New life planned for Curley House

July 8, 2011
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(Gazette Photo by David Taber) The front door of the Curley House.

A group seeking to take over operations at the city-owned former home of legendary Boston politician James Michael Curley introduced itself to the neighborhood at a meeting at the 350 Jamaicaway house June 27.

The Friends of the James Michael Curley House’s plan is to bring in regular events and exhibits, focused on Curley and Boston’s political history, said Richard Dennis, Curley’s 86-year-old stepson, who is heading the new friends group. Those events, and upkeep of the house, would be funded by renting the house out for private functions, Dennis said.

Educational programming at the house could begin as soon as this summer. The group hopes to finalize a contract with the City of Boston and start marketing the house for private functions this fall, he told the Gazette.

Carole Mathieson, a Jamaica Plain resident who heads the city’s Department of Property Management—the department responsible for upkeep of the house—and is listed as one of the friends group board members, also expressed strong support for the plan at the meeting.

“The city is not committed to permanent staffing” for the house, she said. “It is exciting to me that we may have the opportunity… to increase the profile of the house…to open it up.”

A controversial and notoriously corrupt populist, Curley had the ornate house built in 1915 during the first of his four terms as mayor. A lot of the work that went into it is alleged to have been done in exchange for political favors.

Still, he was one of the most popular politicians in Boston’s history, largely because of his steadfast advocacy for the city’s poor and working-class Irish population, Dennis said.

Dennis lived there for years in his youth, moving in after his mother and Curley married in 1937, a few hours before the end of Curley’s first and only term as governor of Massachusetts

City Councilor Matt O’Malley said he is looking forward to seeing the Curley House turn from a “passive monument” into an “active memorial.”

Dennis told the Gazette he could not say how many private events the friends group plans to host at the house a year, and few specifics were available about the educational events the group plans to host.

As a city councilor in the 1980s, Mayor Thomas Menino—who Dennis said supports the friends group effort— started a campaign that led to the city’s purchase of the house, which was then owned by the Catholic order the Oblate Brothers.

Menino was not available for comment by press time.

Since the City of Boston purchased the huse, it has seen only intermittent use. It has generally hosted around a half-dozen events a year—ranging from weddings to a party for the Tennessee delegation to the Democratic National Convention, held in Boston in 2004.

Over the years, proposals for the space have included setting it up as the Irish consulate or as a museum dedicated to Irish immigration.

The about 50-person audience at the meeting was supportive of the plan. In the past, parking has presented an obstacle to proposals for use of the house, but Michelle Minasian an event planner the friends group plans to hire, said it can be served by off-site valet parking. She said 80 spaces had been identified at scattered sites within a mile radius of the house.

JPA chair Michael Frank said he had not heard about the new plans for the Curley House. He is looking forward to discussing it at the next JPA meeting he said.

Gerry Wright, head of Friends of Jamaica Pond, told the Gazette he also had not heard about the plans. “I am immensely excited,” he said, when informed about the plans

Dennis told the Gazette that he has been thinking about revitalizing the house for the past six years, and the effort picked up steam in 2009 when the Boston Financial Commission (FinComm) released a report recommending that the house be sold.

“That created a set of circumstances where people had to face the situation,” he said.         “The timing [of the FinComm report] was historically perfect,” Dennis said, because the commission, an independent city budget watchdog, “was the nemesis of James Michael Curley.”

In addition to his four mayoral terms between 1914 and 1950, Curley also spent time as governor and a congressman. He won his first election, to the city Board of Aldermen, in 1904 while in prison on a fraud conviction for having taken a civil service examination on a constituent’s behalf. He was convicted of mail fraud in 1947, and spent five months of his last term as mayor in prison.

The meeting focused exclusively on Curley’s populist legacy, but Dennis said the friends group plans to tell the whole story.

“History is history. It will all be covered,” he said.

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