock Building dwarfs the old in height, the new Hancock's slender shape and reflective all glass skin give it a sense of lightness.

The construction of the Old John Hancock Building in Boston was a major move for the city. Prior to this building, there were no tall buildings in the Back Bay. The Back Bay was one of Boston's most affluent neighborhoods with its beautiful row houses and tree-lined avenues. The Hancock Building set precedent for tall commercial building construction in the Back Bay, which was later followed by the 749 foot Prudential Tower in 1964 and I.M. Pei's 790 foot John Hancock Tower in 1976. Boston had lost economic prominence by the turn of the century. The 1915 Custom House Tower, built in what is now the Financial District, was the last tall building constructed in Boston before the Hancock Building. The Hancock Building helped to reassert Boston's role in the American economy. As a complex with the 1922 197 Clarendon Building and the 1976 Hancock Tower, the Hancock Buildings chart the rise of one of Boston's most important corporations.

General Assessment:
A late example of Art Deco architecture, the Old John Hancock Building served a crucial role in the history of Boston. After decades without significant building projects, the construction of the Hancock Building instilled hope in the still struggling city. It helped set precedent for new larger commercial building campaigns in the city of Boston.
Text references:

"John Hancock Building Job Goes to New York Company", Boston Globe, January 7, 1946, p 12. "Weather Light Beams from Hancock Tower", Boston Globe, March 16, 1950, p. 17. American Institute of Architects Guide to Boston, 1992. Ethan Anthony, The Architecture of Ralph Adams Cram and His Office, New York, W.W. Norton, 2007. "1.2 Million Square Foot Complex in Boston Acquired for John Hancock Operations", http://www.johnhancock.com/about/news_details.php?fn=dec2806-text&yr=2006. Adrianna Borgia, "Exhibit B : Landmark : ?The Berkeley Beacon", Boston Magazine, January 12, 2010. "John Hancock Building", Emporis, http://www.emporis.com/application/?nav=building&lng=3&id=119260. Keith N. Morgan, Buildings of Massachusetts: Metropolitan Boston, University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville, 2009. George M. Cushing, Jr., Great Buildings of Boston: a Photographic Guide, Dover Publications Inc., NY, 1982. Victoria Beach, "Who's the Client? Cobb's Hancock Tower in Boston, MA", 1996.

Recorder/Date: Michael Frigand, February 2011
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