Editorial: What would Curley do?

July 4, 2014
By

The Curley House on the Jamaicaway should not continue to sit largely empty and idle. The City should find a way to revive it for public service.

The mansion of former mayor and governor James Michael Curley has a suitor in the form of a nonprofit interested in a museum and event rentals.

The new Walsh administration is looking at the Curley House’s situation with a fresh set of eyes, and that is good news. City Councilor Matt O’Malley’s advocacy for reuse is welcome leverage, too.

But we would like to see stronger sentiment from the City that the mansion’s limbo status is simply intolerable, and that bright minds will find a solution soon.

The mansion eats up money. A 2009 Boston Finance Commission review found it was rented fewer than 10 times a year, with maintenance costs far outstripping income. As those few of us lucky enough to have been inside it know, it is a lovely facility with great potential.

Curley’s historic significance in Massachusetts is indisputable. He is a great figure of Boston political populism and of the Irish immigrant organizing that overcame extreme Brahmin prejudice to succeed. He is also a classic example of a less flattering side of local politics: incredible corruption. He alone is certainly worth the price of a museum admission.

The City was right to save the mansion from private development in the 1980s. But the next step is long overdue, and its obstacles appear to be largely imaginary.

One is the legal status of reuses under the City trust with which it was purchased, or rather, with the will that created the trust. It is frankly unclear to us how using the trust for that purchase fit the will in the first place. Regardless, even a cursory reading of the will finds that keeping a City facility locked up, inaccessible to the public, is the opposite of its intent. It is called the White Fund, not the White Elephant Fund.

Over in the Fenway, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum recently found its institutional reuse plans stymied by a will. Gardner’s will was very plain and simple in its obstacle, which said not to move any art. A few meetings with political heavyweights, and within months the will was magically interpreted as saying, “Move art!” A large and successful expansion followed. Where there is a will, there is still a way, one might say.

A local objection in previous years was related to parking. Yet Jamaica Pond Park right across the street is increasingly used by successful, large-scale public events, including the JP Music Festival and orchestra concerts, with no discernable parking crisis. Experience shows this issue is quite manageable.

James Michael Curley would have gotten a deal done years ago, probably in one of his house’s own smoke-filled rooms. It is good that Boston doesn’t work quite that way anymore. But it should work a lot faster on the Curley House.

Best of JP 2014