By Richard Higgins; from UU World, Spring 2013. Used with permission.
As the UUA looks for a more modern headquarters, Unitarian Universalists reflect on the symbolic meaning of its perch on Boston's Beacon Hill.
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.
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."
"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."
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.
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."
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.
Former UUA President Sinkford recalled the banners promoting marriage equality that hung from 25 Beacon after the [Massachusetts] 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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Last updated on Friday, November 22, 2013.
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