Five Questions for Paul McDonough, a 45-year veteran of Historic Boston Inc.

Five Questions for Paul McDonough, a 45-year veteran of Historic Boston Inc.

HBI’s Erika Tauer sat down with our longest serving board member, Paul McDonough, last month as he rounds his 45th year on HBI’s Board of Directors. Paul has been a Real Estate Attorney since 1973 and joined HBI’s Board of Directors in 1979. Mayor Marty Walsh declared January 5th 2021 “Paul McDonough Day” for his 30+ years of service on the Boston Civic Design Commission. An avid sailor as well, Paul has also served on the Board of the USS Constitution for a number of years. His dedication to HBI was celebrated with a special reception on May 22nd.


1.) What sparked your interest in historic preservation?

PM: In junior high I had a history teacher who was just a pure delight and that, I guess, captured my interest. Thereafter, I sought out whatever history courses I could take in high school and then I was a history major in college and had a great succession of fantastic and inspiring teachers and that’s how I got interested in history. I remember we used to have an Encyclopedia Britannica, like many households I suspect, and I’d often spend part of my evenings following up on the things I had heard about or learned that day. I was just rapt with interest and attention and endless energy and enthusiasm and curiosity about it. All to the exclusion of mathematics, particularly mathematics. I had neither interest or capabilities to do well in trigonometry. 

I went to school at Northeastern. One of my classmates was Bill Fowler, who went on to lead the Massachusetts Historical Society, among other things, and we’re still great pals.


2.) What do you think the original HBI board would have thought about bringing a bookstore concept back to the OCB?

PM: They would prefer that if it were economically viable. The founding fathers of HBI were certainly conservative and traditional Boston business people, so to speak, most of whom lived on Beacon Hill and had a profound affection for old buildings. But I think it was in being conservative, that they recognized old buildings could be reused in new and exciting ways. I don’t think they’d be overly keen on Chipotle’s sign on the front door. But keep in mind that you see old photographs of the Old Corner, of the Washington street facade, with a big pizza sign across the whole building. So it has something of a history. In fact, it’s somewhat ironic because we were always a little nervous about having food service operations going on there because of the fire risk and the fumes getting in the way of neighbors.

But as it brings about a lot of HBI’s current activity and our projects are food related; we have Brueggar’s and Chipotle and Comfort Kitchen which was just nominated for a James Beard award. 


3.) How has your experience as a real estate attorney shaped how you approach HBI’s mission?

PM: Lawyering for non-profits, like most lawyering, is multifaceted. There’s basic governance related activities, record keeping, compliance, licenses and approvals of various sorts, contracts, and that kind of stuff. As a board member, you’re responsible for more than that. It’s more custodial. You’re responsible for developing an organization as an institution, putting a team together and making it all work. Trying to come up with a realistic vision and mission that can be implemented with available resources and thinking about ways of finding new resources. So it goes beyond the scope of traditional  lawyering to be more like a business role.

Team building is obviously very important and putting them in an environment where people are excited and use their creativity and energy and are committed to achieving whatever the mission might require.


4.) Do you have a favorite HBI project?

PM: That falls into the “picking a favorite grandchild” category, I think. I guess the Austin Block in Charlestown. It was one of our earliest projects spear-headed by Stanley Smith. Among the other miracles he managed to accomplish, was finding the vein of granite that had been used to build it in the first place. Since the first floor store front had been created, a whole segment of the wall and bay windows had been removed. So Stanley managed to get approval to go to Little Brewster Island – where the granite came from – and all twenty tons of it came from the Commonwealth and was used to restore the facade which is, I think, a fairly unique step  in the rehab process that we didn’t have to do too many times. 

Then I think Fowler Clark Farm is a gem and is great for the community. A great project for HBI and when we do things, where possible ,we try to enlist a local organization as a partner and that worked out in several ways at Fowler Clark with the help of the Urban Farming Institute of Boston, and now they’re feeding the community. I drove by there a couple of weeks ago and they’re starting to do their spring prep, which is always a fun process to observe. 


5.) Do you think there’s anything regarding visitor experience that you think we should consider incorporating into the future of the Old Corner?

PM: Well if it were to reconnect to the publishing industry with an interpretive educational component, that would be good. And though we’re [the USS Constitution and the Old Corner Bookstore] both in the history business, we are each at very different ends of that spectrum. Whereas they’re [USS Constitution] more focused on education and attract about a million visitors a year, you know a million visitors to the Old Corner Bookstore would be a calamity. 

When it was the Globe Corner Bookstore it seemed to be a good fit. Bill Taylor had his office there and was very fond of the building. Then it was a travel bookstore and it was still serving a very useful purpose back when books were fashionable. 

We have a long way to go with the interpretation and education side of things, HBI’s primary educational approach to date has been to set an example of what could be done in communities with existing resources. Buildings that could be used for residential or commercial purposes, with our investments affirming the value of existing buildings and fostering neighborhood pride and setting examples for other potential rehab projects. In that regard, the Eustis Street Firehouse is a good example of how we were supporting the revival of Nubian Square and that seems to be going in the right direction.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.