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,
"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
"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
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
Greco remembers the ribbon cutting ceremony as a rewarding
"It was a joyous day. We were all very happy," he said.