Jamaica Plain is home to the fourth-oldest school in the country. The Eliot School was founded 329 years ago in 1676. Only Harvard, Roxbury Latin and Boston Latin are older than the Eliot School. On Oct. 2, 1676, 38 “inhabitants of Jamaica or Pond Plain” got together and pledged money, payable in corn, to support the school for 12 years. Now called the Eliot School of Fine and Applied Arts, the institution thrives to this day, offering classes to children and adults days and evenings, taught by highly skilled artists and crafts people.
Before 1676 was over, several residents gave land to fund the school. John Ruggles gave the triangular piece of land in front of the Unitarian Church where the Soldiers’ Monument stands. Hugh Thomas and his wife Clement gave their house, orchard, lot and night pasture to the school on the condition that the residents would take care of them as they got older. Others also donated smaller pieces of land.
The most significant donor was the Rev. John Eliot, for whom Eliot Street and Eliot Hall are also named. The minister to the Indians here gave 75 acres of land to the school in 1689. He wrote that the proceeds were to be used “for teaching and instructing of the children of that end of town (together with such negroes or Indians as may or shall come to said school)...”Eliot said the purpose of the school was “to remove the inconvenience of ignorance.”
The Eliot School has been at four different locations. First, it was located in two different buildings in the area where the Soldiers’ Monument is. Beginning in 1787, the school was at the corner of Centre and Green Streets. In 1832, it moved to the building at 24 Eliot St. next to the Unitarian Church where it is today. The West Roxbury School Committee became a partner to the trustees. In 1840 it became a high school, with the genders separated into different departments.
In 1855, the Girls’ Department, which was very popular, was moved to Village Hall where the city parking lot is behind Blanchard’s. In 1858, the Boys’ Department moved there, too, and the building at 24 Eliot St. was leased to the town, which used it as a primary school. In 1868, the Eliot High School moved to a new building on Elm Street on the site currently occupied by the old Jamaica Plain High School building. When the town of West Roxbury was annexed to the City of Boston in 1874, the trustees of the Eliot School terminated their connection to the high school and decided to move back to 24 Eliot St.
In the 1870s and 1880s, the Eliot School began its “manual training” era. Gradually, classes like drawing, painting, sewing and cooking were added. Stenography and typewriting were offered in 1887. The school provided classes for public school students in the area.
A book about the school published by the trustees in 1905 says the school’s purpose was to “satisfy that instinctive desire of human beings to create.” For an annual membership fee of $1, according to the book, adults and children could study woodworking, mechanical drawing, wood carving and sewing.
Eliot School Today
The Eliot School continues to change today. Jennifer Ellwood was hired as director in July, 2004 to lead the school through two major initiatives: expanding course offerings and managing a capital campaign. The board of directors plans to hold community meetings and focus group this year to gather input into planning.
The school is doing fund-raising to restore the 1832 building and make it wheelchair accessible. According to Ellwood, plans call for replacing the chain link fence with a wrought iron one and landscaping the walkway to the building. In the interior, plaster and paint need attention, and bathrooms need to be updated.
Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital Chief Executive Officer Paul Levy, who is lauded for turning around the finances at that institution, is a big fan of the Eliot School. He has been taking a woodworking class there for several years. “It’s a marvelous place, collegiate and friendly,” he said in an interview. “The teachers are great.”
Because he sees the building as “a gem in the rough,” Levy has committed fund-raising specialists at his institution to help the Eliot School devise a capital campaign.
Beginning with the current winter 2005 term, many new classes and teachers have been added with emphasis on fine arts and drawing skills. Internationally known artists Bob Siegelman and Dean Nimmer have joined the faculty. Enrollment for the fall term was up 35 percent over the previous year.
For a catalog or more information about the Eliot School, see eliotschool.org or call 617-524-3313.
The Eliot School, 1676-1905, compiled from an address by Benj. P. Williams in 1832 and by D. S. Smalley, master of the school, in 1886.
A Brief History of the Eliot School, by Charles Fox, Newsletter of the Eliot School, Vol. 1.
Written by Sandra Storey. Reprinted with permission from the January 21, 2005 Jamaica Plain Gazette. Copyright © Gazette Publications, Inc.