Dancing School of Miss Marguerite Souther
Miss Marguerite Souther was a grand Edwardian lady, but paradoxically
she was a woman of pioneer spirit, liberated far beyond her generation.
"Rita Souther", as she was known to her intimate friends and as she often signed herself, was born to affluence at "Allandale", the estate her grandfather had acquired on Allandale Street, Jamaica Plain, off Centre Street, next to the Arboretum, abutting what was formerly the Rowe Brothers stone quarry. It was a large estate and it contained a magnificent spring. It is currently the site of the Springhouse retirement community opposite the Faulkner Hospital.
Marguerite Souther's grandfather, John H. Souther, was the gentleman who finally was able to complete the filling of the Back Bay from Dartmouth Street all the way out to the Cottage Farm in Brookline. John Souther creatively used steam shovels, gondola cars and a very large sand pit in the Charles River area of Needham. The estate was acquired from Stephen Merrill Allen who had built it sometime between 1840 and 1860. For details of the filling of Boston, see "Boston: A Topographical History", Walter Muir Whitehill (1959).
Sometime just before Marguerite Souther was born in 1882, the old mansion burned to the ground. Miss Souther's father, Charles H. Souther, then replaced it with a magnificent shingle-style mansion on the same site. Marguerite Souther grew up there with her three brothers: John Glendon Souther and the younger twins Channing Weare Souther and Charles Dana Souther. Our generation had wonderful times at Allandale. There were skating parties, coasting parties, burning parties, tea parties and formal dinner parties, the last one being in 1968, as you will see.
Several years after Miss Souther's return from Smith College, the Souther family fortune went into a decline. It was then that a friend told her that running dancing classes could be a profitable way to make a living. Accordingly, Miss Souther started dancing classes in various places, not yet necessarily in Eliot Hall, where they thrived from sometime in 1910 until she retired in the late 1960's. Miss Souther has described those early years teaching dancing as a major challenge. For instance, she would take the streetcars to North Station, the train to Lowell and the streetcars to the dancing hall, leaving Lowell as late as 11:30 in the evening. She described how she almost fainted on the train returning home one evening when she had a touch of the flu. Soon, however, the Eliot Hall location in Jamaica Plain took permanent roots and by the time my older brother Kenneth, born in 1912, was seven or eight; he and all his little friends went to Miss Souther's Dancing School at Eliot Hall.
In the 1920's when Miss Souther's brother, Channing Weare Souther and his family were living at Allandale, Miss Souther and her mother were living on Eliot Street in Jamaica Plain, directly in back of where we lived on Newsome Park. My first impression and vision of Miss Souther is clear in my mind. One day she came out of the house dressed in a long light reddish brown tweed suit, nearly the color of her hair. She had on a matching light brown tweed hat and bone glasses. Her mother, Mrs. Charles Souther, followed her out. Mrs. Souther wore a black taffeta dress with a hat and veil. Miss Souther put her mother into the back seat of a Model T Ford touring car, top-down, and her Chow dog "Chang" (the same color as her tweed suit) in the front seat next to her. Then she went around and cranked the engine; the engine roared, she backed out onto Eliot Street and took off toward the Monument. This was a symbol of her early independence.
It seems appropriate chronologically to repeat the story of the acquisition of the Loring-Greenough Mansion at Eliot Square in Jamaica Plain by the Jamaica Plain Tuesday Club in the early to mid-1920s. David Stoddard Greenough IV decided to sell the estate. Building was booming at that time. There was a great risk that it would be sold for commercial development. Homes just across the street had just recently been torn down to make way for stores. In this period when the house was at risk the two incumbent Tuesday Club Presidents, Mrs. Henrietta F. Goodnow and Mrs. Irene Carrow Rees; and other able leaders like Mrs. Elizabeth Z. Grabill and Mrs. Lucy E. Henderson, were unable to raise the necessary funds in spite of gifts from many donors. (From the earliest days, all Tuesday Club members' records are kept in given names rather than their husband's names.) Miss Souther now stepped in for the Club. She personally signed and guaranteed the mortgage on the property and the mansion was saved. The mortgage was paid off in some three years and this was celebrated by a pageant called "The Place Remembers".
This leadership is a very good example of Miss Marguerite Souther's courage and independence. I do remember the time very well, for it was my mother's generation who tried and tried to put the pieces of this major investment together when the grand place was very close to going to the wrecker. A few years after the Jamaica Plain Tuesday Club had successfully acquired the Loring-Greenough House, a fire erupted. Some fine chandeliers had been installed. Miss Souther heard about the fire, went into the house full of smoke to remove the chandeliers.
"Get out of here, lady. This place is full of smoke. You are in danger," said a fireman. "Not until I get these things out of here" was Miss Souther's brave response from the ladder on which she stood while removing the chandeliers.
