As the UUA looks for a more modern headquarters, Unitarian Universalists reflect on the symbolic meaning of its perch on Boston’s Beacon Hill.
25 Beacon Street at dusk. (©2 012 John Benford / johnbenfordphoto.com)
When a group of Unitarian Universalists from Dallas visited Boston last spring, they were proud to see the banner of the Unitarian Universalist Association flying outside an old, red-brick, oak-paneled townhouse overlooking Boston Common and next door to the gold-domed State House. The leader of the tour, the Rev. Dr. Daniel Kanter, minister of First Unitarian Church of Dallas, said the Texans shuddered to learn about the lack of central air conditioning at the UUA’s headquarters at 25 Beacon Street. But, while the building may not be modern, he recalled one man in the group saying, “at least there’s a there there.”
The meaning of that “thereness” is on many Unitarian Universalists’ minds as the UUA searches for a new home. Last spring, the Board of Trustees gave its support to a plan to sell the association’s four Beacon Hill properties and buy a more modern headquarters in Boston. Not surprisingly, Unitarian Universalists see the symbolic and practical value of 25 Beacon Street differently, reflecting the ever-present creative tension over who we are and where we are headed.
Update: On March 14, 2013, the Board of Trustees approved the purchase of a new headquarters building at 24 Farnsworth Street in Boston. Read more about the deal and see photos of the property, which the UUA will begin leasing in September 2013 and move into in May 2014. On January 25, 2014, the board approved the sale of 25 Beacon Street and 6-7 Mt. Vernon Place (Pickett and Eliot Houses) to a residential developer in a deal that is expected to close in March.
Beyond a sense of place and history, many UUs see an archaic, ill-configured, energy-wasting, command-and-control style building with a broken elevator that, as President Peter Morales put it in 2009, “reeks of privilege and hierarchy.” To him, 25 Beacon is “a symbol of our past, not our future.”
The Rev. Christine C. Robinson, senior minister of First Unitarian Church in Albuquerque, was proud of 25 Beacon when she was a seminarian at Boston University thirty years ago. Now, she says, she believes it reflects the UUA’s “stuckness.” “I’d like to see them in a more modern building, and in somewhere other than the most hidebound part of Boston,” she said. The building “doesn’t mean anything to UUs here in New Mexico.”
To others, 25 Beacon Street is sacred Unitarian Universalist ground, and an anchor in our roots and principles amid rapid change. To them, forsaking the stately, Federal-style townhouse for more modern space would be like the Roman Catholic Church selling the Vatican and buying the Mall of America.
“It’s as close to a mecca as we’re going to have,” said the Rev. William G. Sinkford, minister of First Unitarian Church of Portland, Oregon, and president of the UUA from 2001 to 2009. It is a shrine, he said, to religious thinkers, reformers, and activists who continue to inspire today. After working in the UUA’s Beacon Hill buildings for fifteen years—including eight at 25 Beacon Street as president—Sinkford said he was all too well acquainted with its frustrations. Nevertheless, if it were gone, “I would miss the connection with our history, miss its role as a symbol.”
The UUA’s two office buildings and two guesthouses stand atop Beacon Hill, Boston’s historic neighborhood of crimson-colored, mansard-roofed houses and cobblestone streets. The headquarters is so close to the State House (which was designed in 1795 by Charles Bulfinch, a Unitarian) that one imagines the UUA president goes next door to ask the governor for a cup of sugar. The official residence of Boston’s mayor is even closer, sharing a wall with the UUA. When 25 Beacon was built eighty-eight years ago, that strategic position symbolized Unitarianism’s prominence in public affairs. UU clout takes very different forms today, most visibly in the UUA’s “Standing on the Side of Love” placards and T-shirts at demonstrations outside government buildings all across the country.
The Boston headquarters is also in the center of the most Unitarian-drenched landscape in America. When the American Unitarian Association completed the current 25 Beacon Street in 1927, there were eighteen Unitarian congregations in the city of Boston, according to the Rev. Peter Tufts Richardson, author of The Boston Religion: Unitarianism in its Capital City, many more than in any other city. (There were another six Universalist churches in Boston, too.) Unitarian greats William Ellery Channing and James Freeman Clarke lived a few streets from the present headquarters; Theodore Parker preached abolition and Julia Ward Howe organized women nearby. From 25 Beacon one can see the monument on Boston Common to Civil War hero Robert Gould Shaw (a Unitarian) and the Massachusetts Fifty-fourth Regiment. Walk two blocks to King’s Chapel, which openly embraced Unitarian theology in 1785, the first American church to do so. Or walk across the Common to education reformer Elizabeth Palmer Peabody’s bookshop, where Margaret Fuller led her intellectual soirees.
