Four-Faced Liar and Peregrine Falcons

Looking upward from the lobby.

Been to Boston lately? The old Customs House is full of architectural and historic interest, but you don't have to admire it from afar. You can spend the night there.

Completed in 1847, the Customs House was then the most expensive building built in the United States. At that time, there was no income tax; duties levied on goods arriving in Boston's port accounted for much (20%) of the federal government's income. Customs activity continued to grow, resulting in a needed expansion of the original building on State Street. In 1913-15, a tower was added. It was Boston's first skyscraper.

Photo--now in the public domain--provided by the architects, Peabody and Stearns.

Eventually, the Customs offices moved to another location in the city, and the original property was abandoned by the government. In 1986, the city of Boston purchased the building, which sat unoccupied for 14 years. Marriott Hotels bought it in 1997 and turned it into fancy time-share condos. It now also operates as an all-suite hotel. (If you have the fortitude to visit Boston in the cold dead of winter, you can sometimes find some great hotel deals, including here.) Coincidentally, my late father-in-law, a tea importer, used to have an office in this building, so long ago that no one can remember which floor. 

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The cheerful front desk clerks will give you a fact sheet about the building that includes some fun things to know, experience, and tell. 

THE CLOCK:  When the tower went up, a clock was installed on all four sides. In its time, it was the largest clock in the United States; each clock face measured 22 feet in diameter. The mechanism for keeping time was not always precise, which resulted in the locals calling it a "four-faced liar," because no two of the faces ever agreed. The clock remains and now tells the truth, I believe, though I did not walk around the building in a windy, horizontal sleet-filled evening to verify. 

THE PEREGRINE FALCONS: The building has an observation deck, and right above it on the 30th floor is a pair of peregrine falcons.  This same pair return every year to nest. If you go up to the observation deck, you will see some heavy netting overhead. It is not to protect the falcons, as I first thought. It is actually to protect you from the falcons, who are quite aggressive in defending their young.

THE MAILBOX: As a mail worker's daughter, I would be remiss if I failed to mention the multi-storied mail drop chute. The first in the country, and it is still there.

Inside shot of the machinery that powers the clock.

POSTSCRIPT:  Shortly after posting this piece, I heard from Ed Ashey, Lebanon NH's historian, who informed me that the original Boston Customs House (before the tower was added) was designed by architect Ammi Young of Lebanon NH!  Young designed many Customs Houses, and, closer to home, the Congregational Church in Lebanon. Many thanks to Ed for pointing out these connections to the Upper Valley.

Note: I have no connection with Marriott other than a good night's rest for which I paid the going rate. They kindly provided me with information and cookies, but no more than any other guest. 


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Susan B. Apel, writer, ArtfulEdge

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