Boston/Cambridge, Landscape History, Parks, Public Realm

Copley Square

August 23, 2012

Shiftboston wants Copley Square to GLOW.

In partnership with LightBoston and Boston Light Source, they have recently announced three finalists for a competition requesting “artists, architects, urban planners, lighting designers, and landscape architects around the world ….to create a NEW approach for lighting Copley Square …. to make it one of the greatest squares in the world using LIGHT.” If only it were that easy.  To view information about the competition finalists visit:

While Shiftboston provides a refreshing new perspective to the discussion regarding public open space in Boston the forum through which they operate, the design competition, is not new to Copley Square.   A true “square” for less than fifty years, Copley Square has been reimagined  as a public space frequently since its inception.  Its current design is the result of not one, but two Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) managed international design competitions, an accolade that may make it unique among public open spaces in the city.  But, I digress….

A sculpture of John Singleton Copley was dedicated in 2002.


The history of Copley Square has been studied extensively.  Named for the American artist John Singleton Copley in 1883, Copley Square began as an afterthought, described by Walter Muir Whitehill as an “awkward spot …..where a projected street, in this case Huntington Avenue, started off at a different angle than its neighbors”  that was “never given any adequate monumental treatment.”

The site connected the formal grid of Boston’s Back Bay and the emerging South End with the square originating as two triangular landscape fragments, bisected by Huntington Avenue and framed by cultural and civic institutions.  These included the Museum of Fine Arts located on the square from 1876 to 1909.  The “Art Museum” is indicated on the 1888 Sampson Map seen below and lent its name to the “square” which became known as the Art Square.

The Museum of Fine Arts was one of many cultural and civic institutions to locate in the newly formed part of the city that became known as Copley Square.   Enticed by  inexpensive land values other cultural and civic organizations emigrated to the area and built impressive structures in the neighborhood.  These include notable buildings which exist today – the New Old South Church (1873), Trinity Church (1877), the Boston Public Library (1895), the Copley Fairmount Hotel (1912) and arriving much later, the John Hancock Tower (1976) as well as a host of institutions that relocated to other sites.   As the cultural centerpiece of Victorian Boston the “square” has been called, “The New World’s greatest agora of Faith and Learning, Arts and Sciences” by Boston historian Douglas Shand Tucci.

Despite the impressive collection of architecture adorning its perimeter, according to Keith Morgan and Naomi Miller in Boston: Architecture 1975 – 1990,  Copley Square “remained a traffic center for years, lacking sufficient density in the immediate surroundings to become a viable urban plaza.”

Over time, the cultural and civic institutions bordering Copley Square would be replaced by primarily commercial enterprises with Trinity Church and the Boston Public Library remaining as bookends, framing the public space.

The above black and white photo is from the Detroit Publishing Company, 1887 – 1920. (Library of Congress).

Postmarked, 1903, the above image is taken from the New Old South Church (author’s collection).

The First Competition:

For years designers, including celebrated landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Arthur Shurtleff,  proposed improvements to the “square.”  However, it was not until the 1960’s and the creation of the “New Boston” that vision coalesced with action and an international design competition to select a plan for a “park” on the triangular patch of grass known as Copley Square was held.

Commenting on the chosen design, BRA director Ed Logue is quoted in Planning the City Upon a Hill: Boston Since 1630 by Lawrence W. Kennedy as predicting, “This exciting space will become a world-famous Boston landmark, similar to the Plaza San Marco in Venice and St. Peter’s Square in Rome.”

The winning design by Sasaki, Dawson, DeMay Associates, Inc. was indeed more plaza than park;  a mostly hardscapped, gradually terraced, asymmetrical plan cut off from the street by a series of walls with a fountain sited at the square’s lowest point.  Twelve feet below grade and visually disconnected from much of the surrounding streetscape, the design was emblematic of its era and a direct response to the site’s former use as a traffic island.

“We thought that by sinking the plaza, that by stepping it down, we would be making a place where people could get away from all the traffic: the sight, sounds, noise and fumes of the cars,” designer Stuart O. Dawson recalls in a 1984 article by Yvonne Chabrier in the Boston Phoenix.   Among other challenges, the construction budget for the 2.4 acre plaza was slashed from the original proposal reducing the quality of the site amenities including trees, benches, lighting and paving materials, important elements of the design.

A combination of factors, including changes in attitudes about public open space, the ascendancy of private involvement in the public realm and the one-hundreth anniversary of the site fostered momentum for  Copley Square’s redesign. “Area residents and business leaders were adamant about the need to improve the 1969 renovation for aesthetic, historic and safety reasons,” according to a 1986 Copley Square Redesign Briefing Document.

The Second Competition:

On Monday, August 22, 1983, Mayor Kevin White announced the formation of The Copley Square Centennial Committee to serve as a public/private liaison for the renewal of Copley Square with a focus on the Square ‘s one – hundredth birthday. “The purpose of the committee is to examine and improve upon Copley Square, one of the city’s most important urban spaces,” noted White.

Less than fifteen years after its creation, Copley Square would once again be the focus of an international design competition, albeit one informed by a well-orchestrated public process including four community meetings exploring the theme GREAT PUBLIC SPACES with William H. Whyte, author of The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces presenting, “Why Public Places Fail and Work.”

In a questionnaire conducted as part of the planning process 84% of the public favored rebuilding the square with 73% wanting to start from scratch.  It was uniformly believed that starting with a new design, rather than improving the existing space, was necessary.

