By Walter Marx
The recent sale of the shamrock-shuttered home of James Michael Curley has rightly drawn the attention of a new generation to this legendary mayor’s long residence in our area. Many residents have stories about the house in the Curley era: clients who came to the door in the morning for help (as seen in the Curley novel, The Last Hurrah), the long line of mourners at the double funerals of his children, Mary and Leo, in 1950, and the famous people who visited 350 Jamaicaway over the years.
Though His Honor lived in the house from 1915 onwards, this longest-serving mayor of Boston (16 years in all) did not die there. He and the second Mrs. Curley moved out of the big house with so many memories to a small house at 9 Pond Circle on Moss Hill in 1957. After her husband died a year later, Mrs. Curley’s brother moved in with her, and there she died quietly in 1980. Mayor Curley was not the first Boston Mayor to reside in Jamaica Plain.
Since our area joined Boston in 1872 (Boston has had almost 50 mayors since 1822), five chief executives of the city have lived here. Of most recent memory John Collins (Mayor, 1960-66) lived in a modest home at the curve on Myrtle St. He was a prime mover in the re-development of downtown Boston – in particular the Prudential Center and the New City Hall – and is still active in urban affairs. Polio paralysis in midlife kept this World War II veteran in a chair, but not from pursuing a career in public service before and after his mayoralty. This leader of the “New Boston” – his term coined for his city’s image – was given an honorary Doctor of Laws degree by Harvard University – unique among all of Boston’s mayors.
Of World War II memory, Maruice Tobin, who lived at 30 Hopkins Rd. on Moss Hill, was Boston’s only mayor who went on to top-level posts in the state and the nation. The youngest member of the Massachusetts House in 1926, he served as mayor at the Depression’s end and the war’s start after defeating his mentor Curley in the bitter election of 1937 and again four years later. These were times of austerity, but with federal help the Huntington Ave. Subway was completed. The tall and handsome “magnificent Maurice” grew more popular and captured the State House as governor (1944-46). His backing of President Truman and his knowledge gained in the New England Telephone Company won him the post of Secretary of Labor. Tobin died only six months out of office in 1953 on the Scituate golf course.*
Malcolm Nichols who lived in the big gray house on the corner of Hathoway and Centre Sts. beyond the Monument, was Boston’s last professed Republican mayor (1926-29). A Maine native, Nichols was educated at Harvard and turned to public service at city and state levels. A short, stocky, jovial, friendly man, he finally became mayor after several tries and defeated Curley. Nichols was a strong believer in the metropolitan Boston concept and, as such, backed the Quabbin Water Project. A public and private building boom occurred during his sound fiscal administration, for example the Sumner Tunnel. Unable to succeed himself by law, Nichols stood aside and watched the third Curley mayoralty. He did run again in 1933 but lost his bid. Mayor Nichols lived until 1951, watching many of his pet projects finally flower.
Jamaica Plain’s first mayor of Boston was Andrews Peters of an ancient family here of the Arboretum area, where Peters Hill is named for the family that owned it in earlier times. Peters was a Harvard-trained lawyer who entered politics in 1901. Of stern jaw and executive mien he served on state and federal levels as a Democrat in heavily Republican districts. He was married to a descendant of John Philips. Boston’s first mayor from Jamaica Plain lived in a rambling old home atop Asticou Rd. and South St. by the Arboretum. He was elected mayor in 1917 over Curley after the first administration ended like Nichols’ did later. Also like Nichols, Peters favored the metropolitan Boston concept. He was mayor during the Boston police strike of September 1919, when the State Guard took up barracks in the old G.A.R. Hall on Thomas Street. Peters’ commitment to the city’s fiscal health was disgraced by some subordinates, and he left City Hall a disillusioned man, dying in 1938.
Thus of the nearly 50 men who have sat in the mayor’s chair, four have lived here while mayor, and one lived here all his life. Each administration had a flavor all its own, each with some color to broaden the swath cut by Boston’s most colorful mayor, James Michael Curley, whose bronze standing and sitting statues are rightly in the shadow of a City Hall he never new.
July 28, 1988
*Note: We have since learned that Tobin died in Scituate six months after leaving office of a heart attack. He did not die on the golf course; He was in bed next to his wife, Helen reading the paper.