"Post Office Square Park has changed Boston forever, ... (providing) a center for the city's unfathomable maze of streets and buildings. All around it, as if by magnetism or magic, the whole downtown seems gathered in an orderly array. It's as if buildings were pulling up to the park like campers around a campfire."
- Robert Campbell, Boston Globe architecture critic
Post Office Square first emerged in 1887 as the publicly-owned forecourt for Boston’s new Main Post Office. Over the decades, the “square” was repaved but otherwise not improved until 1954. In that year, after the Post Office had relocated, the City made a deal with a local taxi magnate to build and operate a parking garage on the site, under a 40-year lease. Before long, “Parking Garage Unit 3,” poorly maintained and strewn with trash, had deteriorated significantly. Surrounding buildings turned their backs to the site. To many observers, the garage was a blight on the entire downtown area. Landscape Architecture Magazine called it a “hideous structure, casting an evil eye on Boston’s Financial District.”
Things began to change in the early 1980s. Norman B. Leventhal, a prominent Boston developer, became a neighbor of Garage Unit 3, when he developed a luxury hotel in an adjacent 1922 building originally built for the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. Soon thereafter, Leventhal resolved to rid the financial district of its unsightly blemish. He started by gathering some of Boston’s most creative business minds. Together they came up with an innovative approach to financing and developing a park that would be supported by a new parking facility to be built beneath it. Encouraged by technical and legal analyses, the group incorporated in 1983 as “Friends of Post Office Square, Inc.”—and promptly undertook to find a way acquire the site before the end of the lease. Simultaneously, they set about raising private funds to cover design and construction of the garage and the park. By 1987, the Friends achieved both of these goals.
Early on, the Friends took three more critical steps: (1) they traveled to other cities to see, first-hand, what park design elements were successful (and otherwise); (2) they worked with leading urban designers at SOM to craft a well-thought-out, succinct Park Program Statement, that defined users and uses for the park, spelled out design objectives and requirements; and (3) they administered an extensive national competition to select a designer.
"We have designed Post Office Square Park to be an expression of downtown Boston, its unique culture, its values and its vitality. Because we believe Boston is a special city, we believe this park must also be a distinctive and compelling space, of exceptional artistic merit."
- from the submission of the landscape architecture firm that won the competition.
The design scheme for the park sought to create new downtown green space open to the public—one that was rich in detail and visual interest, that recognized the area’s architectural heritage, and that provided welcome relief and contrast to the dense urban fabric surrounding the park. The design team’s concept meticulously followed the client’s detailed program, such as the requirement that 50% of the park should be hardscape—a characteristic that users of the leafy park are usually astonished to learn.
The park was designed to be a garden for all seasons. Its most prominent feature is an open lawn on surrounded by an over-story of large deciduous trees. Clear sight lines were established into the park from surrounding streets, with focal points on axis with park entrances to arouse curiosity and draw people in. Low walls were designed for the park’s interior, serving as path edges and seating, while curbs and lawn around the periphery permit broad views in and allow the park to be enjoyed by passersby. These permeable edges also have the effect of providing a strong feeling of security within the park.
Plazas inside the park at each end provide the setting for major focal elements. The North Plaza features sculptor Howard Ben Tré’s major fountain/sculpture. A garden trellis connects the two plazas, providing a shaded promenade. This pergola forms a backdrop to the central lawn area and doubles as a stage and performance space. The primary architectural features within the park are in the South Plaza: two glass-and-copper structures, styled as garden pavilions, which house a year-round café and pedestrian access to the underground garage. These buildings are well located to receive patrons at the park’s southern edge, where the greatest numbers of office workers travel to and from the Square.
The relevance of this park’s original design expression continues to be seen and felt. With the exception of rejuvenation of vegetation, removal of some plant material that had grown too big, internal remodeling of the café and a new map in the map kiosk, the park design in all its elements is still in place after 23 years.
Many aspects of this park are significant. It was an early, successful “intensive green roof” project, years ahead of its time. A Harvard study of properties in the vicinity of the Post Office Square documented significant increases in real estate values after the park opened. And it is a demonstration of how powerful a carefully considered “Park Program” can be when followed faithfully by a strong design effort.
Accolades for Norman B. Leventhal Park began while it was under construction and continue to this day. Its recognition includes the Harleston Parker Award, given each year to one new building that is Boston’s “most beautiful”—the only time in the history of the Parker Award that a work of landscape architecture has been so honored. It received an ASLA Centennial Medal and is listed one of America’s Best Urban Parks on the Forbes magazine website. It continually gets 5 stars on yelp.com. Many publications and surveys of urban park planning, design and advocacy feature the park, such as the Partners for Public Spaces, and the ULI/TPL book “Urban Parks and Open Space,” which features an aerial view of Post Office Square for its cover.
"The beauty of Post Office Square isn't simply that it's a destination, a place for people seeking a shady spot to eat lunch: It's also a crossroads -- a welcoming, accessible concourse where people's paths converge. You could be going about your business, and suddenly you happen on this wonderful refuge. The opportunity to take a moment to rest and to sit quietly in nature, or to watch the human theater around you -- those are the things that the best public spaces provide.”
- Alex Krieger FAIA, Principal, Chan Krieger NBBJ; former Chair, Harvard University, Department of Urban Planning and Design.
“Post Office Square Park is a real place—a centered domain with its own definite character. The lawn has a shape of its own: it asserts itself, so that when you are there, you feel you are somehow at a center, rather than a passage between two more important places. You can feel, therefore, at rest. … This is what good design is all about. "
- Robert Campbell, Boston Globe architecture critic, 2004
Pamela Messenger, General Manager for the Friends of Post Office Square, often remarks that “cities need iconic places.” Norman B. Leventhal Park at Post Office Square is assuredly such a place: an excellent example of design that stands the test of time.