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Time's sentry

A view of the waterfront and Custom House from near the mouth of
Fort Point Channel, c. 1919.
Courtesy: Leslie Jones Collection, Boston Public Library

The Custom House was under threat. Preservationists in Boston were appalled. Yet a decision made in 1910 gave the city a defining landmark that is synonymous with the harbor.

Unencumbered by local building-height restrictions, the federal government had commissioned a 26-story tower atop the existing Greek Revival structure, giving Boston its first skyscraper. The tower burst through the city’s 125-foot limit by a factor of four. In the economic stagnation that gripped the city over the following decades, the building remained the city’s tallest until the Prudential Center was built a half-century later.

The rise, decline, and restoration of Boston’s Custom House is inextricably tied to the changing character of the waterfront, though today the harbor itself has retreated from the building by close to a quarter mile.

Designed by Ammi Burnham Young, the 1847 Custom House was conceived at a time when maritime trade was at its height. Located on the water’s edge between Long Wharf and Central Wharf, it presided over the country’s busiest port. Stripped of ornamental detail and capped by a Roman dome, the granite cruciform structure with its columned porticos was a temple of commerce. Visitors today pass by the marble plaque unveiled by President James K. Polk at its dedication. Step into the rotunda and look up 95 feet at the original dome, no longer skylit but now bearing the Great Seal of the United States.

The land beneath the Custom House was born of the harbor, bought and filled by the US government. But the age of sail soon gave way to the steamship, and much commerce was lost to the port of New York. Wharf owners looked at their empty docks and began to see development potential.

When the State Street block was completed in 1857 on filled land to its east, the Custom House lost its place on the water. A decade later, in an effort to revive the port, the city inserted Atlantic Avenue, further isolating the Custom House from the harbor (and foreshadowing the intrusion of the elevated Central Artery).

By the early-20th century, the US Customs Service had outgrown its building, with no way to grow but up. The government commissioned the controversial new tower from Peabody & Stearns. The square form looked over the buildings around it as an Italian campanile over a medieval city, with stone eagles flanking its four-faced clock. In recent years, peregrine falcons nesting in the tower’s high reaches have joined the eagles in their aerie.

Shortly after the tower’s completion, the fishing fleet relocated to South Boston, devastating the old central waterfront. Following World War II, the view from the 496-foot tower was of a city in decline. The Central Artery swept away many of the vacant warehouses, obsolete in terms of contemporary shipping demands.

In 1973, the Landmarks Commission won inclusion of the Custom House District in the National Register of Historic Places, celebrating Boston’s place as the country’s leading 19th-century port. The district embraced the brick and granite ware­houses that flanked the Custom House, from Bulfinch’s Broad Street warehouses to the midcentury buildings of Central Wharf.

The US Customs Service left for the Thomas P. O’Neill Federal Building in 1986, and the Custom House was declared surplus property. City Hall attempted to redevelop the property after buying it in 1987, but developers did not consider it worth the renovation costs. It sat empty for 14 years, until Marriott Ownership Resorts International — reassured by plans for the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway and the success of Quincy Market — recast the Custom House Tower as a hotel and time-share.

In South Boston’s port facilities today, cruise ships outnumber cargo ships. Tourists have replaced tax collectors in the Custom House. Peabody & Stearns’ once-feared tower thrives, a distinctive landmark for those arriving by sea or air. Its observation deck offers views of the old waterfront, now reborn, and the transformed Seaport District. ■