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.
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.
[sidebar]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 wh
ere, 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."
Engaging in bouts of rebound coitus—or doing anything even remotely vigorous—near or against those windows required more courage and fortitude than one might expect, even in Puritan Boston: The lower-grade models the developers insisted be used, coupled with the leaky vents below them and the untreated concrete around them, soon revealed themselves to be highly problematic. Terry Lyman, who has lived in Tower I since 1973 and whose grandfather Theodore Lyman was one of the original Brahmins, says he used to have "rain and snowstorms inside on windy days…. It used to blow so hard that spray would blow 10 or 15 feet across my room. This is with the windows closed!"
In 1985, four years after the rental buildings were first converted to condos, Hurricane Gloria roared in and blew out 70 of the towers’ windows. The trustees representing Tower I—which, by virtue of being closer to the water, has more moneyed residents—called for all of the complex’s 1,716 windows to be replaced. The Tower II board wanted to junk merely the most dysfunctional ones. With the two sides at an impasse, the trustees moved to try to at least stop the indoor rainstorms by sealing up the vents. This meant the units no longer had proper exhaust systems—which turned out to not matter much, since the spaces between the windows and the deteriorating concrete walls were still wide enough to allow air (and some inclement weather) to flow in from outside.
With the broader question of what to do about the windows still unresolved as the recession of the early 1990s took hold, things started getting ugly. In 1992, the results of a special board election for both buildings’ trustees had to be thrown out because of voting irregularities. By the following year, the sides were hurling invective and anonymous missives at each other, circulating fliers late at night, and enduring agonizingly awkward rides with their foes on the towers’ notoriously slow elevators. For the next election, the trustees had to enlist the services of an independent vote-counter to make sure ballot boxes weren’t being stuffed. Finally, George Macomber of Macomber Construction, a Tower I resident, brought the factions together, brokering a deal to replace all the windows—and also finally seal the crumbling concrete around them—at a cost of $9 million, or roughly $15,000 per unit.
There was just one problem, though: Because the vents had been sealed earlier, the new, leakproof windows created negative air pressure in the units. Vents in the kitchen and bathroom could push stale air out, but there was no mechanism in the individual units to bring fresh air in. Ever since, the towers’ interiors have been low-pressure zones where odors and secondhand smoke migrate easily. Dare to open a window, and it creates a jetlike roar.
It so happens that the protracted fracas over the windows was also key to the formation of Frank Pompei as the "change agent," as he calls himself. He says the board’s proposed wholesale replacement of the current 1960s HVAC systems will not address this long-standing ventilation problem (the V in HVAC). He also says that even if his tests prove repairs are necessary, they don’t have to happen all at once; they can instead be done over the course of 20 years, lessening the financial blow to the owners and allowing a plan to be implemented that also addresses the ventilation issue. "I’d just as soon back away from all this stuff," Pompei says, "because I have other things to do with my time. But the reason I’m involved at this level is that I happen to know a lot about the subject, and I can’t sit on my hands, as a neighbor."
The question is, do his neighbors want his help? In September, Pompei submitted a petition signed by 40 percent of his fellow owners calling for three tests to diagnose the seriousness of the HVAC problem: two to gauge the soundness of the pipes and measure leakage, and one to test the capacity of the fan coils, which pump in air from the current system. But then he and his slate of insurgent board candidates got drubbed in the December 6 election, garnering less than a third of the vote, which suggested the tide was
turning against him within the building.
Outside it, however, things started looking a little better when the state appeals court ruled in his favor on December 28, saying he could perform his tests as long as he didn’t interfere with the scheduling of the project, set to begin in May. The trustees, meanwhile, were pushing ahead. After the election, they circulated a booklet explaining how the coming construction would proceed, and, as insurance, included a "Project Rule 10," which threatens fines of up to $30,000 a day for anyone who fails to provide workers with immediate access to their unit. While Pompei declares, via e-mail, that "our efforts continue," even some who share his point of view seem too battle-weary to do anything but go along with the renovations. "I think people are so fed up with the whole mess that they just want to get it over with," says Terry Lyman, who’s among those who’ve vowed to keep fighting. Tower II resident Maryann Hoskins, a Realtor and former secretary to Mayor Kevin White, says, "Frank Pompei is a wonderful guy and very credentialed—and, by the way, I think he’s right—but it’s too late. We just have to get on with it."