An image from 1992 shows the new design including sugar maples planted in the lawn surrounding the fountain to provide New England fall foliage.  The sugar maples did not survive.

While it is difficult to remember a time public private partnerships were not synonymous with successful park development, Copley Square was one of the first such formal initiatives in Boston in which the private sector assumed responsibility for fundraising for both construction and the creation of an endowment.   According to documentation the original construction budget of three million four hundred thousand dollars was to include two million dollars of private support.  In addition, the private sector committed to raising a one and a half million dollar endowment for long-term maintenance.

The competition guidelines proscribed a design that was the antithesis of the existing plaza-like space promoting informal uses, flexible spaces and ease of public surveillance and control.   The square should  “function chiefly as a congenial setting for conversation and unplanned activities… only secondarily should the Square be dependent for its animation on formally programmed events” according to the guidelines.

To displace “undesirable activities currently in the Square, such as drug dealing and petty crime, characteristic of desolate urban spaces” seating was to be made available for at least 1,000 persons with at least 1,050 linear feet of fixed seating and 300 movable chairs.  A demountable seasonal cafe, accommodation for a Farmer’s Market and vendor’s pushcarts were recommended.

On a recent mid-day visit Copley Square’s benches were well used.

Acknowledging Copley Square’s location mediating between the low-rise historical district of the Back Bay  and new larger scale construction at the Prudential and Copley Place, the guidelines request that the square, “create a place of beauty which helps to bring into balance these physical and social conflicts….embodying the idea of the city as a place of community and cultural meaning.”  The design was required to employ natural materials, patterned paved areas, flower beds, generous sized trees and areas for quiet enjoyment and reflection as well as a place where crowds can gather.  Existing infrastructure was to be used including the fountain which was to be replaced.  The program included an ambitious and somewhat contradictory menu of uses intent on maximizing circulation and providing activity within the square throughout every season.

The winning design of Clarke & Rapuano (Dean Abbott, designer) was selected from 309 entries by the Copley Square Design jury on May 21, 1984.   The plan and perspective of the winning design, as rendered by the design team, are below.

In plan the design recalls the triangular nature of the original traffic patterns with a strong cross-axis from the Dartmouth/Boylston Street corner to Trinity Church and the John Hancock Tower.  Double rows of trees line both the St. James Avenue and Boylston Street edges, providing “outdoor rooms” with seating. A large at grade lawn, allowing for unobstructed views between the Boston Public Library and Trinity Church, transformed the plaza into a public green that was described as a “front yard” for the two buildings and ornately patterned paving created a carpet for the “outdoor living room for the community” that the square, described as a “place for repose and activity,” would become.

Copley Square in 1992 (author’s collection).

The Farmers Market in 1994

From the onset, both the criteria and design of Copley Square met with concern.  The tension between active and passive use as well as how much of the site should be “green” was widely debated.  The new design, with its large lawn restricting pedestrian access to several locations and the “smorgasbord of programmed activities” was accused of failing to make the square a distinctive space.

The one item everyone did agree upon was the maintenance budget which was set at two dollars per square foot or two hundred thousand dollars per year.  Given the intensive use the square receives and its visibility as one of Boston’s most visited tourist destinations a consistently high quality of maintenance was deemed necessary.  The endowment, raised by the private sector and augmented by additional fundraising, was intended to maintain the square’s special features including the fountain, lawn, trees and paving. (replacement paving was purchased at the time of construction and stored for future use).

For additional historical background about Copley Square and the surrounding architecture read Copley Square: The Story of Boston’s Art Square at: 

Copley Square Today:

The fountain along the Boylston Street edge of the park.

On June 22, 1989 Copley Square was rededicated.  Almost twenty-five years later it is one of Boston’s busiest public spaces, collectively shared and a common ground for a diverse cross-section of the city.

That is not to say that Copley Square has not suffered from maintenance and management issues.  Writing for the Back Bay Sun in 2011 Penny Cherubino noted “Keeping trees alive and healthy in the park has been a problem from the beginning. Within 13 months a Globe editorial said, “Trees that were supposed to soften the bricks are dying, the two lawns are drying up, the flower beds are unplanted, and the broken fountain has become the domain of skateboarders and graffiti artists.” These are some of the same issues that the park’s advocates face today. This year, there has been a problem with diseased trees. And, like other urban parks, overuse, vandalism, homelessness, and the push and pull of special interests are daily concerns for park advocates.”  The trees, which have recently been replaced, are being monitored closely.

After a period of dormancy, The Friends of Copley Square, formed in 1992, has reorganized as an all volunteer effort initiating new events to support the square, including a summer solstice stroll as an introduction to the area’s rich history and architecture.  For information about the Friends and to support their work visit:

The construction of Copley Square was one of the first projects I worked on as a newly minted design graduate and like many other parks and open space projects built within the city during the past twenty-five years I had an opportunity to view the process through which the current space was conceived and built.   The square remains a work in progress that deserves continued oversight and public engagement.

A quick tour of the square follows.

The Lawn….

Planting beds…


The fountain….

During the 1990’s additions to the square included:

The Bostix Kiosk designed by architect Graham Gund (1992).

Tortoise and Hare Sculptures by Nancy Schon (1993).

The Boston Marathon Centennial Monument designed by Mark Flannery (1994).

John Singleton Copley by artist Lewis Cohen (2002).

Copyright © 2012  Patrice Todisco  — All Rights Reserved

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