This is the eleventh in a series of posts on largely unknown spaces in Boston that are open to the public.
When the Prudential Center replaced 23 acres of switch yard for the Boston and Albany Railroad in 1965, Boston was beginning decades of urban renewal projects. At that time the accepted wisdom was that city dwellers wanted to get away from the city streets so new parks and complexes were either raised above or recessed from street level. “The Pru” was one of the former.
Humanation at the Pru
Architect Charles Luckman’s design focused on a 52-story office tower that was flanked by two open-air shopping arcades. It included large open plazas for pedestrians that were raised above congested city streets and accessed by escalators.
A patch of green grass filled the space between the shopping pavilions on the south side and a skating rink filled that space in the winter. A shallow moat crossed by small bridges separated the tower from the arcades. Mr. Luckman called this approach “humanation.”
The reality of the finished project did not match his Utopian plan, however. The tower captured the north wind Bostonians call the Montreal Express and funneled in down into the shopping arcade. The water in the pool splashed up onto the promenades. Because the tower was built in the midst of the Atlantic Flyway, dead birds rained down on the plaza during migrations. (This happened to me when I was crossing the promenade with a date.) It was a joyless place reminiscent of an uninspired suburban shopping plaza but a lot colder.
Needless to say, it did not thrive. Without the stores and restaurants needed to make it a destination worthy of going up those escalators shoppers stayed away and stores closed. The wind blew and footsteps echoed in the empty arcades.
Eventually city planners and architects realized that public spaces work best when woven into the flow of street life. People simply prefer going to places that are part of the city, not removed from it. The Prudential Center shopping arcade was re-imagined and re-designed in 1993 by CBT Architects. The entire shopping complex was roofed over with glass skylights and domes and turned into an bright urban shopping mall. It’s now a sunny, bustling complex of 75 shops and restaurants that’s nearly always crowded.
From Lawn to Garden
Not all the effort was expended on interior spaces, however. That small, forlorn green lawn on the south side morphed into a beautiful sheltered garden. It’s a 1.3-acre, open-air park, roughly triangular, at the apex of the retail arcades and office buildings. The garden still features a sizable stretch of lawn but now also includes a black granite fountain, lots of benches for relaxing in the sun, and a small stage for free concerts and other performances.
The Pru Garden is hardly hidden—60,000 people a day go through the new @shopsatprucntr —but most of them just view it from inside. The real beauty of this space is to walk into it. First and foremost, the garden is the kind of urban oasis that was intended in the original design—except more friendly and welcoming. People put blankets on the lawn and have a picnic while listening to music or watching a movie. They eat lunch at the café tables or just read a book while enjoying the beautiful plantings. They stroll through the Pru Garden and listen to the purling of the “water feature.” Best of all, because the surrounding structure blocks the wind it’s possible to sit and relax in the sun on a chilly spring or fall day.
Information and Directions
The Pru Garden is easy to reach by public transportation and the Prudential Center includes a large underground parking garage. It’s also accessible by escalator from Boylston Street or Huntington Avenue and by skywalk from the Copley Place shopping mall across Huntington Avenue
In fact, the garden in the center of an axis walkway that will take you from the Sheraton Boston hotel on Dalton Street to the corner of Stuart and Dartmouth Streets without ever having to go outside on wet or cold winter days. Even when the Pru Garden is covered with snow, you can enjoy it from the warmth of the “winter garden” – a series of lush plantings along the sunny Huntington Avenue arcade. Every time I walk past or go into the Pru Garden, I think of the original wind-swept patch of lawn and smile at its beautiful new reincarnation.