The Rev. John Buehrens, UUA president from 1986 to 2001, now serves as interim minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Monterey Peninsula in Carmel, California. He said he was sympathetic to concerns about the expensive renovation and maintenance issues. But he said 25 Beacon is a symbol of the movement’s mission. The relocation plan made him want to “chain myself to the door to prevent” the sale of the building.
“Twenty-five Beacon comes right out of our tradition of being opposite town hall,” said Buehrens. “Its very presence is a constant education in what our historic mission is. And in the absence of a common theology, it’s all the more important that we have a common history.”
Linda Laskowski, a UUA trustee who lives in Berkeley, California, also believes “there’s something thrilling about the sense of history” at 25 Beacon. Indeed, standing beneath the portraits of Thomas Starr King, Hosea Ballou, Channing, and others that grace its walls, it is easy to think that 25 Beacon is older than it actually is. “I find myself thinking about the Transcendentalists, even though they are not actually a part of the history of the place,” said Laskowski. “People are often surprised that it dates only to 1927.”
The American Unitarian Association (AUA) opened its first headquarters in Boston in 1865, forty years after the AUA was founded. The AUA occupied a few sites before settling, in 1886, in a squat, three-story, Romanesque brick building at the “old” 25 Beacon Street—when the address was on the other side of the State House, at the corner of Bowdoin Street. The AUA sold that building in 1925, bought 32 Beacon Street, and built the UUA’s current headquarters in its place, bringing the old address along. The “new” 25 opened in 1927.
Laskowski said that other UUA trustees feel the same pull she does, but that as financial stewards of the association they had to assess whether 25 Beacon had outlived its usefulness. “The more we set that aside, the more we realized that we need to make a change,” she said. “I’m still convinced that it’s the right thing.” In April 2012, the board voiced its support for Morales’s recommendation that the UUA begin a search for new office space in Boston or Cambridge—one that meets a range of criteria set by the administration after consulting with the staff. It is still looking.
The criteria include a building recognizable on the outside as the home of the UUA and big enough for the staff to be under one roof, yet with as small an environmental footprint as possible. The building must have a mix of meeting and common areas of different sizes, accommodate cutting-edge technology, and be close to public transportation and welcoming to people with disabilities.
“We are looking for a space that’s open and light filled and can be easily reconfigured as needed,” said Tim Brennan, UUA treasurer and chief financial officer. Two years ago, the availability of a building at Hebrew College in nearby Newton enticed the UUA to consider moving. The reaction of UUA employees, almost all of whom commute by public transportation, convinced the administration to focus on central Boston or parts of Cambridge. “The fact is, Boston is where we are,” Brennan said. “We realized that if we moved to an office park in [suburban] Waltham, we would lose half our staff. The disruption would be too enormous.”
Brennan and others winnowed a list of a hundred possibilities to a handful of office buildings, from Boston’s Fenway neighborhood to Chinatown. Nothing has worked out so far, but, Brennan said, “the right property will come our way.”
“Twenty-five Beacon is a beautiful building,” said John Hurley, UUA director of Communications, “but it would take millions to bring it into the twenty-first century.” The administration estimates the cost at $6 to $10 million. As the association’s unofficial historian, Hurley said he worried initially about the loss of a central historic place. “Now I am very much in favor. My bags are packed. Too much keeps going wrong.”
Why leave? Installing an Internet connection fast enough to meet the demand, a video production studio, and other needed technologies is prohibitively expensive because of the antiquated construction and historic designation of the UUA’s two office buildings, Hurley said. Part of 25 Beacon is not accessible to people with disabilities; the building also wastes energy and lacks adequate meeting and office space. The staff are spread between 25 Beacon and the UUA’s six-story office building at 41 Mount Vernon Street, one block away, which houses Beacon Press and UUA program offices.
Laskowski said all those reasons mattered to her, as well as the “capital it would unlock.” The UUA has been advised that selling its Beacon Hill properties could fetch between $20 and $30 million. Laskowski’s own experience clinched her decision. “Seeing older board members struggle with the ramps to the back of the building affected me,” she said. “Also, I’m chemically sensitive. The chemical residue in the building sets off my allergies, and I know it’s a problem for others.”
To Morales, the biggest drawback is the roadblock the building poses to collaboration. “It was built for a nineteenth-century organization with hierarchy and specialization,” he said. “You don’t know who else is in the building. There’s no common lunchroom or informal gathering spot, which means less opportunity for the sorts of connections and ideas that grow out of unplanned interactions.” New space, he said, “would provide not just a better, more technologically advanced working environment but also an impetus to a new culture of collaboration and innovation.”
Even skeptics about the move concede the headquarters has long been inadequate. The central issue, almost all agree, is balancing practical needs with the symbolic meaning of 25 Beacon Street. UUs differ, however, on the importance of that symbol to our faith tradition.
