Scheme Z was scrapped. A better alternative was designed. The muckety-mucks gave it their blessing. But something still stands in the way of the Central Artery project's Charles River Crossing.
That something is the old Registry of Motor Vehicles Building at 100 Nashua Street. Sixty-two years old, 10 stories high, and about as cheery as a double funeral, it rises directly above the site of the future tunnel that will carry inbound motorists from Storrow Drive onto the Artery headed south.
Now, this is not a building to which a whole lot of people have what one could call a sentimental attachment. Add up all the fuming car owners who ever wasted a morning in its corridors, their blood pressure rising as the Commonwealth of Massachusetts employed every imaginable torment to keep them from renewing a license or registering a title -- the motionless lines, the surly clerks, the nonexistent parking -- and you're probably talking about the most detested public edifice in Greater Boston.
You're also talking about a building in a worse state of breakdown than Bill Clinton's foreign policy.
According to the Division of Capital Planning and Operation, the government agency responsible for all state-owned buildings, "most of the major systems and components of the building are in complete disrepair and need substantial renovation or replacement." The exterior is crumbling, the steel window frames are deteriorating, the elevators are nearly shot, the heating and electrical systems are kaput. The facade is badly cracked. So is the lobby floor. There is no air conditioning, no central ventilation, no sprinklers. Nothing is wheelchair-accessible -- a condition that is not merely inconvenient but also, since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, illegal.
Somebody deserves a flogging for letting 100 Nashua St. fall into ruins. But in candor, this building was never any great shakes to begin with. It was built in 1932, around the same time as some of Boston's finest Art Deco buildings -- the grand Post Office on Congress Street, the old State Street pyramid on Federal Street, the celebrated United Shoe Machinery building. Unfortunately, age is about all it shares with its distinguished contemporaries. In the American Institute of Architects' comprehensive guide to Boston, which describes hundreds of local buildings, 100 Nashua isn't even mentioned.
To rehabilitate it, the state has estimated, would cost $32 million. No renovation work could begin until the underground tunneling is finished. That won't happen until around 2000, which means the property (nearly vacant since the Registry moved to its new headquarters in Roxbury) would be unusable for at least six years. And before anything could be done, $30 million would have to be spent to underpin the building so it isn't pulverized when the new tunnel is constructed underneath.
Even for Massachusetts, $62 million is an outlandish price tag for shoring up and rehabilitating a decrepit government office building that nobody likes anyway. Sensibly, the commissioner of capital planning and operations, Lark Palermo, recommends tearing the eyesore down, selling the land, and renting whatever office space the state may need at a fraction of the cost somewhere else.
Enter Judith McDonough. As executive director of the Massachusetts Historical Commission, McDonough has to sign off on any demolition of a state-owned property -- and she seems a lot more interested in saving the unattractive, unwanted Registry Building than in saving the public tens of millions of dollars.
"We determined that this building meets the eligibility requirements for the National Register of Historic Places," McDonough said last week. "Somebody will have to make the case to me that this building should be torn down."
It's broken down, devoid of quality, and aesthetically sterile. The Boston Preservation Alliance, the Art Deco Society of Boston, the Boston Redevelopment Authority, and the Downtown North Association have all signaled support for demolishing it. How much more of a "case" does the Historical Commission require? Who knows?
"It would be a tragic mistake," McDonough insists, "to save only the treasures, the jewels. Tenements are important to save, too. How people lived, the context of history -- le tout ensemble, as they put it in New Orleans -- that's what historic preservation means now.
"Historic preservation isn't beautiful anymore."
Maybe not. But it doesn't have to be ugly.
Intelligent historic preservation is vital. This city's sense of oldness is one of its most endearing qualities; it would be madness to destroy the structures of earlier epochs for no better reason than changes in fashion or a taste for the new.
But sometimes a building should be used up and thrown out. If preservation mania had paralyzed earlier generations, Boston's gorgeous Old City Hall could never have been built -- because the original Latin School would never have come down. The sleek and urbane Statler Office Building couldn't have taken the place of the old Boston and Providence train station that used to squat there. The 19th-century Custom House would never have been topped by its 20th-century tower. Not everything is worth hanging on to. For the good of Nashua Street -- and of the taxpayers -- let's level the heap that stands at No. 100 and build something better in its place.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)