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John Hancock Tower

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Aerial view of Back Bay, Boston including the Charles River, 111 Huntington Avenue, Prudential Tower, and John Hancock Tower

Three different buildings in Boston, Massachusetts, have been known as the "John Hancock Building", and perhaps a fourth will be. All were built by John Hancock Insurance and related companies. As of 2004, references to the John Hancock building refer to the 60-story building officially called Hancock Place but commonly called the John Hancock Tower.

For the notable tower in Chicago, Illinois, see John Hancock Center.

Table of contents

Hancock Place (the "John Hancock Tower")

The building commonly called John Hancock Tower, officially named Hancock Place, is a 60-story, 790 foot (241 meter) tall skyscraper designed by Henry Cobb of Pei, Cobb and Freed, and completed in 1976. The building was long home to offices of the John Hancock companies (In 2004 it was announced that some offices will be relocated to the new building at 601 Congress Street). It is the tallest building in New England, the 43rd tallest building in the United States, and the 112th tallest building in the world.

Each bay of each floor is a single pane of glass. The building's shape is a parallelogram, not a rectangle, increasing the vantage points looking at the building from a corner, and making the opposite corners appear much sharper. The reflective glass is tinted a slight blue, which gives the building an almost transparent appearance against a clear sky. The building is situated at an angle within a city block, providing large open concrete plazas leading to the entrances. The tower represents an achievement in minimalist modernist skyscraper design.

John Hancock Tower, 200 Clarendon St., Boston

Unfortunately, the tower is more notorious for its engineering flaws than for its architectural achievement. The much-anticipated landmark of the country's most-respected design firm, its opening was delayed from 1971 to 1976, and its total cost rocketed from $75M to $175M, causing embarrassment for Pei and Cobb, modernists, and architecture in general.

The most dangerous and conspicuous flaw was the faulty manufacture of its glass windows, causing entire 4 x 11 500-lbs windowpanes to drop off the building and dramatically crash to the sidewalk hundreds of feet below. Police were forced to close off the surrounding streets when winds reached 45 MPH. According to the Boston Globe, MIT built a scale model of the entire back bay in its Wright Brothers Wind Tunnel to identify the problem. Although the exact cause was the subject of a legal settlement and gag order meant to keep it secret, most now agree that the falling-window problem was caused by a combination of the double-paned glass construction method and pressure differentials between the inside air and the outside. During the repairs, the windows were replaced with plywood, earning it the mocking sobriquet "Plywood Palace". In October 1973, I.M. Pei & Partners announced that all panes would be replaced with a different, heat-treated variety at a cost of between $5 million and $7 million.

Like all large, heavily glazed buildings, the tower requires substantial air conditioning year round, even with the reflective walls. Its cooling system is similar to that used in the IDS Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

During excavation of the tower's foundation, temporary steel retaining walls warped inward under the weight of the clay and mud fill on which this portion of Boston is built. This movement damaged neighboring utility lines, pavement, and buildings, particularly the adjacent Trinity Church. Hancock ultimately bore the repair expenses.

While the foundation was under construction, groundwater was pumped from the foundation pit to Trinity Church, to help protect its wooden pilings, which had been at risk of rot for many years due to other groundwater-depleting construction in the area, primarily a storm sewer under St. James Avenue. The plaza surrounding the tower is designed to help protect the church by collecting storm runoff and redirecting it where needed.

Other flaws in the building included motion-sickness-inducing swaying in the upper floors, and a wind-channeling effect at street level. To stabilize the building, a device called a tuned mass damper is located on the 58th floor. As described by Robert Campbell:

Two 300-ton weights sit at opposite ends of the 58th floor of the Hancock. Each weight is a box of steel, filled with lead, 17 feet square by 3 feet high. Each weight rests on a steel plate. The plate is covered with lubricant so the weight is free to slide. But the weight is attached to the steel frame of the building by means of springs and shock absorbers. When the Hancock sways, the weight tends to remain still... allowing the floor to slide underneath it. Then, as the springs and shocks take hold, they begin to tug the building back. The effect is like that of a gyroscope, stabilizing the tower. The reason there are two weights, instead of one, is so they can tug in opposite directions when the building twists. The cost of the damper was $3 million.

According to LeMessurier Consultants, the dampers are located in relatively small utility rooms at each end of the building, leaving most of the 58th floor usable. The dampers are free to move a few feet relative to the floor.

According to Campbell, it was also discovered that despite the mass damper, under a certain kind of wind loading, the building could have fallen over—oddly enough on one of its narrow edges, not one of the big flat sides. To prevent this, 1,500 tons of diagonal steel braces were added at a cost of $5 million.

In 1977 the AIA presented Henry Cobb with a National Honor Award for the John Hancock Tower.

