From Samuel Adams's calls for revolution in the 1700s, to Frederick Douglass's antislavery orations of the following century, to Senator John F. Kerry's concession in the 2004 presidential race, Boston's Faneuil Hall is one of America's most storied public stages.
Across the street at City Hall, Councilor Stephen J. Murphy sees the building as "the best deal in town."
Now he wants the city to charge more. Murphy chairs the Ways and Means Committee, and he, along with Mayor Thomas M. Menino, has been on the hunt for cash to buttress the city's budget for fiscal 2009.
But Murphy's most recent proposal, to substantially raise the fees for renting out Faneuil Hall's meeting space, brought rebuke from some fellow councilors yesterday who see the brick building with its famous grasshopper watching over the city as all-but-hallowed space.
"I think it should be free," Councilor John Tobin said. "It's a public building. It's the people's building, really."
Murphy insists he's not looking to turn the cradle of liberty into a cash cow.
He said it costs the city much more to maintain the building than it collects in rental fees, currently capped at $150 per hour for a minimum of four hours. Murphy's proposed ordinance, which yesterday was referred to committee, would increase the maximum charge for renting the iconic building's Great Hall to $500 an hour.
"This is the real world, and we can't be giving anything away anymore," Murphy said.
City officials were unable yesterday to provide the annual Faneuil Hall rental fees collected from groups.
The Faneuil Hall proposal is just one of several efforts Menino, Murphy, and other councilors have proposed to generate more revenue for the city. Last week, Menino released his $2.42 billion budget proposal, which relied in part on a initiative to increase certain downtown parking fines to as high as $100.
Also yesterday, Murphy reintroduced a proposal to pressure colleges and universities to contribute more money to the city annually. Land owned by colleges and universities in the city is mostly tax exempt under state and federal law. But they annually contribute so-called payments-in-lieu-of-taxes. The amount of the voluntary payments vary widely among institutions, Murphy said. He wants to ask the Legislature to end colleges' tax-exempt status, a proposal he readily acknowledged was "a long shot."
Murphy's colleagues on the council mostly support the idea of at least working with colleges to increase their annual payments. "Harvard could run our operating budget for 20 years" out of its endowment alone, Councilor Michael Ross said, explaining his support for the plan.
But no councilors volunteered support for Murphy's idea of raising the rent at Faneuil Hall.
"I think there's something very positive about the capital city of Massachusetts having a historical hall that groups can rent for a very reasonable price in this day and age," said Councilor Chuck Turner.
Councilor Charles Yancey suggested the city look into raising the fees paid by commercial tenants of Quincy Market before hiking fees for users of the public hall.
"I would like to maintain the character of Faneuil Hall," Yancey said. "It's something that everyone in the city can treasure. I don't see it as a revenue generator."
Murphy scoffed at the councilors' objections.
"These are the same people who want to add money to the budget for anything from A to Z. . . . And then you put a proposal in to save money, so we can kick additional money into their priorities, and they fight you on it," he said. "As blessed as we are to have Faneuil Hall, it's still a bargain and a blessing at $500 a rental.
"It's a piece of history you can buy at a bargain rate."
John C. Drake can be reached at email@example.com.