In his book Great Streets, Allan Jacobs notes that about 100 years ago a square mile of Boston's downtown centered on Scollay Square (today's Government Center) had over 400 intersections and approximately 276 blocks. His research shows that the historic level of complexity of the street pattern in Boston was similar to Rome, Bologna, and Paris. Eighty years later the same area of downtown Boston had around 230 intersections and about 176 blocks, bringing it more into line with areas like lower Manhattan and San Francisco. (Allan Jacobs, Great Streets, MIT Press: Boston, 1993) pp. 263-265
Much of the change can be attributed to urban renewal and the creation of Government Center in the 1960s while another portion can be traced to the need for assembling larger parcels out of the 18th and early 19th century street pattern to create building lots suitable for the tall buildings which now make up the Boston skyline. One need only juxtapose the tower at 60 State Street (1977, Skidmore Owings Merrill, Architects) with nearby Merchant's Row (laid out starting in 1708, buildings c. 1830) to see the changes in scale brought on by late 20th century commercial architecture.
The first great wave of tall commercial buildings in Boston, roughly from 1890 to 1920, were the wonders of their day, but modest to our 21st century eyes. Most fit comfortably into the existing street pattern of late 19th century Boston. The Ames Building (1893, Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge, Architects), on the corner of Court and Washington Streets, was the tallest building in Boston until being eclipsed by the Custom House tower in 1913. The Ames Building represents the last great masonry structure building in Boston: later buildings were built using steel frame construction which allowed taller and taller structures. From the Ames Building one would have looked out over Cornhill, today's Boston Street of the Day, and one of the streets lost in the past 100 years. This view of the Ames Building looking up Washington Street shows the density of the urban pattern c. 1900. The Old Statehouse is visible to the right. Cornhill served as a center for printing and related trades. The 1844 Boston Almanac lists several bookbinders, printers, booksellers, and one globe manufacturer along Cornhill. While Cornhill disappeared as a street with the construction of the Government Center project in the mid 1960s, its curve can still be observed between City Hall Plaza and the Sears Crescent.