Collins and Logue: a formidable team

The BRA’s beginnings, the Pru, and Government Center

Tenth in a series

John Collins had won an impressive, surprise victory over John Powers. It was a moment to relish, but in the long term it would become a heavy burden to bear. Collins’s harsh attacks against Powers did not sit well with many in Boston’s political and civic leadership, including Cardinal Richard Cushing, and it was not wise in those days for a political leader to be on the wrong side of the Cardinal. More significantly, the defeated Powers would remain in his position as the powerful president of the Massachusetts Senate – a position that enabled him to block (or approve) all of the city’s legislative requests. There is no evidence that Powers went out of his way to hurt Collins or the city, but he did not go out of his way to be helpful.

Collins decided to look elsewhere for allies. He started up a working relationship with the new Republican governor, John Volpe, and he embraced the business community. Collins met regularly with a select group of businessmen known as the Boston Coordinating Committee, or the Vault, so named because the first meetings of the group took place in the basement of the Boston Safe Deposit and Trust Company. Collins decided that he would meet with the Vault on a regular basis, developing a relationship so strong that he agreed in writing that no redevelopment project would be undertaken in the downtown without the approval of Boston’s Central Business District Committee. This was seen by many as proof that the pendulum had swung as far as it could away from the Curley era. The question now was whether Collins was pushing the city too far in the opposite direction, ceding power over legitimate public decision making to a small group of powerful and wealthy businessmen.

John Collins was, by ideology and temperament, naturally inclined to align himself with the Vault in his approach to city governance. He was a true fiscal conservative, and he was decidedly not a liberal Democrat. He was more likely to lean Republican on policy matters, and his attacks on fellow Democrats (and notably his refusal in 1964 to endorse Democratic gubernatorial nominee Frank Bellotti) signaled that he was a different breed of Boston Irish politician than his predecessors.

Politics aside, the city’s turn-around begun by Hynes needed to be nurtured by Collins. He had been given a head-start by Hynes, who left the city in the black for the first time in memory: 1960 dawned with the city boasting a $4 million surplus, no small matter in those days. But much more needed to be done. Many plans to improve Boston had been formed but none had taken shape. Two large redevelopment projects, the Government Center project and the proposed Prudential Center in the Back Bay, remained cardboard cut-out design concepts on the mayor’s conference table, stuck by forces seemingly beyond the mayor’s control. Government Center required a significant federal commitment, both in funding and in the construction of a federal building to help anchor the site, but the head of the General Services Administration was balking at the site, skeptical that the city could tame or eliminate nearby Scollay Square. Scollay Square was the Old Boston personified in a tangle of dirty, dingy, often derelict flop houses and barrooms, a place for sailors to carouse while on leave, a place of second-rate burlesque houses and third-rate vaudeville acts. It was all about drink and desire, a city-within-the-city, a place very much of the night. Scollay Square was smack dab in the middle of what would become Government Center, and the GSA wanted unequivocal assurances that it would be gone, in its entirety, before they would commit to building their new federal building there.

The Prudential Center posed its own set of problems for the mayor. About 32 acres of virtual wasteland abutted the Back Bay and the South End, the remains of the Boston and Albany railroad yard. Boston’s resurgence depended upon the redevelopment of this area into a modern, vibrant place. One company offered Boston the opportunity to leapfrog into the future. There was one thing Boston didn’t have that New York City had by the dozen, the one thing that would send a visible signal to the world that Boston was a place on the move, a place to consider investing in. Boston needed a skyscraper. And the Prudential Insurance Company was willing to build one.

The Prudential had made known its interest in the rail yards during the Hynes Administration, but they were adamant that they would not invest in the site without significant public subsidy by way of property tax relief. As Boston was in no position to turn down a viable offer to build a skyscraper on the site of the old rail yard, Mayor Hynes, and now Mayor Collins, were determined to find a way to offer Prudential a generous tax break that would pass legal muster. Collins was a capable man, but he could not manage the renewal of the city on his own. He needed a person of skill and talent who could lead the city’s unprecedented effort at large scale redevelopment. He needed someone with a proven track record and preferably someone not entangled by local allegiances or prejudiced by hometown predispositions. He needed Ed Logue.

