Ex-mayor’s house to be leveled

November 16, 2007
By

JOHN RUCH


Gazette Photo by John Ruch The House at 20 Myrtle St., once home to former Mayor John Collins, is now slated for demolition.

PONDSIDE—John Collins was one of Boston’s most powerful mayors, overseeing the 1960s “urban renewal” projects that created the Prudential Center and Government Center.

Now, the Jamaica Plain house where he lived during his reign—a 1936 Cape-style at 20 Myrtle St.—is slated for urban renewal of its own, with new owners planning to demolish it and build a bigger house.

The Boston Landmarks Commission (BLC) approved the demolition last month—but without knowing about the Collins history, which BLC Executive Director Ellen Lipsey learned about from the Gazette.

“We just didn’t mention it to [the BLC] because we didn’t think we need to give our adversaries, as it were, more ammunition than they already have,” said Caroline Gakenheimer, the house’s new owner along with her husband, Ralph. She added that she assumed the BLC already knew the house’s history, which apparently is well-known in the immediate neighborhood.

“That’s not information we had available,” Lipsey told the Gazette about the Collins connection. The BLC’s demolition approval cannot be reviewed again or revoked, she said.

Demolition likely will happen next spring, Gakenheimer said, with house construction to follow.

The Jamaica Pond Association (JPA) last month voted not to oppose the demolition. The Gakenheimers live in an adjacent house on Burroughs Street, and have hired architect and JPA board member Charlie Fox for the project.

JPA chair John Iappini said the Collins history was discussed “very briefly” as undocumented neighborhood lore.

“It’s an interesting piece of history…but it’s not like the Curley House, where you have significant architectural history,” said Iappini, referring to the nearby Jamaicaway mansion of former Mayor James Michael Curley.

The Collins house is arguably the most modest on Myrtle Street, which is lined with Victorian mansions. Both Iappini and Caroline Gakenheimer noted that another former Collins house in JP, at Dane Street and Dunster Road, will remain.

All the same, Iappini said, he was surprised to hear that the BLC was unaware of the history.

“When you demolish a house where the prior mayor of Boston lived, you have to at least acknowledge that,” he said.

The Burke brothers, who long ran the famous local pub Doyle’s and are expert witnesses to generations of Boston politics, grew up next door at 22 Myrtle St. Gerry Burke told the Gazette he still has many “fond memories” of the Collins family and will be sad to see the place go.

“I can’t believe they want to knock that dollhouse down…It’s a shame,” Burke said. “There’s an awful lot of history to that house. It means a lot to an awful lot of people.”

Burke said that local lore bestows even more history on the house—that it was built by Joseph P. Manning, a Boston tobacco baron and namesake of the local elementary school, for his daughter when she married. Burke said he has never seen that documented, and Lipsey said the owner at the time of construction appeared to be an Edward Conroy.

The house falls within the Monument Square Historic District, an honorary designation on the National Register of Historic Places. However, Lipsey said, the house is listed as “non-contributing,” or not historically significant, due to a paperwork mistake on the 1980s filing for the designation that incorrectly dated it to the 1950s.

The Collins history, at least, is well-established. Burke said his mother suggested the house to Collins’ wife, Mary. Stricken with polio, Collins needed to move from the Dane Street house to one with easier access for his wheelchair. It appears the Collinses moved in around the late 1950s.

The handicapped-accessible renovations to the house resulted in an open floor plan that, Caroline Gakenheimer said, forced the decision that it is more cost-effective to tear down and build new than retrofit.

It was Collins, Burke said, who turned the former attached garage into an office, as it remains today. Burke recalled another renovation: the installation of two-way mirrored glass in the front door so Collins could check out visitors “because he was getting death threats.”

A gate was placed in a mutual fence so that Collins could retreat to the patio at the Burke house, Burke said. His memories include personally, rather than historically, significant times playing with Collins’ children.

