I'm busy writing the next Higgins & Hawke mystery which involves a fall from the tower at the Boston Custom House. Writing historical fiction requires a lot of research and sometimes my husband Norm works as my research assistant. He's put together this fascinating interest piece together on the history of the Custom House and Tower.
To celebrate the upcoming release of Death on the Tower I'm giving away LIMITED HARDCOVER EDITIONS of both Death at the Tavern and Death on the Tower! I'm also throwing in a $50 Paypal cash bonus. Good luck!
Today's interest piece is about The Boston Custom House – enjoy!
Like many of the older buildings that are part of the downtown Boston skyline, the Custom Tower building has an interesting history. I am a bit of history buff, and whenever I see older structures like that, I often think about the original designers, and what they would think about how their creations fared long after they themselves were gone. It must be an interesting thought for an architect of great buildings to know that their buildings will outlive them, sometimes for many centuries as in the case of thousands of buildings in Europe.
It was Ammi Burnham Young, an architect from Vermont who won the Federal government funded competition to design the original Boston Custom House. His submission featured a cruciform scheme which combined Greek Doric Portico and a Roman Dome. The idea was to reflect the growing strength of a young and confident nation. He was appointed the supervisor of construction, which took from 1837 to 1847. The building was intended for the collection of Maritime duties and for the inspection of cargo on the mostly clipper style ships that were used in that day.
I think Ammi Burnham Young would have been very surprised at the significant changes that happened in and around his building starting just a few years after construction and also later after his death in 1874. For one, at the time when the building was finished the harbor water line came almost right up to the building! In fact, the ships moored on the East side of the Custom House almost touched the building. Due to the massive land reclamation projects that took place during much of the mid 19th century, this changed as the harbor line moved eastward a few blocks.
Something that might’ve made Mr. Young turn over in his grave was when city officials decided to build a massive tower on top of his creation! By 1905 the shipping activity in Boston had increased to the extent where a lot more office space was needed. The industry had simply outgrown Young’s carefully thought out designs and dreams for the building. So in 1913 the federal government started construction of a tower that used Young’s original building as a base. And it was not just any tower; it was the tallest building in New England for almost half a century (496 ft)!
I wonder what Mr. Young would think if he returned from the grave today. He might think the tower a monstrosity. His annoyance would sure to grow if he were told that the huge, four-faced tower clock did not function for a large part of the 20th century due to the fact that it was built with mechanisms that were too small for the massive copper plated California redwood hands (It was finally fixed in 1985.) Imagine the resurrected architect’s further dismay on finding out that for 14 years starting in 1987 the building sat unused and inaccessible after the Federal Customs Service move to another building in the west end. ‘What a shame’, he might say.
I’m not sure how Mr. Young would take the news that the whole building, his original grand structure and the whole tower, is now 84 room timeshare vacation resort owned by Marriot.
What do you think? Would he walk away or would he book a room, and order caviar and cigars?
In case you missed it . . .