On the façade is a bas-relief depicting the ideals of the Puritans and Pilgrims: law, faith, education, and evangelism. Upstairs is an astonishing, and little-known, archive, with rare gems such as the ledger in which the baptism of Benjamin Franklin is recorded, the oak beams of the church the Pilgrims left behind in England, a chunk of Plymouth Rock, and about 14,000 sermons dating to the 16th century.
And on almost every doorknob, even that of the men's room, are the raised initials, CH, for the building's name, Congregational House.
One hundred and eleven years after Governor Roger Wolcott of Massachusetts declared the brick edifice at 14 Beacon St. "a bulwark of righteousness," the landmark structure is up for sale.
The building is now home to 45 groups, most of them social service and charitable organizations.
The building has had flashes of fame, it was the home of the law firms in the TV show "Ally McBeal" and the film "A Civil Action," but it mostly sits in the shadows of its better known Beacon Hill neighbors, the State House across the street and the
The ownership, an all-volunteer organization called the American Congregational Association that was established in 1853 to maintain an archive of congregationalism, says it no longer makes sense to have a group of librarians overseeing a 72,000-square-foot building that needs significant upgrading. The association has no denomination to fall back on - it was formed before Congregationalists had forged a denomination, and now works with three congregational denominations, including the United Church of Christ, as well as a variety of independent congregations.
So the library board is trying to find a way to sell the building and lease back the floors where the archives have been located since 1898. The board says dozens of possible buyers have expressed interest in the building, which has views of the Granary Burial Ground, but it has narrowed the list to a handful of potential buyers who are willing to sign a very long-term lease with the Congregational Library and to work with the nonprofits that are the building's current tenants.
"We realized that over the last 10 years, we were putting an inordinate amount of time and energy into managing the building, and we could have used those resources to focus on the library itself," said William A. Ghormley, the chairman of the American Congregational Association's board of directors. "What we're trying to do is preserve a beautiful, historical building in Boston and our place in it, and serve the community, and let someone else run the building."
Library officials are hoping to focus their energies on digitizing their collection - which includes more than 250,000 items stored in several stories of stacks with smoked-glass floors, and featuring a variety of unusual artifacts, from an early Bible in Algonquin to a collection of broadsides and a few Buddhist statues originally cataloged as "heathen idols."
"It's a wonderful collection that we're trying to get more people to use," said librarian Margaret Bendroth.
That collection includes scores of antislavery tracts and temperance treatises, a variety of church pamphlets and periodicals, and the works of Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards. And the library is increasingly working with local congregations to preserve their records, which often include not only lists of names and dates, but also transcripts of disciplinary hearings and documents called "relations" in which prospective worshipers explain their conversion experiences.
"The Congregational Library is on a track to have an importance for historians that is much more significant than in the past, and this is just the sort of thing the library has needed to do to raise its profile, so it won't just be a place for genealogists and antiquarians to trickle in to look up their grandfathers," said James F. Cooper Jr., a professor of history at Oklahoma State University who has used the library for research for the last three decades. Cooper said Massachusetts has done a poorer job than Connecticut and others at preserving its early church records, even though its records are more important for the understanding of America.
"Massachusetts church records are a very unique body of records for historians - they are of national significance, not just regional significance - and they're scattered all over the state in banks, in churches, and in small historical societies," he said. "In many cases, the only person who knows where these records are is the church historian, who is often very elderly, and many churches are just one death away from seeing their records lost."
Library officials declined to say what the asking price is - the eight-story building was assessed at $5.3 million in 2007, but assessments of buildings owned by religious organizations are often imprecise because the properties are not taxed. The American Congregational Association had $6.5 million in assets in 2005, the last year its tax forms are publicly available.
Michael Paulson can be reached at email@example.com.