Walk to the Sea

Custom House

The Custom House was built so close to the water that the bowsprits of arriving ships could touch its façade. For nearly a half century the tower dominated Boston's skyline, while, ironically, waterfront activity and port services declined.

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Maginfy icon construction of base of  tower on top of original Customs House
Maginfy icon Print from between 1850 and 1855 showing the Boston Custom House in its original construction.
Maginfy icon 1928 photograph of Fanueil Hall and Custom House Tower
Maginfy icon Aerial photograph of Boston waterfront and Custom House tower from around 1930

The Greek Revival style of the Custom House, completed in 1847, reflected both contemporary fashion and the building’s lofty purpose. The customs offices oversaw the sovereign interests of a young state and nation by supervising and taxing cargo. Around 1913, the federal government built the 433-foot tower that you see today. The goal was to enlarge the Custom House at a time when Boston’s economic fortunes were still linked to the sea.

The shipbuilding industry that enlivened Boston’s waterfront for two centuries ended with the advent of steamships around the time of the Civil War. Port operations diminished. Boston’s maritime infrastructure became obsolete.

In the 20th century, the proud Custom House came to dominate a waterfront in decline. Instead of shipped goods, the vacant wharves began to store a different kind of commodity — parked cars for downtown office workers.

Within a generation, however, the bustle at Boston’s waterfront returned. The ships and longshoremen were gone. Great granite warehouses were converted to apartments, and cultural institutions, such as the New England Aquarium, were built. Hotels took choice waterfront locations. Tourist cruises and pleasure boats re-enlivened the docks. Today, the waterfront is once again crowded with activity, its uses re-imagined.

In 1995, after undergoing other changes of use, the Custom House was converted to timeshare apartments.

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