When the Emerald Necklace Conservancy was chosen by the City to be the new tenant for the James Michael Curley home on the Jamaicaway, most said it couldn’t have been a more perfect fit.
Loads of supporters from all over the City – and neighbors in Jamaica Plain – were ready to celebrate the re-location of such a major non-profits headquarters to a historic home abutting one of the gems of the Necklace, Jamaica Pond. In early March 2020, the Conservancy started moving in furniture, arranging their part of the Landmarked home to their liking, and preparing to welcome the community into the long-underutilized home.
Then came COVID-19 on March 13 and the grand entrance was stopped, then delayed, and by now many have completely forgotten about it.
Conservancy Executive Director Karen Mauney-Brodek said they had worked with so many people, including the Friends of the Curley House, to make the transition possible – and also look forward to making it real after a “delayed welcome.”
“The City isn’t in the business, I guess, of renting out mansions,” she said. “This was zoned residential so there had to be some changes made there. Our organization and many others felt this was a very appropriate use being right by the Emerald Necklace…We were able to have one community time, but then it didn’t seem like the right thing…I know we will be back. We are there, but not all in a group and we really do look forward to welcoming the neighbors. The Friends of the Curley House are interested in doing tours in person when they can. It’s important to us to try to make this house as available as much as we can.”
For some time, the Conservancy has had its employees working remotely, and also at times coming into the Curley House offices in staggered fashion to keep social distancing requirements. Over the summer, they had hoped to be able to have a welcoming celebration outside, but it was never possible. They looked for opportunities throughout the fall, and then time just marched on and on. So, on March 23, they held a virtual open house in real time where Carole Mathieson, former Assistant to the Chief of Public Property at the City of Boston, and Board Member of Friends, and John C. Bowman, III, former chair of the Boston Landmarks Commission, and member of the Friends of the James Michael Curley House, Inc. guided those online through the House – noting all the changes and renovations that have been made to accommodate the Conservancy.
Bowman – who was great friends with the late Dick Dennis, a step-son of Mayor Curley who grew up in the House from age 12 on – said he and the Friends couldn’t be happier with the entry of the Conservancy into the home.
“We are absolutely delighted because we worked for seven years or so to come up with a model for the House to support itself and not be a burden to the City,” he said. “At one point we thought about the City leasing it to us and we could have functions there to make money. For various liability reasons that didn’t work and we became a constant thorn in the side of the City to find something interesting to do with the House. Finally the City put out an RFP and the Conservancy responded and we worked with them on that closely. At the time, they only had a small administrative space in the Back Bay Fens.”
Mauney-Brodek said the Conservancy had been growing in stature for some time, and they had decided to use their Visitor’s Center in the Fens to provide more interpretive programming. They wanted to attract even more visitors to the Center, and thus had to give up a lot of administrative space and meeting space. They frequently used free meeting space at Northeastern University, and it was a hassle to drag equipment and materials to a space that was not theirs, but they made do. When the RFP came out though, it was great synergy.
“It was a good opportunity to find another space,” she said.
There has been no small amount of work being done prior to and after COVID-19, though. The exterior of the home and the entire first floor – including the library, stairway, and other parts are Landmarked. A lot of thought had to go into how to create the office, make the home accessible again, and keep it historic.
The 21-room neo-Georgian Curley House was built in 1915, during his first term as Mayor, and he lived there with his family for 41 years. The home was notable for its shutters adorned with Celtic shamrocks – a controversial choice in the mainly Protestant neighborhood of the day – and exquisite interior features such as its three-story staircase and hand-carved mahogany dining room, which were purchased and relocated from the mansion of an oil executive in Buzzard’s Bay. From both an architectural and historic standpoint, the house remains one of Boston’s most significant estates, as beautiful now as it was 106 years ago.
What’s just as interesting as the structure itself is the man that lived there.
Mayor James Michael Curley’s story is at once fascinating and complex: the son of working-class Irish immigrants who launched a political career spanning half a century, Curley led Boston through the Great Depression with programs improving public transit and infrastructure, all the while making friends and enemies of politicians and constituents alike. A career spanning four non-consecutive terms as mayor, as well as Massachusetts Governor and U.S. congressman, also included a prison sentence for mail fraud. By his death in 1958, Curley had left an indelible mark on city and state politics and remains one of the Commonwealth’s most noteworthy public servants to this day.
Mauney-Brodek said Curley’s legacy is much more far-reaching than most might imagine, and they hope to keep his story and legacy alive in partnership with the Friends group moving forward when the Home is able to fully open.
“In fact, the Building Inspector that helped us with the House was named for James Michael Curley,” said Mauney-Brodek. “Mayor Curley’s history runs deep in the context of Boston and Boston’s memory. For the Conservancy, we are excited to work with the Friends about Curley’s and Olmstead’s legacy here.”
Bowman said one of the most often-told stories about Mayor Curley and his home was the fact that it essentially was an open door for the City to take advantage of. Many people, some of them paupers, would come to the House at all times and ask to see Mayor Curley – and they were always accommodated.
“The family has said frequently someone would come to the back door, even during dinner with the family, and they would be shown to the Library and Curley would talk to them and maybe make a phone call and even give them a silver dollar if he had one,” said Bowman. “In that sense, he was quite accessible and people have always talked about that.”
Bowman related they fully intend to provide interpretation and other materials about Mayor Curley in the home permanently at some point, as well as offer tours and other events.
For both the Friends and the Conservancy, they cherry on top of their collaborative success was a gem recovered from the history books where Curley and Olmstead coincided. As it turns out, Frederick Law Olmstead – whom the Conservancy seeks to elevate for his vision of the Necklace – had a landscape architecture firm that was active for many years out of Brookline. When the Curley House was built in 1915, the Olmstead firm performed the landscaping plan for the home. Going through the archives, that original plan was retrieved and presented to the Conservancy as a welcome gift. “It was such a touching gift when we got it,” said Mauney-Brodek. “It was immediately placed above the mantle. It’s amazing to see the connection