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Views from the Custom House [Broadband Recommended - Lots of Images]


Cyburbian Emeritus

Boston’s splendid Quincy-granite Greek Revival Custom House was built for the ages between 1837 and 1847 to a design by Amni B. Young. When built, it sat on the shore of Boston Harbor, but landfill has exiled it to about a quarter-mile from the water.

The wealth of Boston’s seaport flowed through its lavish lobby in the form of tariff payments borne in the pockets of sea captains, who ascended its mighty steps to the marble piano nobile, open like a doughnut to the service level below. Young’s composition was surmounted by a glass dome:





The dome is still there, though no light penetrates its glazing; from it there now soars a 32-story skyscraper. This was built 1913-15 to the plans of Peabody and Stearns. Its design flows seamlessly from the Greek Revival original.

For sheer beauty, this building rivals New York’s Woolworth and Metropolitan Life Buildings, the sadly-deceased Singer Building, and Cleveland’s Terminal Tower.





Seen through the remnants of the Central Artery, now history.



Photos by AmeriKenArtist

This is arguably Boston’s finest skyscraper, rivaling even Pei’s Hancock Building in its contributions to the skyline:





For most of the Twentieth Century, this skyscraper functioned as a federal office building, brimming with bureaucrats and steelcase desks. There was an obscure 26th floor observation deck, quaintly accessible in those innocent times. This deck featured dynamite views.

About a decade back, the Feds moved out and Marriott turned it into lodging. It makes a dandy hotel, where the Financial District meets the markets:

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It is flanked by a neat little series of urban squares and streets. One street leads from Quincy Market (right):



A little square leads to the subway, just outside the hotel door. This square does double-duty as the hotel’s carriage drive (note its decorative pavement defining a circle). Enlightened of the city to allow such use of public land:


A little brick square is defined by ancient Federal-era commercial buildings from Boston’s seafaring past:




The Richardsonian Grain Exchange looms like a benevolent uncle.

And busy State Street zooms off to the distant reaches of the Old State House (1712ff) and its brawny brown-box bodyguard:


Most people overlook a hackney’s usefulness as transport. I actually hailed one to get where I was going (not cheap):


When you arrive with your bags from the airport on the Blue Line (two stops!!), you are greeted by a gratifying sight:



(There are other good places to emerge from Boston’s subway: Government Center gives you a great view of City Hall and its plaza; Harvard Square brings you up in the middle of an unholy bustle; State Street has you come out of the basement of the Old State House; and lofty Back Bay brings you out at a nice brick square. Potentially the best exit from beneath ground is not available; Post Office Square has no subway.)

The 26th floor observatory let’s you witness the old expressway’s dying gasp. Soon it will be replaced by the greenery of the Rose Kennedy Greenway. One hopes that the Greenway’s designers have responded to the gigantic arch in SOM’s Rowe’s Wharf. Beyond lies Henry Cobb’s glassy Fan Pier Courthouse, a dull and blocky abomination, while beyond the (hopefully) temporary parking lots of the Seaport District lurk additional bricky lumps of nimbyfaction. On the far right, Johnson’s jokey International Place sports about a million Palladian windows:


The wastes of Columbus Park fail to inspire, trellis notwithstanding. This place really feels exposed. Now that the Greenway proposes to ship even more coals to Newcastle, maybe it’s time to declare this as surplus parkland, and cover it with nice little buildings, like the North End:


City Hall has a chunky sculptural presence in this view: beautiful and monumental. Little wonder that it was so influential to a generation of architects. The public hates it.


Maybe it needs a little PR work. A good place to start might be that horrendous brick wall that so definitively kills Congress Street. Punch it full of holes, install some nice French cafes, cover the sidewalk with tables and watch the weary touristos settle in for a Sam Adams and a view of (yes!) Sam Adams in Faneuil Hall’s plaza. Is he always decorated with a pigeon?

How about a pair of escalators to supplement that endless flight of steps? And finally, why not glass in and rent out that service entrance and that area just beneath the mayor’s office? (Btw, have you ever been up there? Hizzoner has quite a view.)

