The history of The Custom House in Boston, MA

From sitting on the edge of the Boston Harbor to being Boston’s tallest building for 49 years, The Custom House is one to get accustomed with.

The very top of the tower of Boston's Custom House, with the harbor in the background.

DYK? In 1916, four 22-foot wide clocks were added to the tower.

Table of Contents

Today, we’re zooming in on one of Boston’s beloved landmarks: The Custom House. Located in McKinley Square, The Custom House once sat on the edge of the Boston Harbor. At the time of its construction, the harbor was a central hub of international trade + the building provided the federal government with a place to monitor and enforce that trade.

Timeline

📜 1835 — Congress authorized construction

🏗️ 1837 — Construction began

🗝️ 1847 — Opened to the public

🏛️ 1973 — Added to the National Register of Historical Places

The Building

Ammi Burnham Young, a 19th century federal architect, was the chief designer. The building was constructed in Greek Revival style which emphasizes ornate friezes, columns, and symmetrical shapes.

By the numbers:

  • 16 stories
  • 32 fluted Doric columns (think Parthenon-style basic Greek columns), weighing 42 tons each
  • 49 years of being the tallest building in Boston (1915-1946)

The Tower

By the 1900s, the Custom House was too small for the volume of trade in the harbor. Architect firm Peabody & Stearns, which designed many Bostonian buildings — including the Brunswick Hotel — proposed adding a tower to the building.

Completed in 1915, the tower has copper-sheathed couplet windows + is clad in granite to match the building.

By the numbers:

  • 3 years of construction
  • 496 ft tall
  • 371 ft over the building code’s limit at the time

Present Day

Now, the building is home to the Marriott Custom House, a hotel and timeshare. You can visit its maritime museum on the ground floor or check out the observation deck on the 26th floor, which provides a view over the city and harbor.

Hotel guests can access the deck at any time, while other visitors can see the deck by registering for a tour, which takes place at 2 p.m. Sunday through Thursday call 617-310-6300, Opt 4, to book your spot.

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