A former attraction of the building was an observation deck with a spectacular view of Boston. Following the September 11, 2001 Terrorist Attack, security was tightened and the observation deck has been closed ever since, as have parking spaces outside the building.

The building's street address is 200 Clarendon Street. The company uses both "Hancock Place" and "200 Clarendon Street" as mailing addresses for offices in the building.

The Berkeley Building (the "old John Hancock Building")

"Old" John Hancock Tower, 200 Berkeley St., Boston. The spire at top houses a neon-lit weather beacon.

The second of the "John Hancock buildings" is a 26-story, 495 foot (151 m) structure located at 200 Berkeley Street. It was designed by Cram and Ferguson and completed in 1947. From 1947 until 1964 it was the second-tallest building in Boston, one foot shorter than the 496-foot Custom House Tower, but a much larger building and a very conspicuous landmark. The Prudential Tower, completed in 1964, dwarfed both. As of 2004 a dozen buildings are taller, yet it remains a handsome and easily recognized Boston landmark, familiar to commuters crossing the Charles River. A drawing of this building served as a logo for the insurance company for many years.

As of 2004 the John Hancock company refers to it as "The Berkeley Building," but in common parlance it is "the old John Hancock Building."

It is topped by a beacon with red and blue lights with a code for presenting the local weather forecast, using a popular rhyme as a mnemonic:

Steady blue, clear view.
Flashing blue, clouds due.
Steady red, rain ahead.
Flashing red, snow instead.

During baseball season, flashing red means the Boston Red Sox game has been called off.

In October of 2004, the beacon flashed red and blue to commemorate the Boston Red Sox World Series victory. This was the first time the color scheme changed since the beacon was lit in 1950. A new line was added to the poem accordingly:

Flashing Blue and Red, when The Curse of the Bambino is dead!

The Stephen L. Brown Building (197 Clarendon St.)

The three John Hancock buildings, with the two older structures reflected in the fa├žade of the newest.

The oldest of the John Hancock buildings was designed by Parker, Thomas & Rice, best known as architects of the United Shoe Machinery building. It was completed in 1922. It is located at 197 Clarendon St. across from the Hancock tower. It was known as the "John Hancock Life Insurance Company Building." The building was never considered particularly notable; for example, it is not mentioned in the 1937 WPA state guide to Massachusetts. In recent years it was known as "The Clarendon Building." Circa 2001 it was renamed "The Stephen L. Brown Building" in honor of Stephen L. Brown, chairman of John Hancock Financial Services, Inc. According to Lyndon Donlyn, "if you stand on the corner of Clarendon Street and St. James Avenue and look directly into the mirrored surface of the third Hancock, you will see reflected there the first two, aligned hierarchically in an ethereal family portrait."

Originally, the Planned Development Area (PDA) agreement for the building of the 60-story John Hancock Tower called for 197 Clarendon to be demolished to make way for open space or a public square. In 1982, the Boston Redevelopment Authority, responding to a request from the John Hancock company, decided that it would be better to keep the building on the tax rolls. It was also thought that open space near the base of the tower might not be desirable, due to the tower's "wind tunnel" effect.


601 Congress Street

Construction site of Manulife building (601 Congress Street), taken 2003

In 2002, Manulife began construction of a 14-story building in the Seaport District at 601 Congress Street. The building was designed by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill LLP of Chicago, designers of the John Hancock Center and the Sears Tower. The building features a "green" (energy-efficient) dual glass curtain wall construction, making it among the first buildings in Boston to win national LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification.

On April 28th, 2004, the then-head of Manulife's Boston operations announced that the building would be renamed the "John Hancock Building." According to Manulife, this is not quite correct; the building, completed in fall of 2004, will house the John Hancock Wealth Management Group and will bear conspicuous "John Hancock" exterior and interior signage featuring the John Hancock logo. However, the company will refer to the building simply as "601 Congress." Only time will tell whether this notable Seaport district building will become known in common parlance as the fourth "John Hancock building."

Note on company name

The company that built the three buildings is known loosely as "John Hancock Insurance" or simply "John Hancock." It was known as "The John Hancock Life Insurance Company" in the 1930s and "The John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Company" in the 1940s. As of 2000 the company owning the buildings was "John Hancock Financial Services Inc.," with various subsidiaries such as "The John Hancock Variable Life Insurance Company" and "Signator Investors, Inc." In 2003 John Hancock Financial Services Inc. was acquired by the Canadian corporation Manulife Financial Corp., which then changed its name to John Hancock USA early in 2005.

References

See also

  • Prudential Tower for an image of the Boston skyline from Cambridge in 1963, with the old 26-story Hancock building a conspicuous landmark.

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