Passing of the Gentle Giants

December 31, 2014
By

Beacon Hill has just suffered a major shock, with the deaths during the past year of six of our long-time, highly respected community leaders. Although of different stripes politically and socially, these six — five men and one woman — all were tied to a commitment to the “commonweal”;  Republican or Democrat, maverick or conservative, denizen of Boston’s elite private clubs or staunch non-joiners,  each made life better for the rest of us. Frederick A. Stahl. Katherine D. Kane. Herbert P. Gleason. John F. Bok. Gael Mahony. John Winthrop Sears. Three die-hard Democrats, two die-hard Republicans, one of not-so-obvious allegiance, each contributing not only to the local, albeit sometimes narrowly focused community, but to the general good of our beloved city of Boston for more than half a century.

Arriving in the large migration of young newly-marrieds to the Hill in the late 1950s/ early 1960s, they were fresh out of graduate school and eager to live in the city, to engage in civic politics under the banner of social responsibility. This, in the heat of the Beatnik era. Even when it was soon to be replaced by the heady, hedonistic ‘60s, these six kept at it — sometimes in fierce opposition, but never with the ill will we feel all around us in national politics today.

Frederick A. Stahl, FAIA, especially interested in the “evolution and preservation” of neighborhoods, served on many city-wide planning committees during his 50-year career. He was a leader in the revitalization of Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market that inspired creation of the Marketplace, the Talbot Building at Boston University, Old South Meeting House, and many other historic sites. Among buildings he designed or helped design are the State Street Bank building, the Dodge Wing of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem (esteemed by staff, who found it eminently workable), and Park Street Church’s office building.

Katherine D. Kane moved from being president of Boston’s League of Women Voters to becoming a state legislator herself. She then joined the White administration, becoming the city’s first female deputy mayor, where she ran the Office of Cultural Affairs and Boston’s Bicentennial Celebration in 1976, initiated Summerthing to bring cultural arts to Boston communities, established the Sister City program with other cities throughout the world, brought cultural arts to Boston Common, and helped get off the ground the widely attended annual First Night celebrations.

Herbert P. Gleason helped propel Kevin H. White into becoming mayor of Boston, then served as his Corporation Counsel. Under this administration, Gleason helped bring to fruition the development of Quincy Market; he slaved tirelessly to improve the Boston School system; and he constantly advocated liberal stances in a Sisyphusian battle with the opposition. He was Chairman of the Board of Health and Hospitals of the City of Boston and was a founder and director of the Neighborhood Health Plan and served on the Massachusetts State Ethics Commission and the Boston Parks and Recreation Commission.

John F. Bok helped effectively the effort to secure a home for Hill House, the now-thriving community center, and the Beacon Hill Nursery School, both responsible for the steady, growing interest of young families to remain on the Hill. He gave many pro-bono hours to such activities as the Theatre Company of Boston, the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, the Coolidge Corner Theatre, the Pine Street Inn, and the Boston Harbor Association, an advocacy group he helped found. He also served as an advisor in several capacities to Mayor Raymond Flynn.

Gael Mahony, as a fairly young man and new resident on the Hill, formalized the loose organization of Beacon Hill’s civic group and became the new organization’s first president that helped establish the Beacon Hill Historic District. As a formidable trial lawyer, he successfully defended Beacon Hill’s highly-coveted architectural environment against onslaughts by Suffolk University and later, by Massachusetts Eye and Ear Hospital; he successfully litigated against the corruption surrounding construction of the Boston Common Garage; and he defended the proper development of Boston’s emerging waterfront opportunities.

John Winthrop Sears, a Rhodes Scholar during one of his undergraduate years at Harvard, became a state representative at the same time with Kathy Kane (though of the opposition party). After a term as Sheriff of Suffolk County (a role he cherished because it entitled him to lead, in full regalia, the procession into Harvard Yard at Commencement), he became the zealous head of the Metropolitan District Commission, where he initiated major refurbishing of its sites and its reputation and spawned the interest in developing the long-neglected asset of the Boston Harbor Islands.

Gleason, Kane, and Sears, Stahl in recent years, also taught a number of courses for the Beacon Hill Seminars. Direct proof that the love of Boston shown by these stellar citizens, and their sense of civic responsibility, were infectious? Three have children who have remained here, now raising families of their own, along with a number of their childhood friends. True sign of a neighborhood.

