The stately Congregational Library building across from the State House has been a hub of activism for well over a century, a base from which religious and political groups could speak truth to power.
So it was with no small amount of sadness that Rev. Laura Everett found herself supervising the packing of boxes at the Massachusetts Council of Churches last week. A tenant in 14 Beacon for at least 83 years — that’s as far back as its real estate records go — her organization and several other nonprofits have been pushed out in the wake of the sale of the building by its longtime owner, the Congregational Library and Archives.
“I think I underestimated how hard this would be,” Everett said.
The loss is not merely a personal or sentimental one. For the building is not simply an edifice, but a community — a place to compare notes, pool resources, and, often, collaborate. As more than 30 nonprofits housed here stare into an uncertain future, it is the loss of the community that bothers them, as much as the loss of discounted office space.
The building is home to groups like the Boston Tenants Alliance; Jane Doe Inc.; the state chapter of the National Association of Social Workers; and many others. There are for-profit tenants as well. But it is the nonprofits that have given the building its unique character.
Their interests sometimes overlapped. A client at Homes For Families might also need the services of Jane Doe, the domestic violence advocates. The Council of Churches collaborated with others in the building to oppose casinos and death penalty laws.
But Boston is a hot real estate market, and nonprofits are feeling the pressure, as benevolent landlords cash out. There’s a certain irony in the local tenants’ alliance facing eviction itself.
Even in the early 20th century, the Congregational Library building was known as a hub for charitable organizations — it was once described as a “beehive of benevolent activity.” By the 1970s, the religious groups that once filled it were being replaced by nonprofit groups. A huge draw for them was its proximity to the State House, where many of them lobby regularly.
“We had a responsibility to the building,” said Charles Hambrick-Stowe, chairman of the board of the Congregational Library and Archives. “It’s been our home for 135 years or so, but we reached the point where we realized this decision was the only reasonable one. But people should know that this was not an easy decision, and was not made lightly.”
The new owner, Faros Properties, is controlled by Alexander Leventhal and Jeremy Leventhal. Their family has a rich local history of philanthropy, leading many of the nonprofits to hope they could somehow stay.
In fact, the new owners, who plan a gradual renovation, said all the right things in the beginning. But tenants say those with leases were not being renewed, and have been encouraged by the new owners to consider other options. The vast majority of the building’s occupants are tenants at will, and they see the writing on the wall.
Some groups will stay. The Congregational Library, for instance, will become a tenant. The Museum of African-American History will remain, as will the Boston Atheneum, which has some office space there. The new owners say they envision shared office space for the nonprofits on one floor, after a renovation. So possibly some displaced tenants could return — though there is no timetable on when that could happen. If you’re running an organization, that isn’t much to base a plan on.
The worst part of displacement may well be its effect on what goes on in the building across the street. Already a cloistered world where money and influence reign, the State House promises to become even more remote from those in need. Such groups have had one place on Beacon Street where they indisputably belonged, and that proximity to power is slowly going away. Practically and symbolically, that’s a big loss.
“It can’t just become that Beacon Hill and downtown Boston are only places for corporations and wealthy interests,” said Rebekah Gewirtz of the National Association of Social Workers, whose organization recently moved out of the building, fearing eventual eviction. “They already have a lot of power.”