Today, the John Hancock Tower is where the “city checks its reflection in the tower’s signature skin,” according to the Boston Globe. Thirty years ago, however, the skyscraper was seen as a stain on Boston’s skyline, irreparably marking stately Copley Square with its cool, modern presence and blue glass facade.
Conceived in 1968, New England’s tallest building was supposed to be a temple for the city’s power brokers, where executives at the John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance company would wield influence from offices rising 60 floors above Boston’s Back Bay.
“In ancient Venice they built San Marco square to tell peasants that this was a very powerful place,” David D’Alessandro, a former Hancock chief executive, told the Globe. “They were symbols that you were dealing with very important, powerful people if you enter this place.”
However, before the building made headlines in the private equity real estate industry, it created shockwaves of a more unpleasant sort for its inhabitants. When the office tower was under construction, some of the building’s window panes crashed on the sidewalks below, forcing police to cordon off the area. The entire façade had to be replaced with stronger glass and, during the replacement process, plywood was used to plug the holes, earning the building the nickname “The Plywood Palace.”
As if that weren’t enough, legend has it that high winds caused the building to sway as much as three feet from side to side, giving those on the upper floors a sensation not common to your average office dweller. To combat the problem, a system of 300-ton lead weights, calibrated by computer and installed on either side of the 58th floor, was installed.
Nevertheless, worries about the structural integrity of the building, even among its chief designer, prominent architect Henry Cobb, prompted him to call for reinforcements from Europe. In 1975, Swiss engineer Bruno Thurlimann responded to Cobb’s SOS, according to the Globe, and reached a shocking conclusion. The building was in danger of toppling onto the square below, threatening not only people but historic Trinity Church, which controversially lay in the shadow of the tower. It required millions of dollars and 1,500 tons of steel bracing along the building’s inner core to stabilize it.