Two other character-laden chunks are Faneuil Hall, which shares City Hall’s overall proportions if not dimensions, and that terrific little contextual Graham Gund building beside it. This bantamweight gem borrows Faneuil’s dormers, oculus windows, roof pitch, copper, general proportions and rhythm, while nodding towards the grey stone cladding to its left and on Quincy Market. What a zoo of neat buildings!

I wish the space of dreary Congress Street lived up to them (should it be Congress Road?). Those traffic islands of greenery are worse than pointless; they extend in width a spatial swath that is already much too wide. They should replace James Michael Curley with a row of nice little three and four story buildings like the ones in the Blackstone Block, thus extending the urban fabric that truly is humane: little ol’ Boston.

Finally, kill the low-rise portion of the JFK Building, and put something bigger in its place, preferably with ground floor commerce and cars outside: i.e., put back Hanover Street.

The Twenty-Second Century is waiting to find out if the Twenty-First can get it right.

* * *

The Appleton Building is the star of the next show, with its suave curve and refined detailing: flat bas-reliefs and perfect proportions. Don’t forget the Hungarian Monument in the little traffic island in front of it. The context here is medieval Boston’s street pattern overlaid with Deco: just like Manhattan’s financial District--only maybe even better, and photogenic as hell from the street or from the air.

That’s a bit of green Custom House copper, left foreground:


Objects in space, modernism rampant:


Not so bad, really; these I.M. Pei buildings work as beefy chunks in the urban stew. The towers look good from the water, and the Garage at least defines the space of Atlantic Avenue. Also to its credit: it buries the slanting ramp deep inside the structure so as to spare us its disquieting diagonals—and it has stores at ground level. Those stores need to emerge into the light; let them step forward to the front plane of the building envelope, eliminating the gloomy arcade, gaining visibility and the potential of colorful awnings. The sidewalk also needs to shift outward, squeezing the roadway. And finally, the much-too-sober façade needs to be tricked out with big neon signs: just the tubes, no backing.

* * *
Ah, dear old Batterymarch, Boston’s best Deco confection, though this is not the four-star view. I love the way the brick gets lighter as it climbs the building, replicating the effects of atmospheric perspective. This view of the building will soon be partly blocked by the apartments under construction across Broad Street, replacing a truly unsightly parking lot. Hats in the air:


Knights of Columbus Elderly Housing, ca. 1975, Mintz Associates. This is a sad bit of travesty and a monument to human folly and class warfare. It could have been a significant building. It could have housed retail at grade and it could have been grey and monumental, like the big granite warehouse to its left and the smaller one to its right—as well as the other wharf buildings. It could have had a big pitched roof or an occupied, dormered mansard like its neighbors.

The marketing experts, however, feared a retail glut because the Mercantile Mall was not prospering (what did they expect; look at the configuration of that suburban turkey), while the North End NIMBYs insisted on red brick--because red was the color of the North End and grey was the color of the Yuppies in the big warehouse next door, full of candle shops and quiche eaters. Finally—hard though it may be to believe—pitched roofs were anathema to modernist architectural ideologues, who saw them as the devil’s own creation. Flat is virtuous, they insisted, and pitched is wretched historic reference. Now it’s the opposite.

The corner park was where the old folks were supposed to interact with the young’uns from the community, but this place is windswept and shade-filled the live-long day. The Commercial Street side-- that no one ever sees-- was almost the best, because from street level the roof line was variegated and broken up, echoing the really old buildings on the street’s northwest side. Originally recessed dormered mansards, these roof variegations morphed into greenhouses, which must have poured sheets of cold air onto the rheumatic old folks who had to live there.

On the monumental park side, the communal greenhouse-lounge was shifted one unit to the right, leaving a brittle and compositionally-inexplicable two-window vertical element.

When the dust settled, the old folks moved in and Boston got another boring brick block of subsidized housing. Years later, this building inspired another developer and architect to get it more or less right across Commercial Street, at Lewis Street. The result can be seen at the photo’s left edge. Those buildings look old but aren’t. In fact they aren’t buildings at all; that is one building.


