Tuesday, December 4, 2007

The Nelson Curtis House

The Nelson Curtis house was known to many as one of the home buildings of the Children's Museum from the 1930s to the 1970s. Both my older brother and I spent summers in the museum summer day camp, which was housed primarily in the old Nelson house, so I have vague memories of the inside of the building. There was a room with cages and aquaria for small animals, and I seem to remember an iguana and a rabbit in the collection. I also have one of those quirky memory fragments of sitting on the floor singing the song

Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree
Merry, merry king of the bush is he

although I remember it being the old oak tree, so apparently someone americanized the lyrics of this Australian children's song before it got to us.

Somehow, it never occurred to me that someone had once lived in the museum buildings. As it is, the Curtis family didn't live there very long. In little more than thirty years after the house went up, the Children's Museum had taken over the property. Ironically, a descendant of one of the oldest families of Jamaica Plain built one of the last great estates in the pond area at the end of the estate-building era. The turn of the 20th Century was a time of new streets lined with small lots and crowded houses. I suspect that it just wasn't fun being rich in Jamaica Plain any more, as the word suburb came to mean towns outside Boston, not districts of the city itself. How could you keep them down on the farm, after they've seen Wellesley?

Boston Daily Globe January 24, 1904

Handsome House On Beautiful Site. New Residence of Nelson Curtis is One of the Prettiest About Jamaica Pond.

A large residence has just been completed on the parkway near Jamaica pond, at the corner of Eliot st, for Nelson Curtis from plans by Chapman & Frazer, architects. It is on a beautiful site, overlooking Jamaica pond and park and is designed in the georgian or colonial style of red brick with marble trimmings and with white shutters on the first story and green blinds on the second.

The house stands on the site of the old Smith house, a landmark in Jamaica Plain for many years. The simple and dignified front of the old house, with its recessed porch and greek ionic columns is well remembered by people who use the parkway. These columns from the old house are used again in the new in a large two-story recessed porch which is the feature of the parkway side.

In the porch is a balcony opening from the second floor. On the parkway and Eliot st side is a wide grass terrace raised a few feet above the level of the lawn with a ballustrade at the top of the bank. The entrance front is on the side opposite the parkway and is reached by means of a curving driveway from Eliot st. The driveway sweeps around a large old english elm and brings on to the entrance porch.

A white vestibule leads into the main hall and opens through french windows to the recessed porch and terrace on the parkway side. The woodwork in the hall is white, with a panelled dado, and the walls above are of a warm red with a wood cornice. The stairs at the left lead to a gallery over the vestibule on which is a great triple stair window, patterned after those found in the colonial mansions of Salem.

A second flight leads to the floor on the right of the hall, forming a large stair-well, which is open to the second-story ceiling. The stairs have a twisted colonial newel post in white, with white balusters and a mahogeny handrail.

On the left of the hall, and opening from it through sliding doors, is the large living room. This room extends the full width of the house on the Eliot st side. It is finished in California redwood, with a beamed ceiling. The walls are dark green. About half of the wall space on one side is taken up with bookcases, and opposite the entrance to the room is a large fireplace in dark old gold Perth Amboy brick, with a high mantel. French windows open on the piazza and terrace, while on the parkway side are long windows that go nearly to the floor and open onto small iron balconies. At the other end of the room is a large bay window with a roomy seat.

On the right of the hall is the dining room, side hall and reception room. The dining room is finished in mahogeny, with a panel of dado and tapestry above. The fireplace is of roman shape red brick and there is a high carved mantel in the georgian style. The side hall is connected with the main hall through an arched opening to the billiard room, which is at the end of the house on the Parkway side, and the service part, which is at the end of the house on the entrance front side.

The reception room is finished in White, with yellow silk on the walls above a low white dado. There is a low mantel, and the fireplace facing and hearth area are of light grayish green onyx. The long windows are like those on the Parkway end of the living room opening on to small iron balconies.

Through the side hall one reaches the billiard room, which is finished in dark cypress stained brown. There is a high sheathing dado in this room, with a dark red on the walls above. At one end of the room is a fireplace nook, the entire floor of which is covered, like the hearth, with large red quarry tiles. The fireplace facing is of red brick. At the sides of the nook is a seat with a plank arm. The room is well lighted through large windows overlooking the pond, and is one of the most attractive rooms of the house.

The second floor is finished throughout in white. The bathrooms connect with the principal bedrooms and have tiled floors and walls. A feature of the second floor plan is that the family bedrooms, dressing rooms and bathrooms are all connected in such a way as to make it unnecessary to go into the main hall in going from one to the other.

The house cost to erect about $100,000. The estate comprises 49,000 square feet of land.


If you are like me and are unfamiliar with the architectural use of the word dado, it refers to the lower section of an interior wall, under a dado rail. See here: Dado picture

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