Story 06: The Big Move

Story | Print | eMail | Related Media | Archives

Sidebar-Taking the Plunge

Written by Mike Spock, David Burnham and Ben Schore

In the last two sites we studied, the economic and real estate issues turned out to be really daunting. In fact, we thought we had exhausted most of the good options and might end up for another decade in Jamaica Plain or settling for a site that compromised our fundamental criteria. David Burnham, then museum treasurer and board chair and today an organizational development consultant and long-term trustee, picks up the story in a recent interview:

We had clearly made the decision that we had to leave Jamaica Plain...and we had narrowed down to two possible choices: the Castle and the Blackstone Block. Both had very significant liabilities. We couldn't agree because we hadn't found the ideal site, but it was clear Mike was tired of the debate, and I was very unhappy with both places.

So David called Stewart Pratt, a commercial real estate broker who had a property that just might work. He thought David should give it a look. David continues:

...we got to this old warehouse. It was totally empty. We trudged up these crumbling stairs to the very top floor, and threw open the steel doors. I looked out, and it was snowing, and there was Boston right in front of me—the buildings and the lights—and I thought, "This is it." I said, "How much is it?" He said, "$800,000." Wow!

The six story brick warehouse on the Fort Point Channel, announced in terracotta relief, "Atlas Terminal 1888."

... I went to that payphone and called Mike and said, "Don't buy the Blackstone Block. You have to see this..." The next day he came to see it.

Ben Schore, the board member who chaired the site review committee, takes up the story.

We had landed on the Blackstone Block as the site of the new museum. We were going to approve it at a meeting in my office. I don't remember who came racing into the room saying, "There is another site that we should look at, let's defer the (final) vote...and we can see the building from here.

...There was something about the building that really did appeal, even though we had to share it with some critters (rats). But it had good bones. It looked good...My firm had already been working on the [loans for the] renovation of Boston's Vendome Hotel. So we were very much in tune with reuse at that point.

David continues:

...You just knew when you walked into the old warehouse that there was all this space, and you could do anything you wanted with it. It wasn't a new building but it felt like the right thing for The Children's Museum. It felt like our culture would thrive there.

Relationships among members of the board, their relatives and business partners became crucial to the successful outcome of purchasing and developing this exciting piece of real estate.

Ben Shore now tells the story of how the Atlas Terminal Stores was purchased—in record time.

...the price had two parts: the sale price, and then if we closed by December 31, then only a few weeks away, we would not owe an additional amount of money—the real estate taxes for the current year. If we owned it one day into the next year, we owed the entire year's real estate taxes, which were considerable in Boston.

Stan, my mortgage banking company partner, knew Peter Damon, VP of Mortgages at the Charlestown Savings Bank. ...Stan called Peter and said, "Ben's going to come over."

Peter liked the whole idea. He thought The Children's Museum was great. Peter said, 'I'll do it,' and gave it to a beginner in the loan business, Paul Spees.

Paul got so excited about it—even more than Peter—that he actually marshaled a special loan committee meeting because they had to do the appraisal and all this other business, and close. We closed in maybe six or eight weeks, which is absolutely unbelievable. Paul now my next door neighbor in New Hampshire, never, ever forgot the experience.

We still have the iconic image of the old warehouse and its scruffy neighborhood seen from high up on the burgeoning financial district. The dirty early winter snow was piled up against the wharf's apron behind a row of lobster traps at the edge of the wooden apron, a small fleet of lobster boats tied up at the dock. Everyone—staff, board, bankers—got a wallet-size photo so they could take it out to show their "new baby."

Unlike the Blackstone Block and Hancock Pavilion, it was actually a site we could probably afford.

Looking across from the financial district towards South Boston, it was possible to convince ourselves that the old wool warehouse would be both visible and accessible from downtown. When we bought the wharf, the usual pioneers—artists, designers, art galleries—had already joined remnants of the wool, leather, and carbon black traders in their dark and dusty lofts.

So after flirting with more than a dozen sites for more than a dozen years, and doing serious studies of three options, it seemed like the Fort Point warehouse might be the workable and affordable place for us.

Next: Sidebar-The Giant Elevator