17 Cranston Street

Photograph courtesy of Charlie Rosenberg

Photograph courtesy of Charlie Rosenberg

Out in Jamaica Plain is a most peculiar and interesting house. It is dodecagonal in shape — or, in other words, has 12 sides. The odd dwelling is located at 17 Cranston St. Cranston St., formerly known as Terrace Ave., is a short street, the only exits of which are onto Sheridan St. Two of the three exits are so steep that to drive a horse and vehicle through them is an extremely hazardous undertaking. The remaining outlet is an excellent piece of roadway.

The house is on the topmost part of an eminence known some years ago, and still called by the older residents, Cedar Hill. When it was built there were but few structures on the hill, which was at that time covered with cedar trees. The district is now thickly settled, and the cedar trees have disappeared with but few exceptions. The house is owned by Mrs. N.K. Rich of Salem, who speaks of it as her “castle.” It is occupied by Mr. and Mrs. George J. Alpers, with their four children.

About 40 years ago two brothers from Scotland began the erection of a dwelling, which they intended should be used for their bachelor apartments. That they were expert carpenters and builders of the old school who were able to do their own architectural work is proven by the skill and genius with which the construction was carried on. The house stands today as a monument to their ability, but is a nameless memorial, as nobody can recall their names.

Before the house was completed it is said that the Scotsmen became involved in financial difficulties and lost their all, including their long-cherished bachelor apartments. It was their intention to build a reproduction of an old Scotch castle.

They first pitched a tent on the property, and lived in it until the building was sufficiently completed to allow occupancy. The excavation for the foundation was of the most arduous kind, as they were obliged to blast and cut a way into solid ledge. There is evidence in the cellar of their extremely hard task.

About 30 feet from the foundation at the rear is a precipitous drop of over 50 feet, where thousands of tons of rock have been removed from a quarry which was in operation until a few years ago. The quarry faced Paul Gore St. and the back wall, with the houses apparently on its uppermost edge, is over 100 feet from the street.

The view of the dodecagonal house from Paul Gore St. in an excellent one, as it is the only way that a person can get a clear conception of the plan of the exterior, there being portions of three sections in sight.

On the very edge of the quarry wall is a shed, which was almost dislodged by the blasting and gives the appearance of being ready to tumble over the edge at the least provocation. Added to the labor of digging the foundation was that of making a cistern, which was also blasted out of the solid ledge. It is still in existence, but not in use.

An interesting incident is told about the condition of the water supply on top of Cedar Hill about the time West Roxbury was made a part of Boston. The only water on Cranston St., then Terrace Ave., was that stored in the cisterns, and the residents depended on rain to keep up the supply. Shortly after the taking over of the town by Boston a drought occurred, and the residents on the hill were soon without water.

Photograph courtesy of Charlie Rosenberg

Photograph courtesy of Charlie Rosenberg

After strenuous efforts permission was obtained from the Boston Fire Department to use the fire engine in the district to replenish the supply by pumping from the nearest hydrants, which were located on Sheridan St. The residents were assessed for the use of the engine, and were much exercised because the day after the engine replenished their supply a very heavy rain occurred and overflowed their already filled cisterns.

The house is really three hexagons built together. One section consists from cellar to roof of basement kitchen, living room and rear chamber; another section, dining room, parlor and front chamber, while the third contains the cellar, stairs and halls, two small alcove rooms and bathroom.

The interior of the first section is circular in shape, with winding stairs and innumerable small closets in every conceivable space. The walls, being from 12 to 20 inches thick and of wood, afford good opportunity for closets, which are not to be found in any of the rooms.

There are two chimneys running through this section that are peculiar to build inasmuch as they are separated entirely from the walls, thereby allowing space for bathroom and two alcove rooms, also large clothes closets. One of these small rooms is used for a sewing room and the other as a nursery.

The front door is also in this part of the house. It is in two parts, swinging inwardly when opened and when closed completes the angle and hexagonal design of the exterior of the house. Winding stairs connect front hall and rooms, both above and below. Even the doors leading from the hall are curved, to complete the circular effect inside. The cellar is in this section, but is rather small and the fuel supply is about all it will hold.

In the other two sections are to be found the six large rooms. These rooms are hexagonal, and all of them measure exactly the same. Each of their six sides is 109 inches in width, and the design of the rooms of the upper story is carried out in the ceilings, narrowing and rising toward the center and ending in a circle about a foot and a half in diameter.

The absence of closets in the rooms seems to have been intentional in order that the symmetrically arranged plans could be thoroughly carried out. The doors connecting the rooms are placed so that they come within a single side, but are of odd design, being pointed at the top, making two sides of a hexagon.

Single doors connect the rooms and hallways, and are all of the same design. There is but one ordinary door in the house, and that was cut through between the two sleeping rooms within a few years. The large door connecting the living room and parlor is in three parts and opens by swinging one-third on one side, the remaining two-thirds doubling upon the other side of the doorway. These doors are massive in construction and are composed of hard pine, which is painted white, with beautiful selected quartered oak panels in the natural wood.

The windows are peculiarly arranged, there being one on each projecting point of the structure with the exception of the point in which is the front door. They form a three-cornered design in each section, the windows of the second floor being on the outermost points, and those on the ground floor on the other two points. The windows throughout the house are in two parts and swing inwardly upon hinges, the same as a door, and when closed carry out the same general design, making at the top the two hexagonal sides. In the uppermost part of each window is a small six-sided design in colored glass.

The ceilings of the dining room and kitchen are unfinished and the effect is that of being below deck aboard a ship with the stanch beams plainly in view. Upon the top of the house is a cupola placed directly in the center. It is six-sided both interior and exterior. Winding stairs connect the cupola and front hall, while the standing room on the top is reached by a ladder.

The panoramic view of the surrounding country from the top of the house is, indeed, beautiful. It includes Jamaica Pond, the park system, Forest Hills, and Blue Hills. The outside wall of the structure looks like slate, but a close inspection shows it to be of wood, neatly matched and finished with extreme nicety. There is a fleur de lis in wood on the top of each section. That the Scotsmen were not allowed to thoroughly complete their work is indeed unfortunate, as they would undoubtedly have left a structure even more curious than they did.

This article originally appeared in the Boston Daily Globe on September 20, 1908.

A slide presentation by Bob Fields, one of the current owners of the house can be downloaded from here

Comments about this article sent to the Jamaica Plain Historical Society:

We truly enjoyed the historical article on 17 Cranston Street. My mother’s family (Joseph and Nancy Magee) lived there from the early 1960’s until 1981 or 1982. I always believed it was a magical place with its castle turret and ghost in residence. One night in the mid 70’s the 6 family tenement next door burned to the ground but the Boston Fire Department managed to save the house. I especially loved the stone cellar in the lowest level that Nana would store her strawberry preserves in. My Mum visited the new owners a few years ago and I understand they are doing a beautiful job of maintaining its’ special character.

Thanks again,

Lisa Cohane muzak@yahoo.com

I am Lisa’s mum and I lived at 17 Cranston Street from 1956 to my marriage in 1967. My husband and I and Lisa returned and lived there for awhile in late 1968 and 1969. My parents (Joseph and Nancy Jean Magee) sold the house in 1981. They put the front porch on in the early 1960’s. It was a wonderful house to grow up in, and if you ever want to do an article on ghosts, we all believe that the house had one, he wasn’t bad, but he did like to play jokes on you. And he paced a lot. I never heard about the name Cedar Hill until I read the article. It was like living in a small village. And we still keep in touch with several of our old neighbors.

Helen E. Cohane hcohane@clarku.edu