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REAL ESTATE

Both companies share pride in high-profile buildings

John Hancock Financial Services Inc. and Manulife Financial Corp. share a fondness for signature buildings.

Both have vast investment portfolios in real estate: $2.6 billion in Manulife's real estate division, and $11.8 billion for John Hancock, according to its 2002 annual report.

But the two are known as well for creating, owning, or inhabiting sleek, high-profile buildings. Hancock's headquarters is the I.M. Pei-designed 60-story mirrored obelisk on Clarendon Street in the Back Bay, and Manulife's is a three-building complex at 200 Bloor St. in Toronto.

Manulife Centre in Toronto, one of its investment holdings, is a 51-floor tower that was built in 1974 and a more recently completed 18-story building.

In Boston, Manulife is already making another architectural mark.

The company is in the process of consolidating its local operations and is on the brink of locating what will be the US headquarters in a new 14-story glass structure on Congress Street in South Boston.

Manulife has said it plans to move 750 Boston-area employees, most from 500 Boylston St. and 73 Tremont St., plus an additional 750 workers from elsewhere to 601 Congress St. early next year. The Congress Street building was designed by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill LLP of Chicago, the architectural firm that also designed the John Hancock Center and the Sears Tower in Chicago.

Manulife's curved glass structure in South Boston has two "skins," which provide insulation for its interior like a giant Thermos bottle. It has been under construction for about two years.

The $140 million building -- a major addition to the South Boston Waterfront -- has about 420,000 square feet, of which 100,000 may be subleased.

In what was widely seen as a move preparatory to selling or merging the company, Hancock this year sold its landmark tower, two nearby buildings, and a parking garage to Beacon Capital Partners LLC for more than $900 million. Hancock signed long leases for most of the space in the buildings and assumed responsibilty for leasing out the remaining space for five years, so those buildings are essentially fully leased.

In June, Hancock agreed to sell most of the rest of its Boston real estate -- the Hard Rock Cafe building on Clarendon Street and an adjacent parking lot -- to the Related Cos. LP, based in New York, and its Boston partner, the Beal Cos.

The financial services company held onto a small parcel nearby and later announced it would give that quarter-acre piece to the City of Boston for use as a park. Hancock still owns the small John Hancock Conference Center, as well as one other property, 372-378 Stuart St., a nine-floor, 149,000-square-foot building. It is between the old Berkeley Street police headquarters, which is being rebuilt as a hotel, and the US Postal Service building on Stuart Street, which is for sale.

A Boston real estate executive, who asked not to be identified, said Hancock wanted to wait to see what happened with the post office property before putting its Stuart Street building up for sale.

The 100-floor John Hancock Center in Chicago, finished in 1969 with its distinctive X-shaped cross bracing, was the tallest building in Chicago between 1969 and 1973. One of its antennas was raised last year to a height just slightly taller than the Sears Tower across the city. Shorenstein Co. LP purchased the Hancock Center in 1998.

In Los Angeles, Manulife has the Manulife Plaza, a 21-floor structure completed downtown in 1982. Manulife has also built two 14-floor buildings in Schaumburg, Germany, the Schaumburg Corporate Center II and Corporate Center III, completed in 1986 and 2002.

But of all the companies' corporate holdings, those in Boston are the most colorful.

Not only was the John Hancock tower beset by problems in construction, but it was best known in its early years in the 1970s for its 500-pound windows, which came crashing to the ground in large numbers. All 10,344 windows were replaced with glass of a different design, and in 1995 the building was voted by a group of architects and historians the third-best building in Boston's history.

Neither as tall nor as shiny, the old John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Co. building nearby is the one that most people in the city look to. Its color-coded signal on top told weather conditions from 1949 until the mid-1970s, when it was shut off to save energy.

It was re-lit in 1983, and now warns, with a flashing red signal during baseball season, that a Red Sox home game is being postponed because of inclement conditions.

Thomas C. Palmer Jr. can be reached at tpalmer@globe.com.

Hancock sold

(Globe Staff Graphic / John Bohn)
Video NECN: Manulife Purchases John Hancock
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