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Walsh’s choice of inaugural venue breaks with tradition

In selecting Boston College’s Conte Forum for his Monday morning inauguration, Mayor-elect Martin J. Walsh has placed it 6 miles from City Hall, the furthest ever.

Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff

In selecting Boston College’s Conte Forum for his Monday morning inauguration, Mayor-elect Martin J. Walsh has placed it 6 miles from City Hall, the furthest ever.

Boston Mayor John Francis “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald broke a longstanding tradition of inaugurating mayors inside City Hall in 1910, when he took the oath of office inside a jam-packed Faneuil Hall.

James Michael Curley held the city’s largest mayoral inaugural in 1922 at a grand hall on Huntington Avenue, drawing 12,000 fervent supporters.

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In 1926, Malcolm E. Nichols chose Symphony Hall, where the organ music and dignified atmosphere cast such a spell that it became the site of the next 10 ceremonies, straight through John F. Collins’ second inaugural in 1964.

Since Boston’s incorporation as a city in 1822, fewer than a dozen sites have hosted mayoral inaugurations, and only one — the Strand Theatre in Dorchester, used for Kevin H. White’s 1980 swearing in — was far from the city’s center.

Until now.

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In selecting Boston College’s Conte Forum for his Monday morning inauguration, Mayor-elect Martin J. Walsh has placed it 6 miles from City Hall, the furthest ever, and set the stage for the second-largest inaugural in Boston history.

Walsh said he didn’t choose BC to send a message or set a precedent; he simply wanted the inauguration to be open to the thousands who worked to elect him and to other supporters, including aunts traveling from Ireland and England and possibly all of his 67 first cousins.

“It’s the first time in 20 years there’s been a new mayor inaugurated,” Walsh said in a telephone interview. “I didn’t want to have to pick and choose who could come and who couldn’t come.”

Local historians and politicians say the venue has symbolic meaning and sets a precedent for future mayors, freeing them from the downtown tradition.

“It certainly does signal that he is not going to be a downtown mayor, and that he is not going to simply follow in the footsteps of predecessors, and that he’s not going to worry too much about what smart people like me might think,” said Robert J. Allison, chairman of the history department at Suffolk University.

If he fills the Conte Forum, which a BC spokesman said will be able to accommodate 8,000 on Monday, Walsh’s ceremony will fall between the two largest past inaugurals: those of Raymond L. Flynn in 1984 and Curley in 1922.

Like Curley, Walsh is the son of Irish immigrants and is closely associated with working-class voters, as is Flynn, the grandson of immigrants from County Galway and County Cork.

In a recent interview, Flynn recalled his 1984 inauguration as a whirlwind that began with morning Mass, continued with a swearing-in before about 4,200 at what was then called the Wang Center for the Performing Arts, (now the Citi Performing Arts Center) and included a stop at a fire at the Westin Copley Place before he attended celebrations at public housing developments in South Boston and Roxbury.

“I wanted to make the event itself a neighborhood event, so more people could participate in it,” Flynn, 74, said.

Walsh, with similar goals, could nearly double Flynn’s turnout, but he will still be considerably shy of Curley’s 1922 inaugural, which drew 12,000 people, according to a Globe report at the time, to Mechanics Hall, a massive red-brick edifice on Huntington Avenue that was razed in 1959 to make way for the Prudential Center.

Curley’s audience was “largely made up of women,” the Globe reported at the time and supporters interrupted his “fiery” inaugural address with numerous bursts of applause. Curley had considered taking the oath in Tremont Temple, as he had in 1914 to launch his first term, according to the Globe reports, but was told “that even that big structure would probably not be large enough to hold the great throng.”

White brought the inauguration back to Faneuil Hall in 1968, after a gap of 50 years, for a simple but elegant ceremony that included an 11-minute speech and a few ferns and flowers as decorations.

Flynn, White’s successor, selected other sites for the next three inaugurations, but outgoing Mayor Thomas M. Menino was sworn in at Faneuil Hall for each of his five terms. Through his spokeswoman, Menino declined to discuss his selection of Faneuil Hall.

John Winthrop Sears, 83, who ran for mayor in 1967, was a city councilor from 1980 – 1982, and served on Flynn’s transition team, noted some irony in the selection by Walsh, a Democrat, of a venue named for former Republican US Representative Silvio O. Conte.

“It’s unusual, but I like the unusual,” Sears said, “and it is at least a temporary return to the powerful Hibernian culture that has been running the city for the last 100 years.”

Walsh said the selection also had personal significance. Walsh attended BC’s Woods College of Advancing Studies, and he said honoring his alma mater had meaning for others who, like him, returned to college as adults while juggling other responsibilities.

“A lot of people who went to the Woods School are very happy,” Walsh said. “A lot of people go there, work during the day and go to school at night, and they struggle to get by.”

This inauguration also marks a first for Boston College.

Walsh will be the first mayor to have completed undergraduate studies there, BC historian James O’Toole said, though Kevin H. White earned a degree at the law school.

Historians said the inauguration returns BC to a central role in the beginning of a new era for the city, something that happened in the 1950s when its Boston Citizens’ Seminars series helped plan urban renewal projects for the “New Boston” envisioned by local leaders.

“What this inauguration does . . . is to cement and underline the connection we’ve traditionally had with the City of Boston itself,” said O’Toole, a BC history professor writing a history of the college. “It cements the establishment between the college and the community in a really positive way.”

Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.
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