A favorite practice of corrupt mayors the world over is to finagle free work on their private residences in exchange for city contracts. The most grandiose local example can be found at 350 Jamaicaway near Jamaica Pond, where legendary Boston Mayor James Michael Curley (1874-1958) built a 21-room, neo-Georgian mansion almost a century ago. The place is spectacular. And it’s absurd that city officials past and present haven’t figured out a way to share it with the public.
Bostonians have been around this block many times since the property was bought at auction in 1988 by the city’s George Robert White Fund to block a proposed condominium project. Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been poured into the renovation and maintenance of the property. Yet efforts to turn the property into a museum, conference center, inn, reception hall, and other uses have sputtered along the way. A few years ago, the Boston Finance Commission urged the city to sell the property with the distinctive shamrock shutters. That’s the same fiscal watchdog group, incidentally, that conducted the initial investigation of how Curley got his hands on the property in the first place.
So what’s to become of this mansion without a mission? Former Mayor Ray Flynn couldn’t figure it out. Neither could outgoing Mayor Tom Menino. Various city councilors have tried their hands as well. They see it as a severe test of their political mettle, akin to pulling the proverbial sword out of the stone.
On Monday, district city councilor Matt O’Malley organized a tour of the mansion with Curley’s 88-year-old stepson Richard Dennis, several professors from Wentworth Institute of Technology, and members of the city’s Treasury Department. Everyone had somewhat different agendas. But as a whole, the group represented the best opportunity in decades to resolve this longstanding dilemma.
Dennis is the strongest living link to the house. He moved there at age 11 after his mother, Gertrude, married the widowed Curley in 1937. Standing coatless in subfreezing weather, Dennis pointed to the side door of the mansion along Moraine Street where down-and-out Bostonians lined up daily to receive a few dollars or chits for city jobs from Curley. Dennis doesn’t ignore his stepfather’s failings, including imprisonment for fraud. But he prefers on this cold day to recall how Curley gave his new Chesterfield coat to a desperate supplicant.
Dennis’s dream of placing the home under the control of a nonprofit friends group isn’t backed by vigorous fund-raising. But a solution could be found on a Wentworth campus known more for engineering and technology than political history. Professors there are designing an upcoming course — “Digital Approaches to Boston Culture’’ — to provide students with a chance to use digital techniques “to curate and visualize various aspects of Curley’s career.’’ Using existing documents and artifacts from public collections, the goal will be to create a three-dimensional model of the rooms that were graced by many of the greatest politicians and entertainers of the era. And imagine if photogrammetry could capture even a fraction of the feeling of the dreadful occasion in 1950 when Curley stood by the bodies of his grown daughter Mary and son Leo, who both died from strokes on the same day. Their bodies were placed side by side in the mansion’s hallway and viewed by an estimated 25,000 mourners during an 11-hour procession.
Wentworth professor Lawrence Overlan, a specialist on Curley’s public works projects, is hopeful that more than a virtual museum emerges from this effort. He envisions Wentworth joining with a consortium of Fenway area colleges to support the Curley House as a venue for faculty seminars or retreats. Councilor O’Malley likes the idea, provided the deal includes docents to lead public tours on weekends.
Similar dreams have been dashed by convoluted restrictions in the George Robert White charitable fund, named for the philanthropist who bequeathed a huge endowment to the city in the 1920s to “create public works of utility and beauty.’’ But attempts to do just that with the Curley house have bumped up against conflicting clauses in the trust that confound city attorneys. Perhaps Mayor-elect Martin Walsh can clear away the legal detritus.
The virtual museum is a great first step. But the side door to the mansion needs to be opened for public use again. (No one ever had much use for the front door, according to stepson Dennis.) For good or ill, Curley was the master of the personal touch. And to best understand Curley’s impact on the city requires an in-person experience.Lawrence Harmon can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org