The year was 1959, and Boston was teetering on the edge of financial disaster. The city had the lowest bond rating among its peers, and one mayoral candidate indicated that if elected, he would have Boston file for bankruptcy. The situation spurred 14 businessmen to come together as self-appointed advisers to City Hall. Hailing from law, real estate, and financial services firms, they described themselves as “men interested in the welfare of Boston.”
At first they met in secret in a boardroom near the vault of the Boston Safe Deposit and Trust Co., where one member, Ralph Lowell, served as board chairman. Formally known as the Boston Coordinating Committee, the press dubbed them “the Vault.”
The group would go on to advise four mayors: John Collins, Kevin White, Ray Flynn, and Tom Menino. Boston did not file for bankruptcy; rather, City Hall relied on the Vault for close to half a century to help usher in an economic renaissance that continues today.
The group dissolved in the 1990s. The idea of a shadow government seemed out of touch in the modern era of political transparency. Business changed, too. Boston’s marquee companies got acquired by out-of-town competitors, which meant that most Vault members reported to corporate headquarters elsewhere.
Boston will always have power brokers, but they are unlikely to wield as much influence as the Vault. Today power is diffuse and diverse, perhaps best embodied by a historic mayoral race that yielded the first woman and first person of color elected mayor of Boston.
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.