For three-quarters of its 100 years, the MBA had no place to call home

Issue January 2011 By Bill Archambeault

When local lawyers met on Dec. 22, 1909, to discuss forming a statewide bar association for the first time, they gathered at the Hotel Somerset in Boston. When the Massachusetts Bar Association incorporated in 1911, it did so without a headquarters. And more than seven decades later, it was still renting out office space and moving every few years.

All that changed -- or started to change -- in 1981, when MBA President Richard D. Gelinas called an Executive Committee meeting to consider buying a building, as the association had outgrown the confines of its rented offices. In addition to needing space for organizational meetings, the MBA also needed room for its growing continuing legal education program. There was also the desire for the statewide bar association to have a permanent home.

William E. Bernstein, chairman of MBA's Development Fund Drive for the building, said his responsibility for raising the money was to "give the MBA a permanent home and a presence that would be of value to the members and the organization going forward." His "challenging" task was made easier by membership's receptiveness, and the MBA raised around $800,000, or $300,000 more than the "ambitious" goal that had been set by MBA Past President Roy A. Hammer and MBA President Daniel O. Mahoney, who chaired the Building Committee before he became president, according to Fiat Justitia: A History of the Massachusetts Bar Association, 1910-1985.

"The organization didn't have a presence anywhere," Bernstein said. "What we did have and rented in different places didn't lend itself to the stature of the Massachusetts Bar Association."

Those leading the search and fundraising efforts preferred a central Boston location, but couldn't afford expensive properties. A building at 37-41 Temple Place, which is next door to the New England Board of Higher Education and the next street over from 20 West St., was an early contender.

Michael S. Greco, who would later serve as both MBA and American Bar Association president, was tasked with heading the Building Committee and investigating dozens of properties over a two-year process.

"There was a recognition that we had an obligation to our members and the public that our members were as well-prepared as they could be," Greco said. "We knew that if we had expanded space, we could expand our educational efforts. The priority of making sure that lawyers are trained and can serve the public better through continuing legal education was extremely important."

"It was exciting," Greco said of the search for property in Boston. "I remember trudging to those 50 or 60 buildings. It's like buying a house," finding some that were attractive, but too expensive and others that were more affordable, but much less desirable. 20 West St., which was mired in litigation at the time, was considered, then fell through as a possibility before becoming the focus again.

Its proximity to the Supreme Judicial Court and the Statehouse, as well as its size and ornate detail, made it an appealing candidate. There were several considerable drawbacks, however. It was located at the edge of the Combat Zone, Boston's red light district, and the building needed considerable repair and renovation.

"We looked at a number of buildings, and 20 West St. was the most dilapidated and run-down of the buildings," said Hammer, who had been MBA president in 1978-79 and was president of the Massachusetts Bar Foundation in 1983; he would play a critical role in the building's acquisition. "On the other hand, it was - if you could look past the big hole in the roof and the rain-sopped walls and plaster moldings, it obviously had been a magnificent building."

The project's architects assured the association and foundation that the plaster moldings and other elegant architectural details could be restored.

There was some debate about locating the state bar association in Boston, to the exclusion of the rest of the state, and particularly about choosing a site that didn't have any available parking. But those leading the search and fundraising efforts felt a central Boston site was important.

"I felt that we should be in Boston, that we should be near the Statehouse, near the courthouse for the SJC, and so on," Hammer said. "But there was discussion about finding a place that didn't require so much investment, so much fixing up, that would have free parking and so on."

Hammer said he came up with the idea for having a limited partnership acquire the property, with the Massachusetts Bar Foundation, acting as a "special limited partner" because of its nonprofit tax status, joining a group of investors. The MBA leased the property, with the ability to purchase the building after seven years, at a discount. Hammer said he had seen other bar associations set up similar deals to save considerable money. And by leasing out the top floors of the five-story, 28,000-square-foot building to other legal groups, the MBA even earned a profit as it settled and grew into its new home.

When the renovations had been made and the MBA moved into the building, it was with a sense of pride and joy.

"It was an exciting day for the organization," Bernstein said. "We were quite proud of the building and what it meant for the organization."

Greco remembers the ribbon cutting ceremony as a rewarding moment.

"It was a joyous day. We were all very happy," he said.