50 Years upon a Hill: Aspirational and Topographical Symbolism in Boston City Hall


Gary Wolf, FAIA


Docomomo US/New England


brutalism, new england
Image details

Edited version of comments presented on the occasion of Docomomo US/New England’s annual meeting in the South Lobby of Boston City Hall, December 9, 2019.

Being in the rejuvenated lobby of Boston City Hall for our annual meeting gives us the opportunity to reconsider briefly the story of the place, a half century after its opening.  For those not familiar with it, this building resulted from an unusual nationwide design competition launched in 1961, a competition that drew 256 entries and that concluded with a distinguished jury unanimously selecting the design by a team of young New York architects, Kallmann, McKinnell and Knowles.  

Those who are not aware of the immediate international impact of that competition design and of the building that followed may perhaps remember the response to a more recent legendary building, Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, of 1997.  In an analogy I first made nearly 13 years ago when rallying people to support this then-threatened structure, Boston City Hall can be understood as “the Bilbao of its day.”  Like that building, it was published seemingly everywhere, in both the popular and professional press; it attracted visitors from around the globe—including, in this case, members of the design professions who chose to relocate to Boston because the exciting building expressed a city’s innovative vision!—and it played a key role in stimulating, and representing, the city’s rebirth.


We gather tonight atop the indoor portion of the “mound”—a raised public area that serves as a grand stair-landing on the way up to the City Council chamber and the Mayor’s office.  It is a circulation space that, at the same time, is a destination in itself—a symbolic center in City Hall.  “The Walking Tour of Boston City Hall” calls these forms the “Grand Staircase” and “City Hall Auditorium,” while the architects described “terraced levels of the mound structure, carved into the hillside…”  Although the term “The City upon a Hill” has perhaps been overused in Boston, this monumental, red-brick stair is, in fact, the “hill” that Kallmann McKinnell and Knowles designed to “re-present” (in their words) Boston’s actual, and symbolic, topography.

The “City upon a Hill” metaphor for Boston dates back 389 years, to just before its founding, when John Winthrop spoke to his fellow Puritans embarking on an uncertain trans-Atlantic voyage to the New World.  Winthrop drew from the Sermon on the Mount, in the Book of Matthew, Chapter 5, which reads in part: “Ye are the light of the world.  A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid….”  Winthrop told his fellow colonists that “…we must consider that we shall be like a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.”  It’s a phrase that sounds admonishing—Winthrop alerting the hopeful emigres to their responsibility—and, at the same time, considering its Biblical origins, it seems as aspirational as could be.

As Shaun O’Connell wrote in Imagining Boston: A Literary Landscape, “The City upon a Hill has been Boston’s central, recurrent image, established at its founding and abiding today, positing an elevated, spiritual, fixed place.”

Alex Krieger’s recent book title emphasizes the visionary aspect of this metaphor, City on a Hill: Urban Idealism in America from the Puritans to the Present.  The metaphor may also be familiar from the title of Lawrence W. Kennedy’s essential book on Boston, Planning the City Upon a Hill: Boston Since 1630.”

However, it was another Kennedy who had revived this Biblical reference at mid-century, at a time that relates it to Boston City Hall’s origins and design.  On January 9, 1961, Massachusetts Senator and President-elect John F. Kennedy restated Winthrop’s aspirational and topographical metaphor in a speech in the Massachusetts State House, nearby on Beacon Hill.  About to move to Washington to assemble the governing team that would launch his New Frontier, Kennedy said:

Today the eyes of all people are truly upon us—and our governments, in every branch, at every level, national, state and local, must be as a city upon a hill, constructed and inhabited by men aware of their great trust and their great responsibilities. 

Just nine months later, the October 16 announcement of a national design competition for a new city hall for the City upon a Hill expressed the optimism of the Kennedy era.  On the cover of the handsome competition booklet, an embossed relief printing of the seal of Boston featured a memorable view of the city’s silhouette, with Beacon Hill, topped by the State House, rising above the harbor.

Some might question whether words and phrases passed down like this over centuries actually play a role in shaping architecture, especially in an age when abstraction may seem to deny a role for symbolism.  But studies by such scholars as William Jordy have demonstrated that buildings that appear to be abstract, without traditional references and details, nevertheless convey meaning.  City Hall architect Michael McKinnell would later observe, in his Belluschi lecture at MIT in 1996, that “One of the abiding conditions of architecture, perhaps the tradition of architecture, is that of “re-presentation”—the process whereby it develops its metaphorical language.”

McKinnell discussed the idea of the “re-presentation of the site” as a concern of architecture, and speculated that, through resonance with its site, “architecture may achieve a cosmological dimension.”  These comments suggest that it may be appropriate to observe that City Hall’s primary entrance is from the plaza, leading through the building’s west front, from where one proceeds to the east.  This is a direction and orientation significant in the architecture of past centuries, especially in the building type suggested by the dramatic verticality above us—the cathedral.  The visitor’s path ascends, both outside where it rises to the adjacent courtyard, and inside, to this elevated terrace.  From this raised level, openings and windows look east:  to historic Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market (“national shrines,” in the language of the competition).  Beyond them, at daybreak, is the rising sun. 

Thus, within this “City Hall upon a Hill,” we understand that all of us, and Boston’s elected officials, look out over the past while welcoming a new day—the future. This raised terrace in Boston City Hall is not just a grand stair-landing in the building’s center—it serves to recall an ancient metaphor, and the trust and the aspirations it represented for both John Winthrop and John Kennedy as they embarked on journeys separated by more than three centuries.  Upon this “hill,” in this soaring, 50-year-old space, we are on symbolic ground. 


Boston City Council Central Staff, “A Walking Tour of Boston City Hall.” Boston, 1969.

Dillon, David, The Architecture of Kallmann McKinnell and Wood. New York: Edizioni Press, 2004.

Jordy, William H., “Symbolic Essence” and Other Writings on Modern Architecture and American Culture. New Haven and London: A Buell Center/Columbia Book of Architecture, Yale University Press, 2005.

Kennedy, Lawrence W., Planning the City Upon a Hill: Boston Since 1630. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1992.

Kennedy, John F., “The City Upon a Hill Speech,” January 9, 1961.  John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Accession #MR65-221.

Krieger, Alex, City on a Hill: Urban Idealism in American from the Puritans to the Present. Cambridge:  Belknap Press, an Imprint of Harvard University Press, 2019.

McKinnell, N. Michael, “architecture and tradition” (Autumn, 1996), in Stanford Anderson, editor, The Pietro Belluschi Lectures. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, School of Architecture and Urban Planning, 1999.

O’Connell, Shaun, Imagining Boston: A Literary Landscape. Boston: Beacon Press, 1992.

Winthrop, John, “A Model of Christian Charity,” 1630, in Andrew Delbanco, editor, Writing New England: An Anthology from the Puritans to the Present. Cambridge and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2001.

For more drawings of Boston City Hall, see Wolf, Gary, “Inventing a City Hall,” Historic New England, Winter/Spring 2009, p. 1 – 8.