A Beacon of Hope

Gael Mahony, the BHCA’s first president, receives the organization’s highest honor

Gael Mahony.

At its 89th Annual Meeting held last night at the Union Club, the Beacon Hill Civic Association honored an individual whose vision was instrumental in shaping our community more than 50 years ago and continues to guide us today. Gael Mahony, a ‘legal giant’ who has generously and endlessly bestowed his valuable skills on the neighborhood, was awarded the 15th annual Beacon Award.

His dedication to Beacon Hill began in 1949 when Mahony, a lifelong resident of Boston and Yale University undergraduate, met the charming Connaught O’Connell, a Radcliffe student from Jamaica Plain, at a Harvard-Yale football game and began a courtship that led to marriage in 1952.  “He was very lovely and a brilliant tactician,” Connaught said. “He told me that we could live anywhere but if we went beyond Dartmouth Street, the fresh air might kill him.” Later she told her mother how lucky she was. “I don’t belong out in the suburbs with homogeneous drip-dry people. I belong on Beacon Hill where everyone is so odd I fit right in,” she said.

Now married 59 years, the devoted couple moved into their present home on Pinckney Street 55 years ago and raised three children there. With Connaught often at his side, the unflappable Mahony became one of the finest trial lawyers in the country. During his career, he litigated complex cases, ranging from the 1962 prosecution and conviction of those involved with the scandal surrounding the construction of the Boston Common Garage to the dispute over development rights to Fan Pier during the late 80s. “He was often referred to as ‘the heart and soul of Hill and Barlow,’ “ said his wife, who added, “but he is so modest, you wouldn’t know a damn thing about him if I weren’t here to tell you.”  Now in his mid-eighties, he is still a member of the team at Holland & Knight and included in The Best Lawyers in America guide.

In 1922 the Beacon Hill Association officially began operations. Mahoney said that it was essentially made up of a loosely connected group of dedicated individuals. Thirty-three years later he, along with John Codman and other neighborhood leaders, decided that the organization should become a legal entity in order to work more effectively to become a historic district. Mahony handled the legal work, was one of its original incorporators and became the corporation’s clerk. It was he who spontaneously added the word ‘Civic’ when he discovered another organization had already registered as the Beacon Hill Association.

Soon after, a board of directors was formed, and at age 29 Mahony became the Beacon Hill Civic Association’s first president.

During his presidency, Mahony focused his efforts on the formation of a historic district to preserve the architectural character of the neighborhood and to help maintain property values. He succeeded, and Beacon Hill received its historic designation in 1955.

“Let us all see to it that the Hill is not just the oldest district still intact in Boston, but the most progressive,” Mahony said to his neighbors at the time. “Let us maintain our property and keep our sidewalks, streets and alleys clean. We should set an example for the whole of the city.” His counsel has oft been repeated since.

Rollins Place resident Toni Norton, a family friend whose father Carmen diStephano worked with Mahony on the historic district, said, “Mahony always had the good of the Hill in his heart. A very positive, well-balanced and constructive person, he gives of himself both to his clients and to his community,” said Norton. “His greatest victory was fighting for the Hill against Suffolk.”

In that case, Mahony represented the BHCA in its successful 1970 court challenge to Suffolk University’s effort to construct a non-conforming building at 150 Cambridge Street in violation of the applicable Boston Zoning Code, a challenge that was finally decided by the Commonwealth’s highest state court, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.

“It was a blockbuster case – vicious and drawn-out,” said Hancock Street resident Tad Stahl, who first met Mahony at the time of the trial. “He did a magnificent job and was totally convincing in his effort to insure Suffolk would build within zoning restrictions. There is nobody quite like Gael. He is very bright, dedicated and genuine. You knew you could believe in him. If he said something was right, you just knew it was right.”

Avoiding the negative impact to the neighborhood from the construction of tall and massive buildings remains a BHCA priority. Several years ago the association turned again to Mahony to moderate a contentious public meeting about Suffolk’s plans to build a 33-story dormitory on Somerset Street. Earlier this year, the BHCA opposed Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary’s expansion plans, urging it to conform to existing zoning restrictions.

Mahony’s contributions and commitment to the Beacon Hill neighborhood extend well beyond legal matters. Under his leadership, the BHCA convinced the city to replace the Victorian electric street lamps with more historic, romantic and dimmer gaslights.

“When a city worker arrived to install the gaslights outside our home, he told us that ‘Thomas Edison spent his entire life inventing the electric light and you are now going backwards. In fact, you are making it even easier for the Boston Strangler’ who was around during that time,” said Mahony.

Years ago Mahoney, who is known for his ability to draw people together, convinced Mayor Kevin White to plant the flowering pear trees so enjoyed today on Pinckney Street as long as his neighbors would feed and protect them- which they did. Again, last year, he raised funds from Pinckney Street residents to replace those trees that had been damaged by a microburst.

He was the first of many BHCA presidents to form a ’Curb your Dog Committee.’ His zealous committee members twice painted ‘Please curb your dog’ in yellow at each intersection, only to awake the mornings following to find the words covered over by brown paint. It was soon discovered that a Miss Watson, a ‘little old lady on West Cedar Street,’ was coming out in the middle of the night to cover the words in brown paint, according to Connaught. She also kept a sign in her front window which read ‘Dogs are nicer than people.’

Unfortunately, Gael Mahony was not able to attend the Annual Meeting last night because he and Connaught had previous travel plans. The Beacon Award was accepted by their daughter, Medb Sichko, also of Beacon Hill.

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