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Remembering 25 Beacon Street

March 26, 2014

To be sung to the tune of “The Old Rugged Cross”:


On an old Beacon Hill

Lived a Channing named Bill,

Was the first to unbutton his mind.

All his reasoning was sound

For he finally found

That a straight will beat three on a kind!


How we cherish that old Beacon Hill,

Where our leader unbuttoned his mind,

Oh, the thought of it gives me a thrill,

That a straight will beat three of a kind!

I opened the Sunday New York Times (March 17, Section A) and there it was, a large photo of dear old “25” under the headline, “Denominations Downsizing and Selling Assets in More Secular Era.” The sub-heads told the story as it looks to outsiders: “Raising Funds by Exploiting Real Estate” and “A long period of wealth and stability gives way to retrenchment.”

Reporter Michael Paulson reminded us of our history. “The American Unitarian Association, peopled and powered by this city’s Brahmin elite, announced its presence here in 1886 with a grand and stately headquarters at the very top of Beacon Hill, right next door to the Statehouse.

“If anyone doubted the denomination’s might, its next move made it clear: In 1927, strapped for space, the Unitarians finished building a new home next to the capitol on the other side, even persuading the legislature to change the street’s numbering so they could take their address with them.

“But the Unitarian Universalist Association, as the denomination is now known, is selling its headquarters building, as well as two grand homes and an office building it owns in the same neighborhood. It is leaving behind the red brick sidewalks, gas street-lamps and superrich neighbors for a section of South Boston the city has designated an ‘innovation district,’ home to up-and-coming technology and arts businesses.”

The “gas lamps” and the super-rich neighbors are mostly found a block or two to the north, along Louisburg Square, where John Kerry lives, and Mount Vernon Street, where a discreet placard marks the home of William Ellery Channing. Go another block or two and you’re on the “backside” of Beacon Hill, where (as a teenager from Cleveland) I found the cramped walk-down apartment of LRY staffers. (The church youth work office was in the old Universalist headquarters, at 16 Beacon Street, across from the Statehouse. Liberal Religious Youth was a UU organization eight years before our parent Unitarian and Universalist bodies were wed.) The two so-called “grand homes” being sold, the Eliot and Pickett guest-houses, are in the cul-de-sac behind “25.” Dubbed the Holy Hotel, it had rooms for visiting board and committee members that had been outfitted by donors, people we remember, their names on small placards on the doors.

You can see I’m into deep nostalgia. And I never even worked at “25.”

Details aside, The Times got it right. It’s a unique and famous locale, a place where our liberal faith is rooted. (Or does “25” simply represent what a prominent minister called our “stuckness” in “the most hidebound part of Boston”?) It isn’t just that those ancient worthies had the chutzpah to get the legislature to move Number 25 down the street a ways, when they decided to move into their handsome new headquarters. “25 Beacon Street” had become the symbol of a cherished location. (Or is that exactly the problem, just as another leader said: the place “reeks of privilege and hierarchy”?)

It’s nice to find The New York Times agreeing with the main point of my letter to the Editor of the UU World (Winter, 2012, p. 67):

“If the photo accompanying the article, ‘Board OKs search for anew Boston HQ’ [Fall, 2012] had looked up rather than down Beacon Street, the Massachusetts State House would have been in view immediately next door. The American Unitarian Association’s decision to build its headquarters on that prominent site in 1927 was no accident; it was a statement. Most striking about the prospective sale of the UUA headquarters buildings is that it also makes a statement: High-profile visibility doesn’t matter any more.

Just being across the street from the Boston Common, a “peoples’ park” on a grand scale, is a priceless asset. Besides the skaters in winter and to soap-box speakers in season and out, it has a a prominent feature that says: This history tells who we are. My letter to the Editor continued with a paragraph that was not published:

“Such a site is irreplaceable. At the edge of the Boston Common stands the bronze relief sculpture by Augustus Saint-Gaudens memorializing the Massachusetts 54th Regiment and Colonel Robert Gould Shaw—black troops and their Unitarian commander whose heroic and tragic story was told in the film, Glory. Those who stop to see what is called ‘one of America’s greatest public monuments’ will no longer look up and see the UUA banner just across Beacon Street.”

(Visitors to Washington, D.C. can see Saint-Gaudens’ plaster replica of his deeply moving work currently on display at the National Gallery of Art.)

The Times’ feature-length article touched on recent re-locations by other denominations—the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the United Methodists, the American Baptists, the Reform Jews, and the Christian Scientists—noting that after a long period of financial stability and growth, many are retrenching. But we UUs were the poster child of this story. Why the fascination? I think it’s the mystique of the Boston “Brahmins” that we keep trying to disown. Such a love-hate relationship we have with our little scrap of history!

My letter to the Editor also made what I thought was a nifty proposal: “We’re told that the plan will allow the UUA to find a place that ‘helps staff and volunteers alike to work together collaboratively in flexible space.’ An excellent objective. So let me propose a path to a truly collaborative and flexible UUA. Keep the first two floors of 25 Beacon for executive functions, plus bookshop and visitor center, and rent out the rest. Then begin the daunting but long overdue process of decentralizing: Move departmental functions (congregational service, social action, ministry, religious education, publications, international, etc.) to other major metropolitan areas across the country. This would allow real collaboration between lay and ministerial talent, nationwide, and the UUA staff to begin. Now that would be transforming!”

Somehow, the idea didn’t take. That didn’t surprise me. What did was how few dissenters there were among us, and how mild were even those few.

When I first questioned the decision to sell our birthright, I was told, “We don’t worship buildings.” And, “You probably feel that way because you went to Harvard.” I confess, I did go to Harvard Divinity School, but in my defense counters that those graduate schools are not the real Harvard, as an old LRY friend and Harvard College grad informed me. And yes, I did serve a New England church, in Marblehead, Massachusetts, for four years. I left those dear people, abruptly I fear, for my home town of Cleveland, to enter an urban ministry that sought to reclaim our churches’ commitment to the metropolis we’d been abandoning, here as elsewhere, at its heart. That’s where I first heard Darrell Eubank’s musical review, “Before You Hang Up,” performed at a fund-raising dinner for the First Unitarian Church in Shaker Heights. One of its numbers was the brilliant satiric song, “On an Old Beacon Hill.”

You cannot kill a beloved mystique by wearing it lightly and showering it with laughter. But what will abandonment bring?

This week they announced that it will bring a huge sum, in fact $23.6 million for three of the four buildings. Why doesn’t this news fill me with joy?

G. K. B.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Diana permalink
    September 9, 2016 1:16 pm

    You did it! You got into your blog!

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