Edward J. Logue was not born or educated in Boston. A Yale graduate, he was a man of formidable intellect with a passion for getting things done. His work in New Haven, CT, in the 1950s was nationally recognized for its effective use of federal urban renewal funds. Logue was looking for the next step in his career, and he could have chosen from among several offers. Collins was offering something particularly attractive: the chance to transform a major urban center and give it a second chance at success, and to do so with the full support of the mayor and the business community. Logue could not resist the opportunity to make a lasting impact on a city with Boston’s historic pedigree. Thus was born the Collins/Logue team – a pairing that would take the city by its lapels and shove it into the 20th century.

There is one characteristic that is common to successful leaders, and that is the personal confidence and security that enables them to hire people who may be smarter or more skillful than they, and then back them up when they take bold action to confront the status quo. Kevin White and Michael Dukakis had this quality in abundance, and the roster of women and men who trace their public service to those administrations demonstrates the high level of competence and skill that was attracted to leaders who did not micromanage. Collins was cut from the same cloth – he was secure enough in himself and his leadership ability that he could hire an Ed Logue, give him wide berth in running the city’s redevelopment efforts, and support him when the going got rough.

Logue went to work quickly, assessing the lay of the land and determining early on that he would not be able to get things done without the kind of power that only came from top-down decision making. His model in this regard was the Chairman of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, William Callahan. Callahan, himself taking a page from the Robert Moses playbook in New York, understood the importance of exercising power through a quasi-independent agency – a public entity that would be largely impervious to the machinations of public officials who, in all but rare times, prefer delay and inaction to decisive action. Logue was about to take control of the BRA but he wanted more – he wanted the city’s planning function to be consolidated within the BRA. As the head of a quasi-independent agency that would control planning, design, and implementation, with the power of eminent domain to back it all up, Logue would be a power to be reckoned with – a power even the formidable Callahan might envy.

Logue got to work on the two downtown projects. An all-out effort was made to persuade the GSA that it should build its new federal office building in the new Government Center. This was a critical lynchpin in the overall viability of the project. Using Massachusetts’ considerable power in Congress, and leveraging personal relationships, Collins and Logue were able to persuade the GSA that Scollay Square would be fully eradicated. With this assurance, the GSA settled on Government Center as the site for its new building, designed by Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius and the Architects Collaborative, which stands today as the John F. Kennedy Federal Building anchoring one end of City Hall Plaza.

The Prudential Center was not as easily resolved. Its construction depended less upon political intervention and more on the provision of unprecedented tax breaks. The Prudential Company knew that it had Boston over a barrel – there were few developers with the financial resources to turn the pumpkin of the derelict railroad yards into the sparkling coach that would bring Boston to its rightful place as a city of consequence. The story of the Prudential Center is a story of a massive once-in-a-generation private sector investment in a city with an uncertain future. It is also the story of a city without options held hostage by big business as top state and city leaders scrambled to find a way to meet the tax break demands of the Prudential Insurance Company. While there was an overwhelming consensus that something needed to be done about the old rail yards, there was not a common view about how to approach the Prudential’s demand for a tax break, and there was less consensus about the proposed design of the skyscraper. When consensus is in short supply, scheming fills the vacuum, and as city leaders struggled to find a solution to the problem, William Callahan, the powerful Turnpike Authority Chairman, decided he would step in.

Callahan was planning to extend the Massachusetts Turnpike from its original terminus at Route 128 into downtown Boston. His preferred route went right through the Boston & Albany rail yard, and many political leaders were balking at the prospect of a toll highway coming into Boston. Callahan saw that the proposed Prudential development could be a win/win – a way for Callahan to support the critical development project and gain traction for his proposed toll highway.

