The Harbor Towers’ Towering Contradictions

A bitter feud over a looming $75.6 million repair job is just the latest strife to befall the Harbor Towers, where the best-in-the-city views come with seemingly endless maintenance headaches, cutthroat internecine politics, and the occasional randy neighbor. The Bostonians who are proud to call the buildings home wouldn't have things any other way.
harbor towers

The towers, as viewed from East India Row. (Photograph by Mary Kocol)

There’s nothing welcoming about the Harbor Towers. The swath of land they sit on is crudely severed from downtown—initially by the Southeast Expressway, now by the Kennedy Greenway—and bookended by the stately Boston Harbor Hotel and the aquarium. Depending on where you’re standing, the buildings loom over either the harbor to the east, or a curved stretch of Atlantic Avenue to the west; in fact, it could safely be said that the towers, each a grim 40 stories of concrete and glass, loom over everything nearby.

For all that looming, however, they are surprisingly difficult to find. From the street, you don’t see the driveway that leads to them until you’re nearly past it. If you do manage to make the turn, it opens into a short, shabby, and, at night, badly lit strip of asphalt, flanked by the unsightly backside of the enormous aquarium parking garage, and ending in a windy cul-de-sac strewn with construction equipment and watched over by a guard in an equally dim and shabby booth. Even when you’re standing right in their shadow, it’s not immediately clear how to get into the buildings. The entrance to Tower I, which is the closer to the water, faces the Harbor Hotel to the right. Tower II faces the water, keeping its back to visitors, too. Huddled together the way they are, the buildings appear to be carrying on a conversation in which you’re not particularly welcome to participate. It’s all very Yankee, in its way. Very Boston.

It’s often been said, in fact, that the best thing about living in the Harbor Towers is that you don’t have to look at the Harbor Towers. In the ’90s, the city rezoned the waterfront so nothing like them could ever be built there again; the changes now limit building heights and require projects to include more open space and access to the waterfront. While it’d be easy to attribute the hostility to the familiar chasm between architectural taste and popular appeal, even Henry Cobb, the buildings’ I. M. Pei–affiliated architect—who went on to build his masterwork, the John Hancock Tower, in Boston—is inclined to agree with the mob. “I do not regard Harbor Towers as my best effort in Boston,” Cobb says via e-mail. “I am sympathetic to those who believe that in the perspective of history this could be seen as the wrong project in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

And yet the scorn felt toward the towers’ exteriors doesn’t compare to the enmity now coursing through their own halls. The man fueling the tensions is Frank Pompei, founder and president of Exergen, an engineering firm that, among other things, manages the heating, ventilation, and cooling (HVAC) systems at Harvard University. Pompei is a short guy, a little rotund. His manner of speaking (fast, precise) and his dress (leather suspenders, big gold cuff links, power tie) call to mind an old-time big-city mayor. Pompei and his wife, Marybeth, who’s the chief clinical scientist at Exergen, had rented two adjoining sixth-floor units in Tower I from 1990 to 2003, but they “fell madly in love” with the penthouse, which they’d had occasion to visit while living in the building. (The space offers a staggering panorama of the city; an acquaintance of the Pompeis, Tower II resident Edward Gleichauf, says there’s a “certain godlike remoteness” to it.) When the Pompeis, who’d resettled in a condo in Cambridge, heard it was on the market, they snatched it up last May for $1.3 million.

Then came the fighting. The towers have two separate boards, one for each building, but they make decisions collectively, and in August, after more than a year of pitched debate, they levied an unprecedented $75.6 million special assessment for a host of what were deemed critical repairs, the bulk of which related to the aging buildings’ HVAC systems. According to the trustees and their backers, the heating and cooling water pipes were so badly corroded they needed immediate replacement; to delay would be to risk increasing the cost of the work, if not court disaster. Pompei believed the trustees were being too rash, that their plan to spend millions to swap out the relics from the late ’60s, rather than upgrade them, was folly. In an attempt to debunk the trustees’ proposal, he brought in his own engineers, as well as William Coad, past president of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers, then pressed to gain access to some of the towers’ engineering reports, which he says the board was withholding from owners.

Last October, he also launched a campaign to get himself elected to the board, and filed a lawsuit calling into question the scientific grounds for the repairs, along with a request for an injunction to stop the work, at least until tests could be done to make sure the levy—which amounts to about 20 percent of each unit’s value (in his case, roughly $360,000)—was warranted.