Morales, a native of San Antonio, Texas, whose formative experiences as a Unitarian Universalist took place in Oregon, California, and Colorado, said that when he came to Boston in 2002 to lead the UUA’s district staff, he was put off by the signs of privilege and institutional entrenchment he saw. He describes 25 Beacon as a kind of Unitarian golden calf.
“This building is about who we used to be,” Morales said. “I don’t think that, as an organization, we should be looking back.” Although he plans to make a display of UU history and heritage central to any new office, he said, “We should be looking to the future. Sometimes I have to remind myself that Parker, Emerson, and Channing broke free from forms that were no longer working. For the UUA to be vital, cutting edge, to move confidently into the future, is more in keeping with their spirit than staying.”
Some UUA staff and people in Boston “understandably have attachments to this place,” Morales added, “but I think for most UUs who live outside of Boston, it’s just a return address.”
Many Unitarian Universalists support that view. “I’m on the side of those who want to sell,” said the Rev. Mark W. Harris, minister of First Parish of Watertown, Massachusetts. “The UUA has to keep pace with what it needs to be vital in the twenty-first century,” said Harris, an historian and author of Elite: Uncovering Classism in Unitarian Universalist History. “Tradition, history, and the status of its location are all good, but the growth and vitality of the association is more important.”
The Rev. Dr. Galen Guengerich, minister of the Unitarian Church of All Souls in New York City, also favors moving. He would oppose selling a UU church, but 25 Beacon is in a different category. “It’s a tool to get something done, and in this case, it’s a woefully inadequate one,” he said. He compared remaining in it to using a little red wagon to transport children to school. “I think the UUA needs to molt, and to molt fairly quickly, or risk being lost to history.”
Eva Marx of Hingham, Massachusetts, a former UUA trustee, said she was ambivalent. As a member of Hingham’s Old Ship Church, she knows the pros and cons of old buildings. Her UU congregation has met since 1681 in the same building, the last seventeenth-century Puritan meetinghouse in use today. While she accepts that the current space at 25 Beacon is not working, Marx said she wished it “could be kept as a gathering place and museum of Unitarian Universalist history.”
The Rev. Diane Miller, minister of First Religious Society in Carlisle, Massachusetts, also favors keeping 25 Beacon as a “symbolic presence,” with a bookstore, reception hall, and exhibit of UU heritage, but perhaps leasing the upper floors. Miller was director of Ministry at the UUA from 1993 to 2001 and a candidate for UUA president in 2001, and she recalls the headquarters building as an “awkward place to work.” But she said she is “very skeptical” about the reasons being set forth for the move and disagrees with the view that Beacon Hill is a quiet, hoity-toity enclave. In spite of its signature residences, “Beacon Hill is actually a very diverse neighborhood,” she said, with students, immigrants, and entry-level workers living in numerous small studios and efficiencies, especially on its northern side. “It’s full of life,” she said.
She also said she worried the UUA might have to complete many or most of the expensive renovations that are needed before a buyer steps forward. That would reduce the financial gain.
The location of the UUA next to the State House and Boston Common, once a self-evident sign of power and influence, also looks different from different angles. Kanter, the UU minister from Dallas who led the heritage tour, knows Boston from his days as an assistant minister at nearby King’s Chapel. “Seeing UU flags flying, with all that traffic up and down Beacon Street—it was a great opportunity for public witness,” he said. But proximity to the seat of government, Kanter said, is an insufficient reason to stay. “I think there’s a danger in making idols of historical symbols. The question is whether 25 Beacon serves the staff and helps us increase our mission-driven work. I don’t think it does.”
Former UUA President Sinkford recalled the banners promoting marriage equality that hung from 25 Beacon after the state Supreme Judicial Court legalized same-sex marriage in 2003, which gave encouragement to activists outside the State House.
As an African American, however, working atop Beacon Hill “in the middle of one of the great bastions of privilege” was a double-edged sword. “As I walked to my office,” Sinkford said, “I often had the feeling that I didn’t belong there, that I was walking into enemy territory. I never got used to it.”
Buehrens said his fondest memories of his UUA presidency involved Coming of Age and high school youth group tours of the building. “I gave standing orders to my assistants that I was to be interrupted if any such groups were in the building,” he said. “The sight of their faces, the questions they asked as they looked at Starr King’s desk, or the Selma Memorial, or the room, Eliot Hall, from which the Board of Trustees adjourned a meeting to go and march in Alabama [in 1965]—to me it shows our history not as an idol but as a guiding force for people today.”
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Richard Higgins is the author of Thoreau and the Language of Trees (Univ. of California Press, 2017). He has written for the Boston Globe, New York Times, Atlantic Monthly, Christian Century, and Smithsonian, among other publications.
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