Curtis Family and Curtis Hall

The Curtis Family
By Walter H. Marx

Along what later was the boundary between the towns of Roxbury and West Roxbury (a straight line from Willow Pond to Egleston Square, still marked at Amory and School Streets) ran the lands of the Curtis family from the 17th century into this century. Starting at the then exposed Stony Brook, their land ran west towards Jamaica and Willow Ponds. For generations it made the family comfortable as the products of this vast farmland at the Roxbury border were sold to the Boston market.

Right: Guests at a hoeing party pose at the Curtis farm on June 4, 1873 before setting out for work in the field. A small brass band can be seen at the right. Photograph courtesy of Martha Tyer Curtis and the late Nelson Curtis Jr.

The Old Curtis Homestead was conveniently located near Stony Brook on Lamartine and Paul Gore Streets, a stone's throw from the Boylston Street railroad depot, where it stood from 1638 to 1887 as Jamaica Plain's oldest home for 250 years. It was built by the progenitor of the family, William, who came from England in 1632 and married the sister of the Rev. John Eliot, Apostle to the Indians. He was later buried in the Eustia Street Burial ground. The distinctive house of unseasoned oak and diamond-glass panes remained in the family for eight generations.

Because of the family's tendency to stay on its land, it's not surprising that when the Town of West Roxbury existed (1853-73) the Curtises took a prominent role in the town, which centered around the Monument. To give it a worthy Town Hall to replace the ramshackle Village Hall on Thomas Street (where the parking lot now is) the family provided Curtis Hall in 1868. Not unexpectedly, the present Chestnut Street from Boylston to Centre was called Curtis Street. A school of the same name is at the corner of Chestnut and Paul Gore.

As the 20th century dawned, many newer Curtis homes dotted the northern Jamaica Plain landscape. On the huge block of Curtis land bounded by Centre, Sheridan, Curtis, and Boylston Streets nearest the Old Homestead stood the home of George Curtis at 4 Boylston Street. Built before 1720, it was the oldest home standing on Jamaica Plain's Old Home Comers' Day on July 13, 1907, but was demolished soon afterwards, when its corner was developed. Republican reform mayor Edwin Curtis (1854-6), who was Police Commissioner during the Police Strike of 1919, was George's son.

Across Centre Street, at number 429, stood the 1722 house of Samuel Curtis, again the oldest standing dwelling in JP at the time of the Boston Tercentenary (1930) before it made room for the Connolly Branch Library. Here, as in the Old Homestead, Rhode Island troops were quartered during the Siege of Boston.

When one of the five generations of Curtis's that dwelt in the house renovated it, iron lugs, fired from British artillery in Boston during the siege, were found imbedded in the roof gutter and cannon balls were found in the fields. The family buried its valuables in the well out back just in case the British broke out of Boston.

Further up Centre Street is the Curtis tract bounded by Pinebank, Perkins, Centre and Beaufort, as the holdings were divided. Towards what is now the corner of Centre and Moraine Streets was the residence of Joseph Curtis, a victim of the 1920's development that changed that intersection forever. The Curtis Victorian manse a few steps away down what later became South Huntington Ave., number 425, was the classic abandoned haunted house en route to school of this chronicler's childhood. No one ever lived there, and in winter it was desolate. It has made room for the Pondwalk Condominium.

Some of the Curtis houses gloriously survive. At the southern end of the family's land at the corner of Centre and Lochstead still stands the home of Charles E. Curtis, originally built in 1721, where is now the Gormley Funeral Home. The original farmhouse was swallowed up when Curtis added the present mid-Victorian shell on the front in 1882. The full 18th century flavor yet exists in the rear rooms with low ceilings and summer beams. This area was the last of the Curtis holdings to be broken up into house lots early in this century.

The other Curtis houses to survive are those built by the Nelson Curtis family, whose house is at 363 South Huntington Ave., later a funeral home and now a seminary with a renovated period barn. His land and orchards extended to Olmsted Park with a now filled-in brook that drained into Willow Pond. Curtis, who died in 1887, was a prominent mason contractor of many Boston buildings, politician, and banker. He built his Italianate home in 1862.

He gave $10,000 to the Town of West Roxbury to buy land from the Greenoughs for its Town Hall, which he built in 1868. The house remained in the family until the teens of this century and was turned to face the new South Huntington Ave. in the 1890's. They then built the most recent Curtis house, 57 Eliot Street, a Georgian revival mansion, which became part of the old Children's Museum here. His is the tale of a family that saw some nine generations in our area.

Reprinted with permission from the December 13, 1991 Jamaica Plain Gazette.
Copyright © Gazette Publications, Inc.

Curtis Hall Has Many Memories Inside
By Henry Keaveney

John F. Fitzgerald - Mayor
Manus J. Fish - Supt. Public Bldgs. Lewis H. Bacon - Architect

Having read the bronze plaques at the entrance to Curtis Hall that tells its story, we next strike the area where I used to spend so much time that my mother would wonder why my fingers were wrinkled. My brains were floating in the water, which entered through my ears there.

On the third floor was the gymnasium where Joe McNamara was the instructor. He was a fine gentleman and a beautiful physical specimen of manhood, but he died almost overnight of pneumonia. He had a marvelous way of organizing classes in calisthenics to the rhythm of a piano. The pianist, a lady, was always ready and willing to incorporate requests into the program, such as "Dardanella," "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles," "Long, Long Trail," "It's A Long Way to Tipperary," and all the other popular songs of the day.

The gym was well equipped with wood and steel wands, dumb-bells, ropes and poles for climbing, low and overhead parallel bars, horses, and weights.

The original Curtis Hall was destroyed by fire in 1908 and rebuilt in 1912 with the library as a separate building. I can remember a group of us children sitting in a corner on the floor while the librarian introduced us to the niceties of a book entitled "Katrinka," the story of a girl's life in Russia. I read that book a couple of times, and later I developed a craze for all the books of the historical fiction writer, Joseph Altscheler, who specialized in the Civil and Mexican Wars.

March 29, 1990
Excerpted from the 1920's memories, "Those Were The Days," by Henry Keaveney, first President of the Jamaica Plain Historical Society.

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