Monday, June 13, 2011

The John Hancock Tower

The tallest building in Boston was (and still is) the Hancock Tower. Designed by I.M. Pei & Partners in 1968, it served as the headquarters for John Hancock Insurance, hence the name. The Hancock displaced the Prudential Tower (the other insurance company) with its glassed-in top floor observatory and flashing white strobe beacon as the tallest vantage point in town, although the Pru remained the backdrop for many a Strat's Rat while I was in Cambridge.

The Hancock was a glass monolith with the footprint of a parallelogram and blue as the Boston sky. It was just about completed when I arrived at MIT in the Fall of 1974, but it didn't officially open until 1977, due to a certain number of engineering snafus.
One of them was that the windows kept falling out. Not just a couple and not all at once, but one here, one there, one somewhere else - on a continuous basis for almost three years. Things got so hazardous that a scaffold was erected to protect the patrons of the Trinity Church next door from falling glass. It seemed necessary; rumor has it that one day a workman on one of the upper floors of the Hancock happened to drop his lunchbox - right through the church roof.

As the panes of glass fell, they were replaced with plywood. Some of the plywood was black and some of it was a natural wood color, i.e., yellow. With windows popping out on a frequent basis, the effect created was a blue, black and gold checkerboard pattern towering into the sky. It was pretty to look at, in its own quirky way, but the building owners were concerned that someone would want to look out of those nice big picture windows, and while the glass was reasonably transparent, plywood is opaque, which makes viewing difficult. The architects search for a solution, but none could be found. Replacement windows popped out just as readily as the original 4 x 11 panes. The architects replaced every pane of glass in the building, but windows would still pop out. Eventually it was determined that wind was not a factor in the detachment of the windows; what caused the glass to pop out was a condition of thermal oscillation. Each window was two panes of glass with a pocket of air sandwiched in between the panes. When it was warm, the air between the glass expanded and popped the outer window pane out of its mounting. This didn't happen immediately; it took several cycles of heating and cooling to loosen the outer glass.

The Hancock had some other problems. First, the foundations were compromised by the Back Bay muck the building rested upon. Then the building exhibited a tendency to sway in the wind. To counteract this force, the building's engineers installed some gigantic mass dampers, which seemed to check the swaying characteristics. The final calamity was not engineering, but financing; the building was sold for north of a billion dollars five years ago, but the real estate trust that bought the building went broke in the 2009 financial panic, and the Hancock Tower was auctioned off. It now belongs to another trust known as Boston Properties (appropriate); the Hancock insurance company itself is now in the hands of Canadians. I.M. Pei went on to design many other structures, some of which were located at MIT (including the Green Building and the "Pei Toilet", AKA the Wiesner Building - it is covered in white tiles and looks like a...)

Incidentally, this strip was redrawn; the original version looked like this:
There was a problem that made this cartoon unsuitable for publication in a family newspaper; I placed the hyphen between the "Han" and the "cock". A similar problem would plague the original "Outtada pool" cartoon about roaches. There is a reason why cartoonists never write the word "FLICK" in a comic strip when they show a light being turned on, and you can probably guess what it is. So I substituted the word "CLICK" instead.

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