Who said ornament was dead? Some people say it’s tacky, but this one gets an A+ in my book. And how about that gorgeous lobby, huh? And look how it nods to the Post Office. Graham Gund again: the heaviest of the lightweights. Gimme that gold:


Italian North End: a small medieval city that has just lost its wall. Will it continue to work as it has? If it doesn’t, the living patterns that supplant those there now are sure to be interesting in their own right; the built form guarantees that. Charlestown Navy Yard beyond, and that stupid, suburban office building that looks like stacked brick trays. Ugh. Think how many North End buildings you could fit into its footprint:


Morning sun from the seventeenth floor. Rhythm, texture, color, composition. What a beautiful city this is:


Container ship riding high, slip-sliding out past Mystic Chelsea. Telephoto brings it close:


The chunk in all its sculptural solidity. Stretch frameless tempered glass between the fin-columns, and rent it out to the uppermost crust of Restaurant World:


This bridge is an animal, like one of Calatrava’s magnified planktons, it is all structure:


The Aquarium’s latterday barnacles are frantic and utterly unconvincing sculpture; their architect had no artistic talent. The shaft of space leading to the Aquarium desperately needs lush, green landscape-- or it would make a dandy building lot. Then demolish the graceless, yawn-inducing eleven-story lump to its left, and let us see the basin full of boats. Or let Gehry replace it with three stories of crumpled tinfoil. Boston’s dullest building, and the City’s biggest lost opportunity. From the sea, the backdrop of whatever you put on this lot is…you guessed it, the Custom House!



Planes striving skyward in fits and bounds: three diverse buildings with a common theme: frozen fountains.


This area needs buildings. Advertising on the Fleet Center is A-OK. Why not more?


Keep the Faith. The telephoto makes it look the way it should in reality. Charlestown is way too far away. It needs a toonerville trolley to rumble across that too-long bridge. And it needs zoning to prevent more abominations like that hotel just on the other side, awash in parking. The telephoto makes it hardly visible, but believe me, when you’re there it’s Mr. Parking Lot that greets you:


The other end of the Navy Yard: plenty of population density, plenty of [too] big buildings, but dead, dead, dead. A golden opportunity squandered by bad zoning and idiotically wrong urban theories. Or maybe not; maybe the people here want to be living in big boxes in the suburbs. At least their views are good; they can say they live near the city. Why, it’s just over there…it’s a world away.

By the way, the same is quietly happening right here on the North End side, on those wharves that the Coast Guard vacated. Have you seen the parking lots around those buildings? Where is the connection to the city? Oh, there it is…let’s see, it says “B…M…W.”


A financial district as it should look: lots of windows, not sheer sheets of glass. You can tell how big a floor is this way; it gives you the size of a human body. That is called scale. Here the scale is monumental but bureaucratic.

I have always had a special hatred for the Jung-Brannen building on Post Office Square with its pointless cantilevers that ruin so many views, particularly from the water. The same architects messed up a pretty and graceful late Beaux-Arts Federal Reserve building when they put an awkward and stupid glass trapezoid on top, to make it a hotel. Ruined the proportions, which were those of the Palazzo Farnese.


Canyons, sinuous and sinister; the city at its most atmospheric:


Those Corinthian pilasters are the very definition of monumental scale in a relatively small building. Ditto the ground floor arch of the Ames Building. The people have gone home.

* * *

Josephine Baker in Boston: the Afro-deco style, as imported from Paris. In back: three buildings sport sky needles:


The building at lower right should be demolished, and Quincy Market needs to be re-acquainted with the sea. The torn party walls beyond need to be fenestrated and dressed up. Maybe they can hire decorator Graham Gund to clothe them in some more African Deco. Pass the gold leaf, please:


The concrete frame building with the three-story rooftop addition used to be the Prince Spaghetti Factory. Way back when no one though there was a market, architect Tim Anderson converted this into housing for yuppies. In those days it was risqué to be an urban pioneer, and somewhat disreputable. It was a long time before those upper-middle-class folks got any company, in the form of Lewis Wharf. There is a weird little hyperbolic paraboloid—also by Anderson-- at the base of the Prince Building. It used to be a gas station.


Factory chimneys and the Bunker Hill Monument make a strange convergence of forms. Scroll down from the three chimneys to what appears to be a parking lot. This is actually the roof of the multi-story parking deck used in the Brinks job. It is located on the far side of Copp’s Hill, between Hull and Prince Streets.