Elizabeth Cook served as spokeswoman for Boston Public Schools right after the busing riots, and went on to head up the city’s Office of Cultural Affairs under Mayor Kevin White before getting into a career in the then male-dominated advertising industry. She moved into Tower I as a renter in 1976, after her kids had gone off to school and her Beacon Hill home was burglarized four times. She took to the place right away, and has been there ever since. "I love being on the water," she says. "In the city, but out. Get up in the morning and look over to Europe. Don’t fence me in—that kind of thing." Having paid her $90,000 assessment shortly after the trustees handed it down (this was roughly $6,000 more than she’d paid for the unit when she bought it in 1982), she is a Pompei opponent and, like the others, questions his motivation. But in fact, Pompei is pursuing his insurrection at least partly out of the same affinity his foes have for the unsightly old structures. "The building itself is an excellent building," he says, adding that he simply wants to bring it into the 21st century. "That’s why I moved back. I knew it was an excellent building. It could easily handle a good upgrade."
Yet the same thing that impels him to act also lessens his chances of success. It’s clear that wherever they are on the HVAC dispute, people who live in the towers, particularly those who have been there for a long time, feel a profound, idiosyncratic connection to them. They point to the appealing rarity of the modernist residential buildings, the likes of which can never be built again; the erstwhile barren location; the close-knit, if often querulous, community; the astounding views; and the absence of traditional yuppifying condo perks like valet parking, in-house chefs, a health club, or even washers and dryers in the units (by design, these are limited to the basement). All of this lends to the experience of residing in the towers a glint of austerity that is nothing if not quintessentially old Boston, even if their design itself is decidedly New Boston—or at least the New Boston of the ’60s and ’70s, which is what the new New Boston wants to eradicate. "The people who live here really are pioneers," says Maryann Hoskins. "They suffered through the Big Dig, and all of that digging and noise, and they stayed here because they loved it." Beth Dickerson, a Realtor with Gibson Sotheby’s who deals in the luxury market, says flatly, "What it comes down to is: This is what it is to live in these buildings."
Along with the assessments for the windows and the HVAC system, the towers’ residents have been hit with big repair bills covering everything from roof work to lobby renovations to patching a 10-foot-wide sinkhole that once opened up in front of Tower I. "The people who didn’t want to deal with that probably moved the first time," Dickerson says. "Everyone else is willing to put up with it."
Even as Pompei laments how many residents will be crushed by the $75.6 million assessment, he’s able to name only one person who may be forced out because of it, a testament to the Harbor Towers’ draw. Helen Rees, a legendary local literary agent who’s lived in Tower I for 15 years, says, "We all have an awareness of the significance of these buildings. We all love the neighborhood. There’s a spirit here that only gets stronger. We’re more committed to our community than ever." Peter Forbes, who lived in Tower II from 1994 to 1998 and achieved fame in his building for using a crane to lift a huge molded glass wall into his 19th-story apartment (which the current resident now can’t get out), recalls, "There was a wonderful sense of camaraderie. It was kind of like being on a cruise ship. People who wouldn’t ordinarily be friends were friends because you were all there in Harbor Towers." When he and his wife had a baby, the couple next door raised a stink about all the noise. "They got nowhere," Forbes says. "Everybody stomped all over them and said, ‘That’s what babies do—they make noise. Why are you making a fuss over it?’"
As they were when they first opened, the towers remain a place where people go to start over, says Hoskins, who moved in after she divorced. "Most everybody I know [here] came from someplace else. It may have been a different life or a different circumstance, but it’s kind of a new chapter in the book. A lot of that energy pervades down there." Todd Lee, the architect on the 32nd floor, has lived in the building three separate times: once after his first wife took ill, once after she died and he wanted to "live like a monk," and again after he married Karen C.C. Dalton, a charming art historian from Texas now teaching at Harvard. "I don’t know of any building in the city that has affection like this," he says. "People who live here understand what an anomaly it is, and how extraordinarily lucky they are."
Last November, International Place developer Don Chiofaro bought the aquarium garage, with plans to turn it into a hotel, condominiums, and office space. Add that to Rowes Wharf and the now more-or-less-clean harbor, and the Harbor Towers will soon be fully enveloped, for the first time, by respectable society. The surrounding area will see the increase in activity and density that planners had always hoped the towers’ construction would spur.
With that new money moving in and the neighborhood becoming more hospitable, the towers, historically cheap compared with other downtown high-rise condos, will cease to be outposts for the forward-thinking and instead become a destination for more-conventional wealthy types. The old shabbiness and provinciality that characterized the inner and outer lives of the buildings for decades will be lost, for good or ill, just as the shabbiness and provinciality that has defined Boston for half a century has given way to a glitzy pseudo-cosmopolitanism. The only question is whether the intermittent warfare will continue.
Considering the poor construction, that at least seems one vestige the residents won’t have to worry about losing. "In a sense, Harbor Towers is kind of an island," says Peter Forbes. "They fight everybody on the outside, and when there isn’t anybody on the outside, they fight each other on the inside. There have been coups left and right when one group gains ascendancy over another. But their victories seem to be short-lived, and then somebody else comes in and dethrones them."
Of his own time there, Forbes adds, laughing, "It was bliss, interrupted by two things: political explosions and structural failure."