Story 06: The Big Move

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Atlas Terminal Stores (1974) Another Collaboration?

Written by Mike Spock

While we considered taking the plunge on the expensive Blackstone Block site, David Burnham sought help from Stewart Pratt, a commercial real estate broker. Stewart took David to an abandoned wool warehouse on the Fort Point Channel. It looked promising.

We were not sure we had enough energy left to go another around, and were about to vote to go ahead with the Blackstone Block, when David Burnham called in the middle of that very decisive meeting to say, "Wait!" Maybe we have another and even better alternative.

The Atlas Terminal Stores was more than the children's museum could handle on its own. Our architectural program showed that we could comfortably use about 70,000 net square feet. The old warehouse had about 144,000 square feet. Either we needed to go into the real estate business or find a partner. The Hancock Pavilion experience suggested we could probably collaborate with one or two compatible, non-competitive partner(s).

Duncan Smith and I had worked together in the '60s developing packaging for the MATCh Box kits and an affordable storage system for the children's museum's significant artifact collections. Duncan and I, with our families of almost perfectly matched kids, were also friends living side by side in the woods of exurban Lincoln.

In the '70s, following a successful run as staff exhibition designer for the Museum of Fine Arts, Duncan was hired as director of the Antique Auto Museum in the Lars Anderson carriage house in Brookline. With boundless creativity and energy, Duncan's museum plan conceived how a gorgeous and growing collection of vehicles and transportation-related artifacts, together with an inventive education program, could become a contemporary museum of social history. He saw the mission as documenting and interpreting the industrialization and urbanization of America through the lens of transportation. His team began to work on transforming the vintage auto clubhouse into a Museum of Transportation (MOT).

In fact, during our parallel site-hunting expeditions, Dunc got me to look with him at the vast collection of handsome industrial buildings and generous grounds that made up the decommissioned Watertown Arsenal. The Arsenal had been maintained in perfect shape by the Department of Defense (broken pains of glass immediately replaced, floors always waxed) right up to the moment it was turned over to the Watertown city fathers. Although the grounds offered plenty of space to drive visitors and vehicles around and wonderful places for MOT members to show off their collections in meets, it was not central enough to meet The Children's Museum site criteria. When the Fort Point Channel warehouse came into view I thought of Duncan as a possible collaborator. In a recent interview, Duncan recollects the start of our new venture:

In 1974...or '75, you called up and said, "Let's joint venture and work on the Boston waterfront."

At this moment, five years into my directorship of the MOT and about thirteen years into your directorship of the museum, TCM had established a reputation, was known to the foundation community and the public. It was an institution that was around seventy, eighty years old then. And it was a family-service, cultural agency—a place for mothers and fathers and kids. MOT, by comparison, had a virtually new program. Its old image was [an] antique car parking lot, and its new image was too new to be widely understood. We were so new, we had no endowment, no developed staff who had mastered the collections or performed the other staff functions in education, public relations, development, and so forth. So you guys were ahead of us.

We decided after a series of meetings that we would try and do Museum Wharf together. Our pitch was to admit [TCM is] faster, stronger, smarter, and richer, which was essentially true. To make the budget work, we had to have clarity between the directors about the process, the project, and the shared goals of this new thing called Museum Wharf.

The second issue was that the boards and staff had to agree on the project's budget and some way of maintaining the process of converting the whole warehouse into a museum space. Each museum had to be able to raise the funds necessary to accomplish the common task, and also do its own integral development and fitting out. Each museum had to understand that the process of accomplishing the conversion would have to be kept on time and costs controlled, and that distractions for bent egos, loud voices, and side shows had to be kept within reason. And then, finally, when it was done, the project had to be the right fit for the institutions going forward.

Duncan and I were both pretty clear-eyed about the challenges and opportunities of a high-stakes project like Museum Wharf. Collaboration made sense. The personalities, experiences and world views of the two of us were not exactly parallel but seemed close enough to make a partnership work. We definitely spoke the same language. Duncan, more nimble, was a creative problem solver, had a charming and convincing way with words, and never saw a challenge that he couldn't see his way through. I was more deliberate, persistent, and good at hanging in there until we reached our goals. The Children's Museum had more than a decade's head start in getting things in place and a portfolio of projects we could point to and talk about. The Museum of Transportation was assembling a fantastic collection of very sexy vehicles that had both historic and economic value.

We agreed to see if we could convince our boards and find enough funding to buy the old wool warehouse. Chuck Redmon remembers what happened next: formed an agreement to take it on, which is a big risk for two boards to join resources. How much do you cover, how much do they cover? If something happens to one of you, what happens to the other one? It's sort of like a marriage, in a way. We were dealing with design, technical difficulties and obstacles, and you were dealing with financial and organizational relationship things at the same time. It was never dull in terms of the issues that came up. But this building proved to be immensely interesting. It brought to bear some of the ideas that we talked about early on with the Hancock building, the Blackstone, and all three of the other ones—being part of a larger venue...

Next: Part 3: Planning the Project - Details, Decisions and Dollars