Yesterday, August 1, 2017, was the final day. 14 Beacon Street, the historic home of the American Congregational churches, took on a new owner, Faros Properties. It will remain an office building and the Congregational Library & Archives will continue on in its accustomed space — but now as one tenant among many, no longer the landlord.
The decision to sell 14 Beacon Street was weighty, complicated and historic. The story goes back to 1853, when the American Congregational Association, owner of the building and the library, was first formed. This was a time when denominational identity — and particularly the records of the past — were major issues for Congregationalists. Unlike Presbyterians and Methodists and Episcopalians, they had no central core. Congregationalists were a loose coalition of regionally organized churches, not really a denominational at all.
The ACA was typical of nineteenth-century voluntary societies. It was a small group of ambitious souls who took on two daunting but important tasks: create an archive of historical memory, and build a denominational headquarters. No one else was seeing to either one. Congregational missionary and educational and social service agencies were scattered around Boston and around the country. The records of Congregational history were languishing in church basements (as many still are) or being absorbed into other libraries.
More than half a century later the ACA succeeded. In 1898 the proprietors dedicated a grand new denominational headquarters — Congregational House — sitting at the top of Beacon Hill in Boston. They had raised the money themselves over the course of decades, through hundreds of individual donations, but they did not think small. The library occupied the second floor, an elegant high-ceiling reading room overlooking the famous Granary Burial Ground. The upper floors housed the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, the earliest and largest of the Protestant missionary agencies, as well as women’s missionary organizations, educational and social service efforts, and Pilgrim Press with all its enormous machines.
The early years of the twentieth century must have been a heady time in that building. (Local guidebooks described it as a "beehive of benevolent activity".) But it could not last. By the 1970s, most of the denominational agencies had moved out, first to New York City, and then to Cleveland. 14 Beacon Street began to fill with local nonprofit organizations, providing non-luxurious office space a stone's throw from the Massachusetts statehouse.
The library remained, but in shadow. The internet age threatened to end it altogether: why endure the horrors of traffic and parking in downtown Boston when information was available at the press of a computer key?
As many readers of this blog know very well, today the Library and Archives are thriving, fulfilling the historical mission taken up in 1853, thanks in part to that internet world, but also to a hardworking staff and visionary board. From small beginnings — in 2004 one could still hear the ping of typewriters echoing in the usually empty reading room — the library has become a leader in digital preservation. Our massive effort to save and digitize colonial-era church records, the oldest documents in American history, is now supported by major grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Mellon Foundation. The CLA is a vital part of the world of historic preservation and scholarly study, and dedicated to making all of its resources available to the public. It alone preserves the memories of the Congregational churches, from their earliest beginnings to the present.
The ACA owned the building as long as it could. This was our endowment, after all. We treasured the work of our building staff — Carol Doherty, Suchesta Flynn, John Beattie, and David Chroniak — and endeavored to serve tenants as best we could for as long as we could. Ultimately the ACA faced the limitations all nonprofits do, particularly the realization that maintaining downtown Boston real estate was beyond its mission. Small wonder that the ACA board had started debating the sale issue in the 1930s, and with renewed intensity in the 2000s, as 14 Beacon passed its first century mark.
The sale is a moment for celebration, but also sadness. The Congregational Library & Archives has ensured its future: proceeds from the sale will provide adequate, though not lavish, financial resources, and will allow us to concentrate our intellectual resources on building a future instead of managing an edifice. The building will be in better hands, and it will receive the care it deserves. The board chose a new owner who understands the history of the building and its importance in Boston and Beacon Hill. But the future will be different. Many of us, I know, are grieving this change.
I have wondered a lot lately what the founders of the ACA would think about all this, and here's what I've decided: as Congregationalists they would have understood the need to stay institutionally nimble, to keep the apparatus as simple as possible. There were good reasons why Congregational churches were always bare of ornament and the worship service plain and simple. That is the Congregational Way. I believe the founders would rejoice that we are honoring their core mission, to preserve irreplaceable historic documents, and to make sure memories stay clear and relevant.