Robert Morse's Pond Odyssey

In the taking of land for the Jamaica Park Project in the 1890s not too many houses of the ones that are easily studied today were dismantled since they sat far back from the shore on their Pondside estates. Francis Parkman's house, now marked by the granite memorial erected by his friends in 1906, came down because it was decided to extend the Park all the way up to Prince Street. Parkman's immediate neighbor counterclockwise around the Pond was the post Civil War second icehouse of the Jamaica Pond Ice Co.

  Jamaica Park Plan, 1892. Frederick Law Olmsted.

Jamaica Park Plan, 1892. Frederick Law Olmsted.

The next residence was that of Robert M. Morse, which seemed slated for demolition since it was so close to the Pond. Yet in the earliest Olmsted plans of Jamaica Park it and the Pinebank home of the Perkins family were both granted reprieves to be used as refectories, or concession stand, for people using the Park. The Morse house indeed served as such but only briefly and was torn down before the century was over.

Robert McNeil Morse was another Brahmin on the Pond. His first paternal American ancestor was a founder of the Town of Dedham, and Robert was once again a graduate of Harvard College (Class of 1857). Before going on to Harvard Law School he taught at the Eliot School, still being used as a public school. By the time of the Civil War he was in partnership with J.C. Ropes and later with classmate Charles Greenough (whose family is known through the names of Jamaica Plain's only remaining colonial mansion, the preparatory school in Dedham and the parkway along the Charles River towards Watertown.)

Thus began a 60-year career at the Massachusetts Bar, Morse's arguments appearing in the reports of the Supreme Judicial Court from 1862 to the year he died. He specialized in probate cases and in suits involving the value of land taken for public water supplies, parks, or other public purposes. In the constantly growing economy of the late 19th century his voice was often heard in cases of complex litigation affecting the expanding public utilities.

It is no surprise that Morse entered politics off and on as a Republican candidate, serving in the Legislature in 1866-67 and 1880. However, he preferred the organizational side of politics and was state chairman of his party in 1884. In the Legislature he was chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and in this capacity carried out a revision of the General Laws known as the Public Statutes. His committee granted the newly formed land to the City of Boston where its central library now stands and also authorized the first law of capitalization of the Bell Telephone Company.

Keen, astute and resourceful, Morse was esteemed by his colleagues for his knowledge, ability, and resolute conscientiousness in the performance of his duties. It was one of his cardinal principles that zeal in the conduct of the law must be consistent with unvarying courtesy and the most scrupulous regard for the truth. A man of stature in the community, he served on the Harvard Board of Overseers from 1880 to 1900.

Given all this, when his house was taken for the Park Project, Morse decided to stay by the Pond. Since no land was taken on the far side of Pond Street across from the boathouse to Orchard Street, he bought the old Smith house on the corner of Burroughs and Pond Streets and ripped down the old house (seen in the mid-19th century drawings of winter activities on the Pond). Architect William Ralph Emerson in 1893 built the big Colonial Revival house that stands there today with its neighbor, the home of old Jamaica Plain scion, Nelson Curtis - now both condominiums. Here Morse continued to raise his family of five children and here he died in February 1920.

The Morse house was a very special place in Jamaica Plain for children from 1936 to 1974, for it housed that beloved Jamaica Plain institution, the Children's Museum. In elegant surroundings were glass cases full of stuffed specimens and all sorts of models, a room of live animals, dollhouses, and the geology rooms with walls painted with words and pictures by Edwin Raisz of Harvard's Geographic Institute. Many a child spent many a day each year there on otherwise glum, inclement days learning about nature and history with a quiz sheet attached to a clipboard.

When the Children's Museum moved downtown in the '70s for better accessibility, Jamaica Plain lost much. Ironically, the museum had moved into the Morse home, a refugee from the Park Project, after outgrowing the capacity of Pinebank in the Park, which older residents can still recall. Along with the old Morse House, Pinebank had briefly been used as a refectory. Pinebank in its ultimate state still remains, now the only house by the Pond not torn down in the 1890s, but in indescribable neglect.


Boston Landmarks Commission, "1978 Jamaica Plain Inventory"; National Encyclopedia of American Biography; C. Zaitzevsky, "Olmsted & the Boston Park Systems."

By Walter H. Marx. Reprinted with permission from the January 27, 1995 Jamaica Plain Gazette. Copyright © Gazette Publications, Inc.