• 08.01.03

From Boom Town to Ghost Town

The Arsenal on the Charles, a 200-year-old arsenal turned office building, proves more ghost town than high-tech community.

A 50-ton, yellow Gantry crane hangs like the Sword of Damocles in the lobby of a nearly abandoned office building, close to Boston’s Charles River. Founded as a working arsenal in 1800, the red-brick complex, dubbed the Arsenal on the Charles, has seen the American economy’s boom-and-bust cycle play out across 200 years. In the waning days of the 20th century, just as the New Economy was heading into overdrive, a Philadelphia developer bought the historic property from the U.S. Army for $24 million. ARC/Architectural Resources Cambridge was hired to turn the gutted building into 366,000 square feet of office space for high-tech tenants. But then came the dotcom crash, and with it came the tanking of Boston’s commercial real-estate market. Recalls Henry Reeder, a partner at ARC: “Companies moved in and went poof!”


Today, the building is an elegant ghost town, with just three companies still in residence. The empty offices look Pompeiian, as though they were abandoned suddenly during an especially nasty day on the Nasdaq. Dusty file folders still sit on desktops; in a stylish conference room, a champagne flute lies on its side. Still, a rebirth might be on the horizon: In May 2001, Harvard University bought the property for $162 million. The university hopes to rent some of the space, but with the high-tech economy still in shambles, Harvard will be hard-pressed to sign up tenants. “One of these days, this will be a cool space again,” Reeder says wistfully, gazing out the painstakingly restored windows to the Charles. He sounds only half-convinced.

About the author

Linda Tischler writes about the intersection of design and business for Fast Company.