Miss Souther was not afraid to speak up in politics as well. A good friend of mine, who grew up in Jamaica Plain in the 1910's and 1920's, once told me about Miss Souther taking a very strong stand on an important political issue, of course, on the side of what she thought was right. I do not remember the details of this, but his telling me about it is very clear.
Around 1927 I first went to Miss Souther's Dancing School. My attendance at Eliot Hall continued all the way through college in 1939. It was only later that I recognized that the young ladies who attended Miss Souther's dancing school and later assemblies were from the best families in the Boston area. Nearly all would be debutantes, as was the custom at the time, when they had graduated from school. They attended such fine girl's private schools as Beaver Country Day, Winsor School, May School, Brimmer School, Lee School, Buckingham School, and Park School. Some had attended earlier the former Miss Seeger's School on Eliot Street in Jamaica Plain. The younger boys came from private schools such as Dexter, Park and Longwood Day with a few public school boys mixed in. However, as the years went by, and the dancing schools evolved into the Junior Eliots and finally the Senior Eliots, the boys came from private schools, naturally largely day schools: Noble & Greenough, Milton, Brown & Nichols, Roxbury Latin, Rivers, Belmont Hill with a few from the "boarding schools". Then freshman college year was when the boarding school boys swelled the group - schools such as St. Mark's, Exeter, Groton, Middlesex, Brooks, and others.
Miss Souther was exacting. If a girl came to an Eliot Hall dance at age 15 or 16 and did not appear to be too popular at that age, Miss Souther had a band of somewhat older ushers who saw to it that the girl was danced with regularly. Miss Souther would let a new invitee come to one dance to see how she fared. If a girl came too decolletee, Miss Souther would chastise her and probably put something over her cleavage.
Miss Souther was equally firm with the boys. If she suspected that a boy had brought a liquor flask into the boy's coatroom or lavatory, Miss Souther would barge right in, grab the liquor and confiscate it. She might send that boy home. If she had to go into the boy's lavatory (with the square Victorian 19th century toilet in it), she did not hesitate to do so. Much has been quoted about Miss Souther's firmness and abruptness. It is obviously true that she had to keep the standards high or the mothers, and the patronesses, would not lend their names or their daughters to these affairs.
Miss Souther on the other hand could be a kind person. Most years that I attended Eliot Halls were those of the Great Depression. Looking back on it, it is quite obvious to me that Miss Souther, in her knowledge of the community and her kindness, hand-picked the people who manned the desk at the entrance, who served the ice cream at the Supper Dance, at approximately 10:30, and those who wished to be her assistants. In several cases I recall that the people she employed were in some degree in financial straits or were without employment in those difficult years.
In 1962, fifty years after Miss Souther started the Eliot Hall dances, a group of her former pupils got together and presented Miss Souther with a booklet listing as many of the former Eliot Hall people, both boys and girls, as could be rounded up to honor her. Soon thereafter, Miss Souther retired and her niece, Barbara Souther Cooke, took over and ran Eliot Hall well into the 1980's, despite the changes in customs and mores.
The last party that we attended at Allandale was in 1968. One of my school classmates, a former Eliot Hall regular, an Annapolis graduate and a high-ranking Naval Officer had returned from Vietnam. Barbara Souther Cooke's husband, Colonel Fredrick J. Cooke was also there. Miss Souther put a dinner party together with several of our contemporaries from the 1930's. It seemed that her motive was to make her own true judgement of what was right or wrong with the Vietnam War.
Shortly after that party Miss Souther sold Allandale to the Faulkner Hospital. Faulkner planned to expand across Allandale Street and quickly razed the 1880's mansion. The hospital never built on the property but rather decided to expand further up the hill. The Springhouse retirement community now occupies the Allen/Souther estate site. Miss Souther moved into Longwood Towers with many of her favorite possessions. When she died at the ripe age of 93, one of her former pupils, the Rev. George Blackman of the Church of Our Saviour in Brookline, together with Rev. Francis Caswell, Retired Headmaster of Dexter School in Brookline, remembered her at a service filled to the aisles. Marguerite Souther was recognized as the grand lady she was with all her special personal characteristics.
It is quite obvious that Marguerite Souther was a lady, brought up with all the comforts and conveniences. When she had to face up to the realities of the times in which she was living, she quickly evolved ahead of her time and proved that it is possible for women to accomplish a great deal in ways formerly left to men and to do so without losing their graciousness.
Written by David A. Mittell, who grew up on Prince Street in Jamaica Plain. He attended the Agassiz School and Roxbury Latin. He is a 1939 graduate of Harvard University. Mr. Mittell is a retired executive of Davenport Peters, the oldest American continually operating lumber wholesaler. He is a member of the board of trustees of the Plimoth Plantation and Roxbury Latin High School. Copyright © 2003 David A. Mittell.