A Conversation With John Ferry

By David Snyder

 

John Ferry lives in a newly-renovated three-story house sat right atop a cliff that hugs the Atlantic Ocean. His backyard stretches some 50-yards before running right smack into the ocean. Now settled down into his retirement in Scituate, MA., Ferry previously spent the majority of his life in Boston, MA., first as a student and later as a professional, culminating in his major roles within the operating of Back Bay Boston’s Prudential Tower and Prudential Center.

When I sat down to speak with Ferry, I had not yet met him. We’d only spoken by phone once. His accent was just a notch more tame than John F. Kennedy’s classic Brahmin accent, forever dropping r’s at the end of words, finishing sentences with a sort of punch to the bridge of the nose, rather than let it fizzle out naturally. Lanky and wiry at over 80-years-old, Ferry claims his physical fitness is a result of never putting sugar in his coffee and his daily hour-long walks with his Golden Retriever, Molly.

We settled into deep leather chairs in Ferry’s den, two steaming mugs of black coffee (not one grain of sugar therein) in hand, and began talking about his time in Back Bay, in the heart of Boston’s commercial district. Any and all italics are Ferry’s own.

Snyder: You went to college in Boston, correct?

Ferry: Oh, yes. I grew up in Worcester, just down the road. My parents’d lived there their whole lives, god bless ‘em. Their parents too! Well, Worcester’s a fine town, but I’d seen enough of it by the time I was 17 or so. Maybe 18. I decided to head to the big city, at Northeastern. I was a business administration major there, though I’d didn’t learn anything worth a damn. Those were fun times. Fun times.

SNY: What came next, after college?

FER: The bug had bit me, by god! I loved city livin’. Loved it. My father, well, he wanted me to go to law school, join up at his firm back in Worcester that he, at the time, ran with his brother, Francis. Lawyer? I thought. More school? No, ma’am. No, thank you. He really busted me up about this, you know how fathers are, but I promised him that I’d have a reliable job within five-years, and if I didn’t I’d sign up for some lawyer school. (Laughs)

Ferry's alma mater, Northeastern University, sits in Boston's Kenmore/Fenway neighborhood, just a short walk from the Prudential Tower. Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Ferry's alma mater, Northeastern University, sits in Boston's Kenmore/Fenway neighborhood, just a short walk from the Prudential Tower. Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

SNY: You won that bet, didn’t you?

FER: By Jove, I did! By the skin of my teeth, too. I was four-years out of school, penniless, lovin’ every minute of it. But I knew the clock was tickin’, that Big Bad Dad had his finger on the trigger. But I got lucky. Anybody who’s worth a damn in this world got where they are by some talent and whole lotta luck. Anyway, a buddy of mine from Northeastern was going to grad school at Harvard with all the other preppy schmos he liked to pal around with. He’d graduated and was on board with a company designing what would become the Prudential Tower. This was in… 1959, I think it was. He said they needed a fella that was quick with numbers and was interested in architecture and running some business. I said, good Christ, I’ll take it! I started damn near the next day.

SNY: And what were your responsibilities after coming on board?

FER: Basic middle-managing sort of things, really. I was a liaison between Charlie O’Shea, one of the head architects on the whole thing, and a bunch of the accounting folks keeping his bottom lines squared away. Charlie wasn’t much good with numbers, with dollar signs, at least. I liked dollar signs, so the job was perfect for me. The Tower was finished up and opened in ’65. An absolutely grand thing that was. Just grand. Those were happy times.

SNY: What role did you take after construction was completed?

Back Bay's Prudential Tower, Boston's tallest building upon its completion in 1965. Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Back Bay's Prudential Tower, Boston's tallest building upon its completion in 1965. Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

FER: Thank my lucky stars they asked me stay on board, head up the accounting department of the Tower. I worked there, moving up the ladder bit by bit, until I got a job in the Prudential Center, where I was CFO. That was in the ‘90s. Boston’s come along way since then, by god, when you stop to think about it.

SNY: How is Boston different now from when you started working in the city half a century ago?

FER: Half a century ago? My god, kid. I feel like I’m from the stone age now. (Laughs) Well, it was a fine town back in the ‘50s and ‘60s when I was starting out. And it really did feel like a town. It was big to me because I hadn’t seen the world yet, but it was peanuts compared to New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, the other Atlantic hubs. But it felt like we were on the cutting edge, that we could really make a mark. And we did! We had built the tallest building in all of Boston back then. It was really special. But the end of the ‘60s and the ‘70s were hard times for Back Bay, for all of Boston. It was like that in every big city, from Boston to Detroit to Los Angeles. Drug problems, race problems, violence. Just terrible. The way black people were treated in this city, just awful. It was a scary town to walk around in—in certain parts—for some time. Now, Boylston Street is a pretty glamorous stretch, but back in the day, you wouldn’t walk down there at night if you didn’t absolutely have to.

Back Bay's Prudential Center is anchored by Sak's Fifth Avenue and Lord and Taylor, and along with dozens of other stores, is the commerical hub of the neighborhood. Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Back Bay's Prudential Center is anchored by Sak's Fifth Avenue and Lord and Taylor, and along with dozens of other stores, is the commerical hub of the neighborhood. Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

FER Cont’d: But after the ‘80s and through today, things are great in the city. I think Boston’s the strongest it’s been since the ‘50s, forgive any nostalgia on my part. The city is cleaned up, we’ve got a good, popular mayor in Marty Walsh, the Sox and Celtics and Pats are the cream of the crop. What’s not to like?

SNY: In Back Bay, specifically, what impresses you most these days?

FER: I’m biased, you see, so the Prudential Tower and Center are my babies. I think they’re real gems, I really do. We’ve got the best commercial space in all of Boston in Back Bay. Too many shops to count. But what makes me really pleased to see is how much young, creative energy there is in Back Bay. We’ve got Berklee, the Conservatory, Boston Architectural, the Goethe Institute, which is wonderful for bringing in some fresh culture. And not far from Back Bay, we’ve got schools like Emerson and Northeastern. The damn kids are crawling all over the place! (Laughs) It’s a great time to be in Boston. And the restaurants… wonderful.

SNY: Favorite restaurant in Back Bay?

FER: Very tricky question. Let me see… Ostra on Charles Street is a wonderful place to have a meal. Probably there. Though the Misses loves The Salty Pig over on Dartmouth Street. You can’t really go wrong with any of them.

Our conversation came to what felt like a natural end, our mugs empty, Ferry only slightly joking when he said that he needed a nap. But before I left, he was eager to show me to the dining room, where he’d recently put up framed prints of the Prudential Tower from various phases of its construction.

“Hard to think that we built that, huh?” he said aloud, mostly to himself. “I don’t care what anybody says: that tower’s a work of art. A fine building to represent the best of Boston.”

 

Back Bay as seen from the Charles River. The Prudential Tower still stands tall. Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Back Bay as seen from the Charles River. The Prudential Tower still stands tall. Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.