“The sewer top right before the driveway—that was first base, OK?” he said with a laugh. “Second base was another sewer top. Third base was the hydrant in front.”

Collins, who died in 1995, was born in Roxbury, not JP. That, along with the existence of another Collins house in Pondside, appears to have influenced neighborhood sentiment about the historic value of 20 Myrtle.

“It’s not like it’s a family house,” Gakenheimer said. “There wasn’t a historical connection except that he lived there a few years.”

But they were arguably the most historically significant years of his life. Collins was living at 20 Myrtle when he won the Mayor’s Office in 1959, and it remained his residence at least through his two terms in office.

Collins oversaw a dramatic transformation of the city into what was known as the “New Boston” in those years, according to New York Times and Boston Globe obituaries. That included the controversial bulldozing of Scollay Square and its rebirth as today’s Government Center, including the current Boston City Hall.

Collins also carried out the Prudential Center project begun under his predecessor, and laid the groundwork for the rehabilitation of Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market.

Along with all of the redevelopment came an influx of cash that dramatically turned around Boston’s then-blighted economy.

“I’ll never forget the night John Collins was elected,” Burke said, recalling bedlam at the house about an election Collins was widely expected to lose. “Everybody came out of the woodwork.”

Collins himself was at his Copley Square campaign headquarters that night. A typically workaholic mayor, he reportedly did most of his governing outside the house, according to Burke, recalling Mary Collins’ struggles to get the mayor to come home for a normal dinner.

In 1966, Burke ran for a state representative seat while Collins was taking a shot at a US Senate seat. They both lost. Burke recalled Collins remarking to him, “‘Bad night for Myrtle Street.’”

Burke recalled another political lesson learned at the house after Collins left office. When Collins was in office, Burke said, the street was carefully plowed by city workers after snowstorms. “There wouldn’t be a fleck of snow on the ground,” he said.

But one winter day after Collins left office, Burke said, “[Gerry’s brother] Eddie said, ‘When you’re out, you’re out.’” Gerry asked what he meant, and Eddie pointed out the window.

“Mary Collins was out shoveling snow,” Gerry Burke said, adding with a laugh, “That’s democracy.”

Eddie Burke still lives in the house next door. He declined to comment for this article.

Collins, who also served as a JP state representative starting in 1947, reportedly later moved to Cape Cod.

Caroline Gakenheimer said she learned of the Collins history when a resident sent her some type of article about it, with the implied message, “‘You just bought this house, and here’s the history of it.’”

But, she acknowledged, the Gakenheimers did not mention the history at the Oct. 9 BLC hearing. The hearing was a standard BLC review of demolition of potentially historic structures.

“It didn’t come up, and that was the one thing I was concerned about,” Caroline Gakenheimer said. “There didn’t seem to be a reason to bring up a factor that may have affected their recommendation.”

She said she believed the BLC was already aware of the neighborhood’s history knowledge and was relieved that the commissioners didn’t bring it up, either. She added that she hopes the BLC won’t reverse its decision now that it knows. That appears to be impossible.

“We didn’t have any historical information,” Lipsey said, adding that the owners and architect only discussed renovation challenges. She said the Jamaica Plain Historical Society was notified of the hearing.

The new house planned for the site will echo the Victorian mansions nearby and feature a large flower garden, complete with a greenhouse.

“I’m an avid gardener. I’ve been salivating over that land for years,” Caroline Gakenheimer said, referring to the large back yard that the couple can see from their current home.

The new house will have a smaller footprint but slightly more interior space than the Collins house, she said. The design may feature such environmentally friendly items as geothermal heat and a rainwater cistern.

The property sits in the elbow of a 90-degree turn in the street and is protected from out-of-control cars by metal guardrails. Caroline Gakenheimer said those guardrails may be replaced with better-looking, wood-faced models.

As for the Collins house demolition, she said, the plan is for as much of the material as possible to be sent to local recycled building materials organizations.