If you pick up a postcard of the Boston skyline, chances are the Harbor Towers are front and center — two brutalist-style apartment buildings, each 40 stories tall, made of reinforced concrete and glass. Small balconies run along their edges like zippers. Their many rectangular windows reflect a pixelated sky. They look like what a kid might draw if given the prompt to draw a skyscraper.
In their 53 years of existence, the towers have been many things. A gamble on otherwise bleak waterfront real estate in the ’70s. A relic, as no building can be built at its height and proximity to the harbor again. An architect’s regret. A puzzle to access, a revelation to be inside. An icon. An eyesore. To me, who grew up there, they are simply home.
This summer, it will be 50 years since my parents moved into Tower 1. As the milestone approaches, I’ve been thinking a lot about how a building can be one of many elements that shape a person and that in the story of me and my family, the Harbor Towers are an essential piece.
For a start, there was no place like the towers for childhood hijinks. From a boat in the harbor in the ’90s, you might have spotted me on our balcony, launching paper airplanes. If the wind was right, I could land one on the roof of the aquarium next door. My older brother and I had water gun fights on the communal patio, and hide-and-seek could be endless when you had 40 floors and an elevator at your disposal. Our harbor-facing balcony meant we had a front-row view of all manner of spectacles: the Tall Ships parade of sail in ’92 and again in 2000, the summer a whale appeared and was guided to safer waters by tugboat, every New Year’s Eve fireworks display. It felt like you could see everything from up there, and as a result I was always aware that there were other people doing other things all the time, that my story was one of many. I’ve valued that insight ever since.
But it wasn’t always easy living in the towers. I envied my friends with their backyards and basements. While not front-of-mind for me then, I know now about the controversies around costly repairs and maintenance issues that have dogged the buildings for years. Climate change has brought new challenges to waterfront living, here and everywhere. Plus, there’s the look of the place. Many people think the towers are ugly — the drab grayness of all that concrete, the rigidity of their lines, the way they loom over everything around them. Even their architect, Henry Cobb, who co-owned a firm with I.M. Pei, tried to distance himself from them in the end. “I do not regard the towers as my best effort,” he told Boston Magazine in 2008. “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.”
I understand what he’s saying. But also, I love them. Also, I will always think they’re beautiful. When I visit my parents there, I savor time with them, of course, but I also linger over the little building details I’ve been missing. The smooth feel of the teak panels in the lobby that reflect the site’s maritime past. The brass buttons in the elevator. The curves of the balcony and solidity of the walls. I’ve always cared about aesthetics, and some of that, I think (I know), comes from here.
I moved away from Boston 15 years ago. I live in Oregon now, in a small college town in the foothills of the Coastal Range with my husband. Our ’57 ranch is no city high-rise. It surprises people that I’ve settled in a place so different from where I was raised. But to me, it makes sense. The towers never leave you, you see. Despite all their faults and shortcomings. It doesn’t take much at all for me to picture the squares of marble floor tile in the lobby, so perfectly set, or to hear the whoosh of the elevators in their bays. I know if there’s any wind in the forecast it will be gale-force there, that there will be — despite all reasoning — baby rabbits in the grassy roundabout come spring. I can imagine my parents sitting at their dining table, as they’re likely doing this very minute, with cups of tea and their unbeatable view. I loved growing up there. I love to visit. I love knowing that even though I’ve moved away, I’ll always be a Harbor Towers kid.
Kristin Griffin is a writer and teaches writing at Oregon State University.