JP mayor’s house stays in the family

January 25, 2008
By

JOHN RUCH


courtesy photo Famed aviator Charles Lindbergh (center) leans down to shake a hand while Mayor Maloclm Nichols (wearing a top hat) lokks on at a 1927 Boston celebration.

The Monument Square house where Mayor Malcolm Nichols lived when he ran Boston 70 years ago is still in the family, now home to its fifth generation.

Some things have changed since then at the 796 Centre St. house—including its politics. Nichols was Boston’s last Republican mayor. His granddaughter, Marion Bullard, who now lives there with her husband and three children, is a Democrat.

“He sounded like a Democrat to me,” Bullard said of her grandfather in a Gazette interview, recalling his positions on promoting education and job-creation programs. Agreeing that Republican politics have changed over time, she said, “I’m sure he would have loathed Bush, I can tell you that.”

What hasn’t changed is the sense of history to the place, where Nichols is still remembered by old-timers in the neighborhood. Bullard has donated many of Nichols’ papers to the city, but still has impressive archives, giving Nichols a continuing physical presence.

She showed the Gazette a few samples, including a photograph of famed aviator Charles Lindbergh at a Boston celebration of his 1927 solo flight across the Atlantic, with Nichols beaming behind him. Nichols was wearing a top hat—he apparently was the last mayor to do so regularly.

Another memento is a 1942 letter to Nichols from Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., the famed United Nations ambassador and President Kennedy’s representative in South Vietnam. The letter thanks Nichols for his good wishes, presumably related to Lodge’s re-election to the US Senate at that time.

Bullard said that the archives include letters between Nichols and another Boston mayor, JP’s infamous James Michael Curley, whose Jamaicaway mansion is now city-owned. Curley’s words to Nichols, Bullard said, were “very curt, very tongue-in-cheek.”

“There are a lot of disses in there, probably not so subtle at the time,” though they seem mild now, she said, marveling at how skilled people used to be at letter-writing.

Bullard said she finds it interesting that Nichols kept such letters, and even unflattering news clippings.

“He saved a lot of his criticism,” she said, guessing that he may have thought, “It can’t hurt to know what it is. You know where you stand.”

Nichols wasn’t the only resident to leave impressive archives. He bought the house, probably around 1915, in partnership with his father-in-law, Frederick M. Williams. A former professional baseball player, Williams had impressive connections of his own.

“I actually found a letter from Cy Young to him in my attic,” said Bullard, referring to the legendary pitcher for the early Boston Red Sox and other teams.

Mayoral legacy

Born in Portland, Me., in 1876, Nichols attended Harvard College and became a Boston lawyer.

“He played piano in bars to make money to go to Harvard,” according to family lore, Bullard said.

While living at the Monument Square house, Nichols embarked on a fruitful career in local politics, including terms as a Boston city councilor and state representative and senator. He later became a federal tax collection official.

In 1925, Boston faced a free-for-all mayoral race, as the infamously corrupt and famously popular Curley was barred from seeking a third consecutive term in office by a state law directly targeting him. While the race was technically non-partisan, several Democrats split their supporters’ votes and Nichols won as the only Republican on the ballot, as the Boston Globe recounted in 1983.

Nichols served as mayor from 1926 to 1930, when the same anti-Curley law prevented him from running again. (Curley, naturally, managed to follow Nichols in the Mayor’s Office yet again.)

Among the issues Nichols faced was the city’s transportation snarls. He began planning for the Sumner Tunnel downtown, which was constructed after he left office.

Perhaps influenced by the family’s baseball history, Nichols apparently played a role in abolishing a Christianity-based law that had long banned playing sports in Boston on Sundays, according to Harold Kaese’s “The Boston Braves, 1871-1953.” (As the “Remember Jamaica Plain?” web site recounts, a man was once arrested in JP for defiantly hitting a baseball in front of police officers on a Sunday. See related article.) Among Bullard’s archives is a photo of Nichols apparently playing some pitch-and-catch on opening day at Fenway Park in 1926, where he likely threw out the first pitch.

A less flattering Nichols legacy was his role in Boston’s infamous history of arts censorship that resulted in “banned in Boston” becoming an ironic sales pitch for many books and plays. In 1929, Nichols refused to allow a Boston staging of Eugene O’Neill’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Strange Interlude,” claiming it would promote infanticide, atheism and adultery. The play was staged instead in Quincy with no apparent ill effects, as the local Patriot-Ledger newspaper recalled in a 2004 article.

Nichols’ powerful career in an era when New England produced many national leaders left him well-connected. Bullard showed the Gazette an old newspaper clipping that quoted former President Calvin Coolidge joking to Nichols, “I hope you enjoyed getting out of office as much as I did.”

After Curley’s latest term in office, Nichols made another mayoral run in 1933, but lost. He remained a JP resident until his death in 1951.

Local memories

Bullard never knew Nichols, her maternal grandfather, as he died before she was born. But his memory lingered in the neighborhood. Bullard said neighbors recalled him as “funny, witty,” and remembered how he would give less fortunate neighbors money to pay the milk delivery service.

Save for her college years, Bullard has lived in the house her entire life and has her own memories there.

“They used to call us ‘Bardwellians in the Hollow,’” she said, a reference to the blocks surrounding Bardwell Street, which runs behind the Centre/Hathaway corner where her house stands. She said a diverse but close-knit group of neighborhood kids had the run of the streets in those days.

She recalled the giant Fourth of July celebrations that used to be held at Jamaica Pond; running errands for the nuns at St. Thomas Aquinas; and a JP where kids could get penny candy at the many variety stores—“after you did your personal banking in your mother’s purse.”

Bullard also recalled a much quieter Monument Square in an era of fewer cars.

“Kids used to play football on Centre Street,” she said. “Now, it’s a death sentence.”

“JP was always more diverse, I think, than the rest of the city,” Bullard said. “Overall, it was a great place to grow up. I’m hoping it still is.”

“I don’t know if our kids will stay or we’ll stay,” Bullard said, thinking about the future of the house, which is also partly rented to another family.

There is, however, still a touch of Boston politics to the family. Bullard’s son Erik is a member of Tobin’s Teens, a youth group that advises local City Councilor John Tobin.

While Tobin has been vocal about his own mayoral ambitions, Bullard said Erik isn’t necessarily leaping into Nichols’ shoes just yet.

“I think he’s really starting to think about what he wants to contribute,” she said.

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