JP History: Everything is new again: Eliot School celebrates 340 years of education and craft

The Eliot School of Fine & Applied Arts marks its 340th birthday this year, celebrating with a series of parties, talks, and exhibitions. A Jamaica Plain grammar school for over two centuries, the school would become a vibrant center for craft education in the 19th century. Today, it thrives as a resource for the city and beyond.

Corn and Land

The story begins in 1676, when neighbors donated land and corn to support a school where children learned to read the Bible and the laws of the land. The Rev. John Eliot donated 75 acres “for that part of Roxbury commonly called Jamaica or the Pond Plains for the teaching and instructing of the Children of that end of the Town together with such negroes or Indians as may or shall come to the said school.”

Both girls and boys attended, with the first schoolhouse located near where Centre and South streets meet. The board of trustees – “seven gentlemen, residents of Jamaica Plain” – came from prominent families. Local thoroughfares such as Brewer and Gore streets, still bear their names. In 1831, the brick schoolhouse on Eliot Street was built, with primary classes held on the first floor and grammar classes on the second. The rest of the land was gradually sold.

From Grammar to Craft

When West Roxbury joined the City of Boston in 1874, Eliot trustees decided to keep the school independent. Considering the “character and grade of School desirable to establish,” they grappled with some of the same questions educators discuss today: How do we effectively engage and teach students of various interests and abilities? What is the right balance of academic and practical education? Believing in the power of hands-on learning, the trustees steered the school toward the manual arts.

Nearby neighbor and trustee Robert Hallowell Richards and his wife Ellen Swallow Richards were instrumental in this shift. Robert was a member of the first graduating class of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and then an MIT professor; Ellen was the first woman admitted to MIT and a pioneer in environmental science and public health. They would become national leaders in America’s movements for vocational education and home economics.

The school experimented with a four-year woodworking curriculum for pupils at Agassiz and Lowell Schools and a two-year domestic science program at West Roxbury High School. Boston’s high schools eventually incorporated these and other courses as standard electives, and the Eliot School offered training courses for Boston teachers.

Meanwhile, the Arts and Crafts Movement had spread to Boston and drew master artisans to teach in the schoolhouse. Students ranged from immigrant workers to the well-to-do. Class offerings expanded to include freehand and mechanical drawing, design, china decoration and tole painting, cooking, sewing and basket-making. Furniture making and woodcarving excelled under renowned architect Isaac Scott, formerly of Chicago.

With growth and prosperity, the Eliot schoolhouse added its copper-clad cupola and front entrance in 1892 and its rear annex in 1907. However, following World War I, school attendance and resources would ebb and flow.

Revitalization in the Digital Era        

The Eliot School entered the 21st century and experienced a revival. Recognizing the power of art to engage students, nurture creativity and increase learning, parents and educators began advocating for the return of art to the public schools. In 2008, Eliot School responded by partnering with nearby Agassiz School (now closed) to offer third graders the chance to learn woodworking while strengthening math skills. From that seed grew an expanded School Partnership Program. Today, Eliot teachers fan out to over 20 Boston public schools and community centers, providing weekly classes in visual arts and woodworking to 2,000 children.

Just as reaction to the Industrial Age spurred the Arts and Crafts Movement, our Digital Era has spurred a Maker’s Movement and renewed interest in craft. Over the past year, 1,600 people of all ages and from all walks of life took Eliot classes. Adult classes in upholstery, furniture refinishing, woodworking, carving and turning, basic sewing, pattern making, felting, paper marbling and silkscreen carry long wait lists. Summer craft intensives draw students from as far as Colorado and Florida. A summer program for children includes Legos and inventions, as well as woodworking and sewing.

The schoolhouse at 24 Eliot St. continues to serve as a hub of art activity, a neighborhood landmark and community gathering space. Classes and meetings now spill over to other community sites, as the trustees of the school (no longer just seven JP gentlemen) consider plans to meet thriving demand.

The Eliot School’s birthday celebration kicks off with a 340th Birthday Party Gala April 26 at the Waterworks Museum in Chestnut Hill; tickets are available online. A June/July City Hall exhibition, summer party in the schoolhouse yard and fall series of historical talks are also planned. For updated information, please visit eliotschool.org.

Pamela Larson Mathews is a freelance writer for the Eliot School.

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