In April of 1960, Boston’s business and civic elite gathered to witness the roll out of the Callahan plan. It called for the Turnpike Authority to take the rail yards and to offer the Prudential Company an air rights lease over the toll highway. The Prudential Company would benefit from significant tax breaks and it was offering to be a major purchaser of Turnpike Authority bonds, helping advance Callahan’s project. Under the proposed deal, the Turnpike Authority would turn the property over to the city after 80 years.

Outgoing Governor Foster Furcolo embraced the idea, and legislation was formulated to implement the plan. When the Legislature sent the key provisions of the bill to the Supreme Judicial Court for its opinion, the court ruled that it did not pass legal muster. This was not the first time the SJC stood in the way of the Prudential project. When a tax assessment scheme was proposed by the Hynes Administration, the court rejected it, declaring that the initiative violated the state constitution’s requirement that assessments be fair and proportional. Now the court was once again putting the brakes on the Pru’s progress. But this time, realizing perhaps the gravity of the situation, the court included language in its opinion that was the virtual equivalent of legislative hand holding. The court telegraphed the legislation that it might approve – and left it to the Legislature to sort out the details.

Logue and Collins wasted no time fashioning revised legislation. Working with state Attorney General Edward McCormack, they produced a new bill that the court reviewed and approved in August 1960. The key to the new legislation was the insertion of the term “blighted open area,” defined as “a predominantly open area which is detrimental to the safety, health, morals, welfare or sound growth of a community because it is unduly costly to develop it soundly through the ordinary operations of private enterprise.” As architect and historian Elihu James Rubin has noted, “Blight implied a constellation of negative social conditions, but its essential quality was that it was expensive to remedy.” The court considered this language favorably for special tax treatment purposes, and the green light for the project was on.

The bill also included a provision that consolidated Logue’s power by combining within the BRA the city’s planning functions as well as the role of the Boston Housing Authority in connection with the proposed Prudential development. He would now be fully in charge of all aspects of the city’s authority over the Prudential development.

And so the Prudential Tower, surrounded by the Prudential Center, was built. The final result was a 52-story tower, a bland rectangle, its façade clad by colored glass panels. It was a building Mayor Collins admitted he didn’t like but accepted as a “loss leader.” Its principal architect was Charles Luckman, whose work was described by a critic in Time magazine as “anonymous architecture [built] in a prescribed time and at the least cost and fuss to his clients.” Elihu James Rubin, in his detailed study of the Prudential Center, noted “Luckman’s aesthetic pliability. He had no design agenda, championed no style. He was more interested in satisfying the customer than he was in advancing a strict vision of good architecture.” Boston got its first skyscraper, a building that the city wears today like a comfortable old shoe, not a great building (the highly regarded critic Ada Louise Huxtable called it a “slick developer’s model dropped into an urban renewal slot in Anycity, USA”), but very much a Boston building.

For better or worse, Boston was being remade. Government Center and the Prudential Center were no longer visions confined to drawings or dreams. They were happening before the eyes of every Boston citizen. It was an exciting time, magical for some who, like me, remember sitting in my father’s car on Boylston Street watching the Prudential Tower being built. Collins and Logue had given the city the push forward that it needed. If you stand today in City Hall Plaza and turn 360 degrees, what you will see is a public realm crafted and built largely because of Ed Logue’s drive and vision. The experience calls to mind the inscription on Christopher Wren’s tomb in St. Paul’s Cathedral: “If you seek his monument, look around you.”

Meet the Author

The seeds for the New Boston were sown and about to be harvested, and one might imagine that Collins and Logue expected nothing but praise for their efforts. But praise is an elusive commodity in public service, and Collins and Logue were not prepared for the citizen response to their vision of a New Boston. When they attempted to sow the seeds of progress in the neighborhoods, they reaped a whirlwind of citizen opposition.

Jim Aloisi is a former state secretary of transportation. His most recent book is The Vidal Lecture.