Growing Up in a JP Three-Decker in the 1950s and 1960s

by Roy Magnuson

I spent the first year of my life in a three-decker at 20 Glade Avenue, a dead-end street off Glen Road near Franklin Park. On my first birthday in May, 1950 we moved to the third floor of a three-decker at 171 Forest Hills Street. My grandparents were the owners and lived on the second floor with my widowed aunt. Life on the third floor had its ups and downs, literally, but I look back on it with many fond memories.

171 Forest Hills Street. 1957 Courtesy of Roy Magnuson

171 Forest Hills Street. 1957 Courtesy of Roy Magnuson

One big issue was the heat. Not enough of it in winter, and too much of it in summer. Until about 1964 our main source of heat in winter was a coal-fired boiler in the cellar that fed steam radiators in our apartment. This system required constant attention and many trips down and up three flights of stairs every day to stay warm.

Each summer a delivery truck would bring several tons of coke, not coal, and deposit it into our cellar storage bin using a chute through a cellar window. I never understood why, but my father preferred coke over coal. Although he used to talk about the dangers of coal gas, I’m guessing that coke was cheaper.

The big decision each fall was when to fire up the boiler. Too early in the fall might mean using up coke when it wasn’t really necessary; too late in the fall might mean not having heat when we really needed it. When it got cold out, we really needed it.

When the big day came, it took a bit of work to get the boiler going. First we’d crumple up lots of newspaper and throw it in the boiler. Then came the kindling: lots of small pieces of wood; then bigger pieces of wood on top of that. Next, in went several lit wooden matches. The object was to get a good, strong wood fire going that produced a nice bed of red glowing coals. (Dad was always on the lookout for wood. When the old utility pole was replaced out front, he got the workers to leave it in our driveway. He spent many hours sawing and splitting it up.) After about a half hour, two shovels of coke went on top, the draft was adjusted, the fingers were crossed, and if everything went as planned, the coke caught, glowed bright red, and we had heat. But before the steam made its way up to our radiators we had the banging.

There was some kind of problem with the steam pipes that fed the radiators on the living room end of our apartment. Every time the heat “came up” we heard this loud bang-clang-bang-clang. It sounded like someone was hitting the pipes with a hammer. But the noise passed in less than 30 seconds, then came the blissful sound of the radiators hissing. That meant heat. Finally! No amount of fiddling with the involved radiators by lifting this end or that end or both ends could ever stop the banging. We learned to just live with it.

Every day in winter Dad made many trips down to the cellar to add coke, adjust the draft, shake down the ashes, shovel out the ashes, add more coke, dislodge a clinker, etc. Then in the early 1960s we converted to oil. That was just awesome. From that point on, when we got cold all we had to do was turn a thermostat on the dining room wall and after a while the pipes banged, the radiators hissed, and we got warm without having to go down to the cellar at all. What an improvement!

In summer we had the opposite problem: too much heat. All day the sun would shine down on the flat roof and bake our apartment. It got really hot. The kitchen at suppertime would often get unbearable. What saved us was our screened front porch. It faced east so it got no sun after noon. We spent many hours out there every summer trying to escape the heat. In 1965 my mom got a part time job at Diamond’s Dress Shop on Centre Street. Right from the beginning she must have saved every dime she made because before long she bought two small air conditioners, one for each bedroom, so we could sleep when it was hot. We were among the first in the neighborhood to have an air conditioner, and what a difference they made. Over the years Mom also worked at Jones Gift Shop, Wayne’s Clothing Store, and Eileen’s Women’s Store.

The Stack

Before we converted to oil heat, our hot water came from a device in the kitchen called “the stack.” This thing was a cylindrical black gas-fired water heater that sat alongside the kitchen stove. It connected to a copper storage tank in a small closet. When we needed hot water we opened the stack’s door, lit a match, turned on the gas valve which ignited a good sized flame, then closed the door. If we just needed to wash the supper dishes, we only let it run a few minutes. We’d open the closet door and feel the top of the storage tank. If it was hot down several inches, that meant we had enough hot water for the dishes. But if we needed to take a bath (we had no shower), it had to run longer. We needed the top two feet of the tank to be hot to make sure we had enough hot water to fill the tub. We were always reminded to never forget to turn off the stack, because it could explode. The stack was not vented to the outside, which was fine in the winter because it warmed up the kitchen. In the summer it just made the kitchen even more unbearably hot. And it was dangerous because it could be extremely hot on the outside if it had just been running, but you couldn’t tell by looking at it. I learned to just stay away from it. It was removed when we converted to oil heat, which gave us “continuous hot water.” Good riddance.

The Neighborhood

Ours was the end three-decker in a row of eight three-deckers along Forest Hills Street. There were eight more around the corner on Lourdes Avenue, which also had three six-family houses. That’s a total of 66 apartments in a fairly small neighborhood. Each three-decker was owner occupied, and all were well maintained with an obvious pride of ownership. The neighborhood was very stable. Most families had been there a long time which meant you got to know your neighbors. All these apartments meant that there were plenty of kids to play with. When I was in grammar school, I had to go out to play every day unless it was raining. So did the other kids. We came home from school, changed our clothes, and then went out to play. We had to stay out until we were called for supper.

We found things to do because we had to. We played tag, hide-and-seek, red light, baseball, football. We threw rocks, rode bikes, climbed trees, went coasting in winter, collected horse chestnuts. We lived near the back edge of Franklin Park so we went exploring in the woods. On many Sunday afternoons in summer, my dad and I would walk through the Franklin Park woods and then walk alongside the golf course up to the Refectory across from the Zoo entrance. Dad would have a beer. I’d have a Coke. After a pleasant rest we’d walk back home. We’d often see people riding through the park on horseback. There were stables at the end of Forest Hills Street where anyone could go to rent a horse and ride through the park. Franklin Park was a wonderful and beautiful place to have so close to home.

