Brutalist buildings need some TLC

Despite drama, humor, they no longer work

NESTLED BETWEEN BOSTON’S WEST END AND GOVERNMENT CENTER are two state-owned fortresses of brutalist architecture: the Hurley and Lindemann buildings. The structures are solid, but lacking. Outside staircases are fenced off as falling hazards. The walls have no insulation. The windows are single pane. Multiple unwelcoming entrances make it hard to find the right way in and much of the architecture is ugly or jarring.

Yet the two buildings are historic, interesting, and that rugged texture on the concrete is hand-work done with hammers. The architecture is dramatic (the perfect scenery for Martin Scorsese’s movie The Departed) and humorous (there is a gigantic frog face looking out from the third story, and a staircase that goes nowhere).

Unlike the charming brownstones of neighboring Beacon Hill, the architecture is controversial, even hated by some. The lack of upkeep and chain-link fences do not help.

Of the two buildings, the Lindemann is the most interesting, with its frog-face, river-like staircases, and bulky offices lifted off the ground on high columns. The Lindemann houses a mental health center.  It is said that the architect purposefully created forms to reflect the inner state of clients suffering from dementia or schizophrenia. Also, instead of a central entrance, he created multiple unadvertised doors to protect the anonymity of clients, who could slip in unnoticed.  Never mind the aggravation of finding a way in.

Hurley is a plain fortress. To the passerby, Hurley communicates: “Do not look at me, do not enter, hurry along.” Hurley houses the Division of Unemployment Insurance and other government offices.

The Hurley Building.

The Hurley Building.

The full plan for the complex was never completed.  The architect’s 23-story tower was never put in, and then a courthouse was erected in the 1990s, so buildout of the original plan would never happen.

The buildings have been neglected, with little renovation over the years, and they are expensive to heat and very difficult to update. Code violations are a problem.  For example, the handrails along staircases do not meet height requirements, so chain link fences block access to them, as well as to other hazards. In the midst of so much wealth in the city, it is wrong to leave buildings where disenfranchised residents receive public services in such a state of disrepair and neglect.

The buildings are on prime real estate, steps away from City Hall, Beacon Hill, Massachusetts General Hospital, North Station, and TD Garden.  When the government designed and built the complex in the 1960s, construction in the city had been stalled for decades. The city had just torn down the whole West End neighborhood. Boston today is a different place. The Boston Globe reports that more than $7 billion worth of construction is now underway in the city, $1.2 billion of that in the downtown area.  It is a good time for the state to rethink the site, together with the city of Boston.

Two other massive government-owned structures constructed during the same era are now being redeveloped: the Government Center Garage] and the Volpe site in Kendall Square across the river.

Steps at the Lindemann Building.

Steps at the Lindemann Building.

Meet the Author

Amy Dain

Public policy research consultant, Dain Research, Newton
The state should redevelop the Lindemann/Hurley property with more density, uses, and activity on the site while preserving what makes sense of the current buildings, particularly the Lindemann. Increased density could offset the cost of architectural preservation. With consideration for Boston’s growth plan and the state’s need for centrally located government offices, the state should plan for a mix of uses on the site, including offices, housing, and especially ground-floor retail.

Unlike Hurley’s current facade, the redeveloped buildings should appear welcoming to those with appointments there, as well as to passers-by. Government, after all, is for the people.

Amy Dain runs a consulting business in Newton that focuses on public policy research. She can be reached at