That request was thrown out by a judge; the state accords condo boards nearly unlimited power to handle their buildings’ affairs. So Pompei pushed forward, appealing the ruling, and continued working on his board election bid, along with three supporters, to try to bring the project to heel from the inside. He now believes the trustees have spent so much time and money convincing people of their plan that they’ve become prisoners of their own momentum. “They’ve boxed themselves in,” he says. “They’ve been Chicken Little about the whole thing for so long, in public, that now all of a sudden they’re stuck.” Pompei’s opponents—worried about falling property values caused by the uncertainty of the assessments, skyrocketing construction costs, and the risk of system failures—say he is a “megalomaniac,” a rabble-rousing “snake-oil salesman” intent on wasting everyone’s money to satisfy some inscrutable grudge. Several mention Pompei caused a similar stir at his old condo complex in Cambridge, running for the board there twice, and losing both times. “He could be dangerous if he lived in Bosnia,” muses one longtime resident who supports the trustees. “He doesn’t live by any rules.”

Such strife is nothing new to the Harbor Towers. Over the years, they have been the battleground for a number of bitterly fought, highly publicized disputes among residents, who’ve been hit with a series of outsize assessments that were floated either to beautify the buildings or, more importantly, to keep them from falling apart. But their longtime inhabitants, many of whom could certainly afford to move, could not imagine living anywhere else. Built on hallowed historical ground at a time when the city was on the skids, and having since presided over periods of rot and tumult, prosperity and rebirth, the Harbor Towers, for these loyalists, typify Boston the way no other structures can. And the buildings’ very isolation and ugliness, the rancor they inspire—these are, as it turns out, just another part of their appeal.

 

In its heyday, the waterfront was a bustling block of piers and warehouses, a center of global commerce. As Jane Holtz Kay writes in her book Lost Boston, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries “Yankee traders were swapping chisels for furs, furs for tea, and tea for money” there, and the wealth raked in from the seven seas helped fund an unprecedented building boom in Boston. The focal point of all this activity was India Wharf, built in 1805 by the dean of Boston architects, Charles Bulfinch. “An address on…India Wharf was currency around the world,” writes Kay. It also played host to the India Wharf Rats Club, a renowned gentlemen’s club where, it was said, women could enter, so long as they didn’t ask about the long, shiny cylindrical object—a whale’s penis—hanging from the ceiling.

By the 1960s, however, the waterfront had become desolate, a dreary lagoon of dirt parking lots and little else. As went the waterfront, so went Boston. “These were not good times for either the nation or the city,” writes Thomas O’Connor in his book The Hub. What had been a steady stream of federal aid began to dry up, siphoned off by the Vietnam War. Boston had to curtail its urban renewal and housing programs, and its colleges and universities, O’Connor notes, were forced to discontinue “many of the bureaus, institutes, and planning centers that had been providing valuable assistance” to City Hall. Moreover, Boston had become a focal point for the antiwar movement, and the black community was increasingly militant in the wake of the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination.

White flight was in full swing and social unrest was spreading, creating a powder keg that would go off not long afterward, in the form of the busing riots. The city, then run by Mayor John Collins, was eager to get behind any developer—in this case, the Berenson family and Carlyle Construction out of New York City—with the temerity to build something new, particularly something densely residential, amid all this decay. Funded in part by the last of the Federal Housing Authority money, and overseen by the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA), the original plan for the Harbor Towers called for three stacks of rental units, plus a parking garage, done in the Brutalist style of the day: all raw concrete and hard angles. (Peter Forbes, an architect who lived in the towers in the mid-’90s before moving to Florence, Italy, points out that such a design was considered a “heroic gesture” in the late 1960s, an effort to “get away from the steel and glass skyscraper of the ’50s, which people were beginning to feel was cold and impersonal.”) In order to free up the space for the project, the BRA also allowed the historic India Wharf Building to be demolished. “In retrospect,” writes Cobb, the towers’ architect, “[that move] was arguably a mistake.”

Of course, there were limits to how big a chance the developers would take. Because they couldn’t be certain anyone would want to live out in the grubby hinterland that was the waterfront, three towers eventually became two, with a pool installed where the third was to have stood. Cheaper materials were also subbed in. The kinds of windows that got installed, according to Cobb, were inferior to the ones he had specified, and the unsealed concrete that made up the exterior of the buildings—and held the windows in place—was subpar, too, prone to crumbling and staining.

The towers were completed in 1971, and soon were drawing younger, adventurous, urbanist souls from many walks of life, among them Bruins great Derek Sanderson. In keeping with the times, a certain moral casualness reigned. “It became a great den of prostitutes and loose living for a number of years,” says Todd Lee, an architect who lives on the 32nd floor of Tower I. “I may exaggerate, but it had a really bad reputation.” Edward Gleichauf, who had friends in the buildings in the ’70s—and decided to move in himself 10 years ago—says, “It was a hell of a party place.” Elizabeth Cook, a resident since the mid-’70s, notes that early on the towers attracted a lot of recently divorced men. “There were men I knew who were coupled when I met them,” she says, “and when they showed up here, I knew something had changed.” Adds Lee, “A lot of guys had bachelor pads there, and would do all their fucking looking out the window.”