Home Delivery

Looking back, it’s hard to believe that so many things were delivered right to our door. The ice man had already vanished by the 1950s, but many other delivery men still came around. Our milkman was Walter Collyer from Hood’s Milk. He came three times each week: Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. He delivered to each floor in our house. We got homogenized milk but my grandparents got the milk with the cream on top. They’d pour off the cream to use in their coffee. I’ve often wondered how many flights of stairs Mr. Collyer trudged up and down every day. Whiting’s milk also delivered to the neighborhood, but my mother preferred Hood’s. We had an egg man who came from his farm in Abington every Friday with a fresh dozen eggs for us and a dozen for my grandparents downstairs. Cushman’s bakery also delivered fresh bread.

A fruit and vegetable man came around yelling from his truck so the housewives would know he arrived. “Bananas! Strawberries! Fresh tomatoes!” You walked down to him so you could see what he was offering that day and check the freshness of his goods. A ragman came around every other week or so, yelling: “Rags. Got any rags?” He had a horse-drawn wagon, even in the 1950s. The insurance man, Eddie, came around each week knocking on doors and collecting the weekly payments due on people’s policies. In summer Bob the ice cream man came around every day ringing his bell. It sounded like the bell at school that told you recess was over. He had a small red pickup truck with a white ice cream freezer in back. When he’d open the freezer door to get your popsicle a cloud of white vapor would spill out and go straight down to the ground. He’d wait around a bit to give everyone time to run home, get a nickel, and run back. Numerous newspapers were delivered: The Globe, The Herald, The Traveler, The Record, and The American. Around Christmas we got two mail deliveries each day.

My School

I attended the Margaret Fuller elementary school on Glen Road from kindergarten in 1954 through the 6th grade in 1961, as my older sister had. My teachers were: Miss Jennings (kindergarten), Miss Pezzulo (first grade), Miss Heffernan (second grade), Miss Madden (third grade), Miss Macavella (fourth grade), Miss Loughran (fifth grade), Miss Shaughnessy (sixth grade). My sister had the exact same teachers seven years earlier.

My classmates (to the best of my recollection) were: John Callahan, Gail Collyer, Paul Cotter, Christopher Diminico, Joyce Duggan, John Fonseca, Robert Gava, Robert Grimes, Angela Hart, Edith Healy, Gary Kobialka, Dennis Magee, Linda Malovich, Edwin Mankiewicz, Mary Mulvey, Vicky Munafo, Judith Nawrocki, Angelina Nawrocki, Horace Ryder, Nancy Sardella, Evelyn Sargent, Judith Scapinski, Joseph Scarcella, Deborah Smith, Marcelle St. Clair, Joseph Tringali, Bruce Walker, Donald Watson, William Wetterhahn, Mary Wieziski. (Note: I may have unintentionally omitted someone or misspelled a name; it’s been a long time.)

Public Transportation

One reason why JP was a great place to live was the public transportation. All our lives we rode buses, trolleys, and the El. Right below Green Street Station we could catch the Wren Street bus that would take us up to the business district and all the stores along Centre Street. From there we could take the trolley and get anywhere along Centre and South Streets, as well as South Huntington and Huntington Avenues, all the way to Park Street station. The elevated Orange Line stopped at Green Street station, and went directly downtown to all the movie theatres, stores, restaurants and everything else in the city. By the time we were 12 or so, we often took the El to “Friend/Union” station. Then we’d walk under the Central Artery, through the North End, down to the municipal swimming pools on Commercial Street and spend the day swimming and having fun. We’d also go to “Milk/State” station, change to the Blue Line, and go to Revere Beach for the day. We could go places and do things by ourselves at a fairly young age, which, in retrospect, fostered our sense of independence and self-reliance. And we never once had a bad experience or a problem of any kind. Remarkable.

We were always trying to make some money. We’d run errands, cut the grass, shovel snow; anything to make a quarter or two. I spent many hours with my red Radio Flyer wagon combing the streets, woods, vacant lots, anywhere I might find returnable bottles. The small ones were two cents and the big ones were five cents.

I got my first real job just as I turned 14 at the Green Street Drug Store at the corner of Washington Street and Glen Road. I worked the soda fountain, and sold cigarettes, newspapers, candy and gum. Cigarettes were 28 cents a pack, and we sold a lot of them. I think everybody in JP was a smoker. The drug store was owned by Bob and Birdie Rosenberg. I worked for the summer but had to quit when school started. About 15 years later I met Bob and Birdie in Framingham. They had closed the drugstore and Bob had early stage dementia. What a shame. About a year later I started working across the street at the White City Food Store. I worked every day after school and every Saturday waiting on customers and making deliveries. I worked 19-1/2 hours each week and received a twenty dollar bill each Saturday. I worked there for about one year, then went next door to Strachman’s Cleaners. I also worked there after school and Saturdays and received $1.25 per hour.

The intersection of Washington Street and Green Street/Glen Road also had Timmons Liquor Store, a First National Food Store, Ruggerio’s Variety Store, a barber shop, and Jo-Anne’s Coffee Shop. With all the foot traffic from the El and the bus, it was a busy place. Jamaica Plain was just a great place to grow up. I left in 1974 when I got married and moved to West Roxbury. I look back fondly to my experiences there in the 50s and 60s, and I have many, many pleasant memories. I consider myself very fortunate to have lived there.

You may contact Roy Magnuson at: roymag118@comcast.net