12 Post Office Square 45 Milk Street John M. McCormack Building, Post Office Square

I recently read The Architecture of Happiness by Alain de Botton. In it, the author writes, “In a more encompassing suggestion, John Ruskin proposed that we seek two things in our buildings. We want them to shelter us. And we want them to speak to us – to speak to us of whatever we find important and need to be reminded of.”

Three of our new neighbors (two from the nineteenth and one from the mid-twentieth century) share versions of a common detail that I found confusing for buildings in the financial district: the Caduceus.

I had always associated the Caduceus symbol with medicine. One would expect it in the Longwood Medical Area, not Post Office Square. After a quick search, I discovered the Staff of Asclepius (symbol showing single serpent) represents healing and renewal, and is the true symbol of medicine. The Caduceus (symbol showing two serpents and wings) is derived from Mercury/ Hermes, the speedy messenger of the gods and protector of merchants.

It is interesting that the Art Deco-styled John M. McCormack Building’s symbols depict of a pair of stylized eagle wings rather than Mercury’s wings, which are typically found on the god’s helmet or feet in Roman or Greek mythology. By replacing the wings of Mercury with the wings of an Eagle, the symbolism becomes a little less Roman/Greek and a little more American.

When a prominent symbol is represented within a detail on a building, it makes a connection between the use of the building and the story behind the symbol. In contemporary architecture, we rarely employ cultural symbols in that manner. So, in addition to what the details “say” to us directly, the symbols remind us of how differently we express (or don’t express) our values in the design of buildings. In the spirit of Ruskin’s statement, our new neighbors speak to us through their building and remind us of what they find important…




Topics: Arrowstreet Move