Historic Eliot School undergoes renovation

April 11, 2014
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By Bonnie McBride/Special to the Gazette

PONDSIDE—Working in a maze of scaffolding high above Jamaica Plain’s Eliot Street, two women from North Bennet Street School’s (NBSS) Preservation Carpentry program are restoring the cupola on the historic 1831 schoolhouse of the Eliot School of Fine and Applied Arts.

Students Mindy Otten-Chen and Brahm Wilson are in the process of scraping, restoring and repainting the cupola, laying new copper over its gutters, and installing new mahogany shutters they are constructing at NBSS. The project, expected to be completed later this month, will fulfill the students’ graduation requirements at the North End school, known for its intensive hands-on training in traditional trades and fine craftsmanship.

According to Eliot School Director Abigail Norman, the Eliot and North Bennet Street Schools are two of the city’s leading woodworking educators, and the current collaboration is only one of many connections between them.

Philanthropist and Jamaica Plain resident Pauline Agassiz Shaw founded NBSS in 1885, a decade after the Eliot School separated from the public school system to concentrate on manual training and applied arts. Today, NBSS and the Eliot School co-sponsor selected course offerings and occasional talks and are founding members of a consortium of schools, museums and other organizations that promote fine craft. NBSS sends its students and graduates to teach in Eliot School programs, both in the JP schoolhouse at 24 Eliot St. and through the Eliot School’s numerous partnerships with Boston Public Schools and City community centers.

“We were happy to discover that the cupola is in really great structural shape,” Otten-Chen wrote in her blog, carpenterstoolchest.tumblr.com, where she is documenting their progress. She calls the work “exciting” and “fun.” Both students plan to pursue careers renovating fine buildings and homes.

Established in 1676 with a small gift of land and annual donations of corn, and endowed by John Eliot in 1689 with a parcel of land including much of what is now the Pondside neighborhood, the Eliot School operated out of three other facilities in the immediate environs before building its present schoolhouse in 1831.

The cupola restoration is part of a recently launched deferred maintenance and renovation effort. The current project includes replacement of the building’s original gutters; repairs to the roof; and upgrades to electrical and plumbing systems, lighting, energy efficiency, storage and floors.

Funders of the work include: the Cultural Facilities Fund of the Massachusetts Cultural Council; Amelia Peabody Charitable Fund; George B. Henderson Fund of the City of Boston; Harold Whitworth Pierce Charitable Trust; two anonymous foundations; and gifts from neighbors, Eliot School board members and friends.

With a mission to inspire “lifelong learning in craftsmanship and creativity for all,” the Eliot School welcomes over 1,500 children, teens and adults through its doors each year for a wide array of classes and workshops in woodworking, fiber arts, upholstery, visual arts, bookbinding and other crafts. It serves an additional 1,200 youths with woodworking and visual arts classes in Boston schools and community centers through its School Partnership Program.

Its annual Student-Faculty Show, free and open to the public, will be held at the school on June 14 and 15. More information, including a catalog of spring and summer classes, can be found at eliotschool.org.

North Bennet Street School offers full-time programs in cabinet and furniture making, preservation carpentry, bookbinding, jewelry making, locksmithing and security technology, piano technology, and violin making and repair. Day, evening and weekend workshops, lectures and exhibitions are open to all. Visit nbss.edu for more information.

The author is a trustee of the Eliot School.

North Bennett Street School students Mindy Otten-Chen (left) and Brahm Wilson at work on the Eliot School cupola. (Photo by Julio Fuentes)

North Bennett Street School students Mindy Otten-Chen (left) and Brahm Wilson at work on the Eliot School cupola. (Photo by Julio Fuentes)

The Eliot School at 24 Eliot St., with its cupola covered in construction scaffolding. (Photo by Julio Fuentes)

The Eliot School at 24 Eliot St., with its cupola covered in construction scaffolding. (Photo by Julio Fuentes)