Beacon Hill may be reeling from the loss of its six giants, but the greater City of Boston is the beneficiary of all that they did for us. The epitaph in St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, for Christopher Wren, architect of much of the city in the 17th century, is equally appropriate here: Si monumentum requiris, circumspice: “If you require a monument, look around you.”

Bettina A. Norton, retired museum professional and writer, has lived on Beacon Hill since 1941.

Frederick Stahl

BSA Award of Honor presentation to Frederick A. Stahl FAIA on April 26, 2012:

architect and planner for revitalization of the Faneuil Hall Market buildings.

He also was known for his role as a mentor to young architects.

Ted Landsmark said. “He was a mentor, a very good listener, a strong advocate for community groups, and he had a sensitive touch for historic preservation.”

Known to friends and family as Tad, Mr. Stahl “was very deeply committed to education,” Landsmark said. “He advised our students, and was an inspiration to them and to many of our faculty, who recognized his work in the city of Boston.” In addition to his work at Boston Architectural College, Mr. Stahl taught at Wellesley College, Newton College, and in London.

 “He wanted communities to take the long view,” she said of his work with groups such as the Beacon Hill Civic Association. “He was insistent that people think in 50-year increments, rather than five-year plans.”

As a member of the group’s board of directors and cochairman of its planning and oversight committee, Mr. Stahl was “very generous with his time and talents,” said Young, who described him as “an advocate for the neighborhood in a forceful but very graceful way.”

Mr. Stahl, who also worked with organizations such as Historic New England and the Boston Society of Architects, was known for volunteering his advice to community groups in the North End, the Back Bay, and other Boston neighborhoods that were similar to the Beacon Hill Civic Association.

He and his wife lived for 50 years in the Egyptian Revival home on Beacon Hill they bought in 1963.

“If you’d asked him, he would have said he was a ‘caretaker’ of that unique house,” Young said. “He really saw the importance of preserving Beacon Hill, not just for those who live there now, but for those who will come after us.”

Frederick A. Stahl was born in 1930 in Danbury, Conn., and graduated from Dartmouth College in 1952 with a degree in art and architecture. He did graduate work in architecture at Harvard University and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, from which he graduated with a master’s degree in architecture in 1955. He also studied in London for 18 months on a Dartmouth fellowship.

In 1961, he founded the firm F.A. Stahl Associates, and lived for a while above the company’s Cambridge offices. Soon after, Mr. Stahl moved to Beacon Hill, where he met his neighbor Jane Moulton on a blind date. They married in 1961.

The State Street project arrived early in his career. Afterward, Mr. Stahl had so much work he was forced to relocate his firm.

“An architect needs a place with some scope,” he told the Globe in 1968, speaking about the unusual Milk Street space he chose, a circular-shaped attic whose ceiling pointed skyward, with pie-shaped sectors that delineated work space for Mr. Stahl and his 25 employees.

The space had never before been used for business, but because of its “openness, accessibility, spirit,” he said, “it works extremely well.”

In 1999, his firm was acquired by Burt Hill Kosar Rittelmann Associates, and Mr. Stahl became an executive architect. That firm was acquired by Stantec in 2011. Mr. Stahl worked there until retiring in the spring.

While best known for his Boston projects, he also worked on many buildings across New England and beyond, including the Landmark building in St. Paul and Union Station in Washington D.C.

In 2009, the Boston Architectural College awarded Mr. Stahl an honorary degree, and three years later presented him with its award of honor.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Stahl, who enjoyed spending time at his family’s home in Searsport, Maine, leaves two sons, Matthew of London, Ontario, and Nicholas of San Francisco; and a daughter, Isabelle Stahl Addison of Edmonton, Alberta.

The Apollo Club of Boston, a men’s chorus in which Mr. Stahl sang bass for decades, performed at his memorial service.

“He had a lot of irons in the fire,” said Apollo singer Chip Huhta. “He was very collegial and well respected, well liked by everyone in the group, and a very fine bass singer.”

Young called Mr. Stahl “a wonderful guy, an architect and a gentleman. The people of Beacon Hill were very lucky to have him.”

  • Bettina A. Norton

    I am glad that you published the article I wrote (“Passing of the Gentle Giants”) in your last issue, an article that was sent to you by someone to whom I had sent it. However, it was not written by the Beacon Hill Times staff, as your byline has it. More important, I was shocked to see that the article did not end where it was supposed to, with the quote from Christopher Wren, but instead incorporated all my research notes below my byline. Will you please publish a correction in the next issue of your paper?

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