Urban Space:


They put fresh copper on Quincy Market’s dome. It has not yet turned green:


Sure looks clean. That wharf housing in East Boston sure is ill-conceived. Cut down in height by the NIMBYs, the buildings were forced into Chinese-wall configuration to get in the units. This way, they block far more views from East Boston’s three-story houses than slender towers would have. Was that the sound of a bullet in a NIMBY’s foot? Oh, they don’t care; they never learn; their theories are much more durable than reality. Water off a duck’s back:


Boston’s most historic building: lanterns in the spire of North Church launched Paul Revere’s ride. Have you seen the interior?


Two scales and too many vacancies. In the foreground, proof-positive that scale is an outcome of footprint, not height. The Market buildings and garage are the same height as the buildings in the North End, but their scale is as huge as the North End’s is diminutive:


Buildings, please, and lots of them. Make the footprints smallish, and don’t worry your head about the height:


Highway ramp induced damage (Martignetti’s single-story opportunism), and the beginnings of healing (the pepper pot). Is it really three stories? And if so, why not five? Oh, the elevator:


Those buildings around City Square represent increments of development that are much too large. When the El rumbled through and stopped there, it was aptly named, and there were three times as many buildings, all of them with smaller floorplates:


Jeff in drag and Mutt in a shiny tux:


Those buildings on the right are so totalitarian. They are in scale with the huge arch. They have a nice-looking lobby: part upscale mall and part posh office building. They told me to stop taking pictures—afraid of terrorists.

The Seaport District beyond is an unmitigated disaster. That will still be so when all the parking lots are replaced with buildings, because the scale is all wrong. The streets are too wide, the sidewalks ditto, and the lots are too big and there are not enough of them. It is obvious that the non-resident NIMBY here doesn’t know what she is doing. I’ll bet there are plenty of people at the Boston Redevelopment Authority who know this and are keeping their mouths shut:


These buildings are such a bunch of cutie-pies:


The North End in its entirety. This picture illustrates better than any other how right Greenberg is in his analysis: it’s the streets crossing the Greenway that need to be reinforced, not the divisive river of space that—urbanistically—is only a little bit better than the highway it is proposed to replace:

In the lower left, a garage as big in footprint as an urban block. The one across from it, in the North End, shelters (count ‘em) 24 buildings. The building mass and average height of the two blocks is about the same. The scale is not:


The Bostonian Hotel occupies about one third of the Blackstone Block, that little-old-building-filled remnant of medieval Boston. The hotel is an internally unified building that wraps around an auto court and then oozes into the narrow six-story (originally five) older building beside the one with the steeply-pitched, skylight-laden roof. The hotel was developed and designed by Mintz Associates, then known as PARD Team. In designing it, they employed the exact same techniques and design principles as in their low-cost and elederly housing, their specialty. This is why it looks so much like the subsidized apartments of Knights of Columbus Elderly Housing, also by Mintz. They knew, however, that you could take the curse off the public housing formula by simply adding window boxes and/or French balconies. Finally, the irregularly-shaped boundary nicely breaks down the building’s mass, and even makes it look like more than one building.

The Blackstone Street edge (where Haymarket is held and where the highway used to be) desperately needs rebuilding to its original four and five-story height, and the parking lot built on. This is an iffy proposition for a developer, because modern building codes applied to such small footprints yield buildings that are as much as 50% fire stairs, elevators, corridors, elevators and wall thicknesses—all of which yield no rent money.

The building on the next block over is a gryphon. It houses ventilator shafts, a subway station, retail, parking and office—all of them badly, except perhaps the subway station. Its inefficient configuration is a result of its low height, and its low height is a result of nimbyfication and the desire to keep a view corridor from City Hall Plaza to North Church. I wandered forlornly in the Plaza, searching in vain for that glimpse of North Church spire. They might as well have built a fifty story building for all the view corridor they produced. And if there had been a view corridor…so what? Who really cares but the bozos who dreamed it up as an aesthetic goal?

