Katie’s Bay View – April 2013 – What’s the Meaning in Place?

If you are a church member, you should be receiving the UUWorld magazine. The latest cover and accompanying article focused on the search for a new UUA headquarters. The cover featured a gorgeous sparkled photograph of 25 Beacon St., Boston, its banners waving, its lights twinkling, its old red brick standing as a sign of history and meaning of our religious continuity.

Affectionately and sometimes glibly called “25” by staff, professionals, and lay leaders, our main building is located next door to the Massachusetts State House. We also have staff in another neighboring old brick building and two nearby townhouses that serve as a kind of bed & breakfast for visiting committee members or workshop takers. These proud edifices have been a potent symbol of the prominence of Unitarian Universalism in New England history and in our American religious development.

But the buildings are sorely inadequate. At 25, when the Federal style building was constructed eighty-eight years ago, it included tiny offices, nooks and crannies, small gathering places and six stories complete with large wooden stairways and tiny back hall lifts. No central air-conditioning exists and winter heating comes out in concentrated stuffy blasts. There is a serious problem with accessibility, which is in direct opposition to our stated values. It also represents a level of privilege and class that our work in anti-oppression is working to dismantle.

The decision was made to sell the buildings, and a new, much more creative space was found to move our facilities and people. Many of the staff and leadership are excited for the future, about what this can mean for possibilities for collaboration and inclusion. The sale of the old properties also provides funds nearing ten million dollars to add to our endowment.

As west-coasters, the majority of us have never even been to the Boston “mecca” let alone feel the connection to the historic roots, brick and mortar of the UUA. But for many Unitarian Universalists, selling this property located on the beautiful Boston Commons, is not a reminder of the elitism, but a connection to our history, the visible, concrete meaning of place. There is deep grief, and for some, anger.

I believe that the move is a wise one. The financial advantages, the acknowledgment of our stuck-ness as a classist institution, and the opportunity for open style work space, seems smart. But I will also pay attention to my own sense of loss. I love these spaces, how they connect me, way out here in the west, with the other part of the country. They provide memories and meaning of the origins of Unitarianism and Universalism in America.

I hope you’ll take a look at the featured video on http://www.uua.org. I also believe that these buildings and places will always be part of our history, even when someone else lives inside. The exteriors can still be a reminder. The brick sidewalks of Beacon Hill will always be historically significant for us, and our new space will take us boldly and confidently into the 21st century. Love, Katie