The building of the Christian Science Center
In 1886 the Church of Christ, Scientist (later called The Mother Church) purchased a parcel of land in Boston’s Back Bay section, on which to construct its first church building. Since then both the church and its surrounding neighborhood have grown and evolved. With significant renovations underway on what today is known as the Christian Science Plaza, it’s helpful to look back at the last time a project of this scope took place, some 50 years ago. These photos from our collection offer some interesting perspectives.
During the 1960s Boston was undergoing major redevelopment. Officials embarked on a plan to revive the inner city with large-scale construction projects, including the 23-acre Prudential Center and the 790-foot John Hancock Building.
As part of this urban renewal, the nearby Mother Church announced its plans in 1965 for what was called the Christian Science Center, redeveloping 31 acres of residential, business, and public land in the Back Bay.1 The project involved the construction of various new buildings and a public plaza. Private developers were also encouraged to undertake residential, commercial, and retail projects nearby.
Thomas J. Hurley, Chairman of the Christian Science Board of Directors, had this to say about the project’s intentions at the 1967 Annual Meeting of The Mother Church: “As plans for the new [Administration Building] developed, an opportunity to make a significant contribution to the community became apparent. Thus the new Church Center plan will not only meet the needs of the church organization but also will greatly improve and beautify the surrounding community.”2
The church hired I.M. Pei & Partners and Araldo Cossutta to design the Plaza. This included a new Sunday School building, two administration buildings, and a large reflecting pool sitting atop an underground garage. The design was heavily influenced by Brutalism, an architectural style popular in the 1960s and 70s.
Construction began in 1968, with work on the 550-car underground parking garage and the reflecting pool, which measured 686 feet long, 98 feet wide, and 2 feet deep. The pool held 1.3 million gallons of water and soon become a main attraction for locals and tourists alike.
In June 1971 Carl B. Rechner, Development Consultant on the project, referred to assertions that various contractors throughout Boston were racially biased in hiring workers for the city’s building boom. He reported, “An Equal Opportunity Employment plan is successfully practiced by [The Mother Church’s] contractor, with full compliance checked by the Church. In addition, a unique voluntary training program to employ unskilled workers of minority races leading to union apprenticeship has been in force for one and a half years, and is a model for the Boston area. This is not a government requirement and is funded by The Mother Church alone.” Rechner added, “The Mother Church is not in the real estate or development business, and does not wish to be a landlord, but is trying to encourage private developers to maintain the best employment practices and to consider the needs of the local community”3
The two new administration buildings were needed to alleviate overcrowding in existing church office spaces. The Colonnade building—a five-story structure running parallel to the reflecting pool—was completed in 1972. Another 27-story administration building was constructed at 175 Huntington Avenue (now 177 Huntington), supported by 500 pilings sunk 180 feet into bedrock. Construction on the new Sunday School began in 1970 and lasted until 1972.
In 1973 construction started on a new portico entrance to the Extension of The Mother Church, styled with Corinthian columns. It sits on the site of a previous church administration building and the former St. Paul Street. The Portico’s 1975 completion capped off this multi-year Plaza redesign. In addition to creating a beautiful new entrance, it marked the first time that the church was visible from nearby Massachusetts Avenue.