I like that advertising on the Fleet Center. Why isn’t there more, and why is it not neon? It needs to move, like the Citgo sign:


The canyons of Zenith:


The bucolic beyond:


Grand gestures of planning; the cow path formalized. Tremont street skirts the base of Beacon Hill on its way from the Common, like the cows coming home:


Now that is a hunk of building:


Can’t get enough of it:


Green glass:




Not again!:


Platforms for giants:

Lots of places to build—even over the tunnel entrance. Keep the increment of development small. No blockbusters, please. And don’t worry too much about the height:


More buildings, please:


The cast assembles for a curtain call:



Walls that need faces:


Bow to the audience:




The seventeenth floor column base:


And the 26th Floor columns. How to prevent suicides:


Behind bars:


Tremont and Winter Streets; busy then and now:


In case the granite catches fire:

Standing tall:


And proud:


Breathtaking whiteness:


The seal of the United States:


Oh, what a beautiful building!



Staff member
Wow! Standing ovation.

I'm wondering -- are there any proletarian buildings in Boston that you think might age with grace? I'm thinking of how the WTC was so abominable when I watched it rise above mid-town, but how--against my will--it grew on me.


Cyburbian Emeritus
Gedunker said:
I'm wondering -- are there any proletarian buildings in Boston that you think might age with grace? I'm thinking of how the WTC was so abominable when I watched it rise above mid-town, but how--against my will--it grew on me.

Gedunker, tell me what a "proletarian building" is and I'll try to answer your question.


Thank you. I've never known anyone to say anything good about city hall. Its a favorite target on this site. :)

Mud Princess

Ahhh. A very enjoyable show. I really need to visit Boston more often. Haven't been there in awhile.


Staff member
ablarc said:
Gedunker, tell me what a "proletarian building" is and I'll try to answer your question.

"Proletarian Buildings" describes the buildings every city has -- the basic, bland, some would even say "invisible" buildings, that, with time, gain something to become integral pieces of the urban fabric. Maybe it is their association with an individual or event; maybe it is a patina that comes with age; or, maybe it is a relevance that does not become obvious until the building has partners. I guess I am trying to describe what Ada Louise Huxtable called "...just plain old buildings".

I'm thinking of the building you described as one of the pioneers in bringing back younger, more adventurous urban settlers -- the building has a pre-cast concrete structural system that is allowed to read from the street, in-filled with brick, as an example. Architecturally, it doesn't seem to have anything unique to say (at least to me), but it seems it has earned a place in the urban fabric. Buildings where the architect had to be creative because the programme was guided by the client's budget and the budget didn't allow for easy flourishes. Ones where the client trusted the architect to create, not those driven by constrution cost per sq.ft. versus rent per sq. ft. (Does any of this make any sense?)

And I agree that Boston should build up. Height does not mean that scale must be sacrificed. Look at Graves' Humana Building -- not great height, but for Louisville, quite tall, yet scale in context that is absolutely brilliant.


Cyburbian Emeritus
Proletarian Architecture

"Proletarian Buildings" describes the buildings every city has -- the basic, bland, some would even say "invisible" buildings, that, with time, gain something to become integral pieces of the urban fabric. Maybe it is their association with an individual or event; maybe it is a patina that comes with age; or, maybe it is a relevance that does not become obvious until the building has partners. I guess I am trying to describe what Ada Louise Huxtable called "...just plain old buildings"

Gedunker, sorry to take so long to get back to you. Those buildings you describe used to be called “low architecture”, back in the bad old days of the Beaux Arts. This was to distinguish them from “high architecture”, which was what architects did. You could tell it was high because it was usually taller than run-of-the-mill buildings, and it was also higher in its aspirations.

Low Architecture was not generally done by architects at all. Building Departments did not demand it at the time; consequently such buildings were left to builders and draftsmen, while architect played artist. These days you need an architect to get a building permit for a loading dock canopy, so there are much more architects with a consequent decline in their average abilities; and they do less worthwhile work whether they are competent or not.

Frustrated, they vent their creativity on harmless little ol’ buildings that just want to be shrinking violets. If there are strong NIMBYs, such as in Boston’s South End, the lid slams shut on the architect’s creativity, and you get the shrinking violets. These buildings look good in context now (because they closely mimic it), and they will look good in a hundred years, for the same reason.
Maybe they are a little dull, but this is their role. They are supporting actors in the urban drama.

Here are some examples:


South End


Central Square, Cambridge: the anonymous building with the green trim and the CVS store.


South End


South End: this might be taking anonymity a bit too far.