Friday, February 27, 2009

The Boits of Jamaica Plain and Paris, France

The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, by John Singer Sargent (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). Click to enlarge.

Above, we have one of the treasures of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. John Singer Sargent painted the four daughters of Edward D. Boit in Paris in 1882. The girls didn't live in Jamaica Plain, but their father did. Before I knew of this painting, I knew minimal details of the Boits' connection to Jamaica Plain, but the remarkable family portrait above begs attention. To tell the story, I'll go back in time, start at the beginning, and return to the girls and the painting later.

The first Boit to come to America was John, born in England in 1733 and arriving in Boston between 1755 and 1760. John Boit became a merchant, dealing in East and West Indian goods, and becoming one of Boston's leading citizens. John Boit's oldest daughter was Hannah, born in 1765. Hannah married Crowell Hatch, whose name will come up in another entry.

After a second marriage, John Boit had more children, including a son John in 1774. At sixteen, this importer's son went to sea aboard a ship owned by Crowell Hatch. The Columbia was to sail around the Horn to the Northwest coast, trade for furs, and sail on to China. He came home after four years, only to return to sea as captain of many voyages.

The second John Boit married Eleanor Jones of Newport Rhode Island in 1799, and had seven children, including five daughters and two sons. Caroline, the second child, was born in Newport and moved to Boston at an early age with the family. In time, she would move to Jamaica Plain, where she lived out her life as a widow. Daughter Harriet and her husband moved to Jamaica Plain as well, living on Centre street near Boylston street. Of particular interest to us will be Edward Darley Boit, the fifth child and second son.

Edward D. Boit was born in 1813, and spent some of his childhood living on Eliot street in Jamaica Plain. His parents bought 2 1/4 acres of land on the east side of Eliot street, just North of today's Brewer street. By this time, John Boit had retired to the merchant life, and he would die in 1829.

The following story comes from the Chronicles of the Boit Family:

"as a little boy, he (Edward D.Boit) learned to navigate Jamaica Pond on a big log, with a soap box atop of it, and with a long pole to drive it. It was his canoe and he an Indian in search of adventures that never failed him. Woods were all about the pond in those days, with only one open place on each side of it in Brookline and Jamaica Plain, where the road for a rod or two ran down into the water, giving horses a chance to drink. He was always as careful as possible to avoid these openings for fear of being seen, but one day as he was poling by the spot where the road touched the pond in Jamaica Plain, the family doctor drove down to water his horse and recognized him on his log. When he reached home that night he got a sound drubbing."

In time, Edward was sent to Charles Greene's school at Centre and Pond streets. Later, he attended Boston Latin school and Harvard College. After a trip to India as supercargo on a ship, he studied law, passed the bar, and in 1839, married Jane Parkinson Hubbard. In time, they had four children: Edward "Ned" Darley, Robert, Jeanie and John.

In 1847, the family bought a house on a 7 acre lot at the corner of Curtis and Scarborough streets (later Forest Hills and Morton streets. See the property marked with the red star on the later map at right). They called their estate Ingleside, and remained there until 1853. The property was later among those annexed for the West Roxbury Park (later Franklin Park), and sat approximately where the Forest Hills entrance to Franklin Park was placed.

After a short time in Boston, in 1854 the family returned to Jamaica Plain, this time moving to Eliot street (photo).Edward Boit left the practice of law, becoming a businessman. The house on Eliot street was sold in 1859, and the family moved again, this time to Glen road. In time the Boits moved south to Georgia, where Edward entered the cotton business. By 1874, the firm followed cotton prices into collapse, and Edward Darley Boit was ruined. Edward and wife Jane would spend their final years living in Newport, Rhode Island, with the support of their son, Edward Jr. Both died in 1890.

Finally, we get to Edward Jr., the Edward Darley Boit of the Sargent painting. He was born in 1840. He would have been seven years old when his parents bought their first home in Jamaica Plain. The next mention I find of him is his graduation from Harvard in 1863. The story has left Jamaica Plain here, and moves us - finally - towards the famous painting that attracted my attention in the first place. A year after graduating from Harvard, Edward married Mary Louisa Cushing, daughter of John Perkins Cushing. Cushing was nephew of the Perkins brothers, James (who built Pinebank at Jamaica Pond) and Thomas. While in business in the China trade with his uncles, Cushing became an extremely wealthy man, later building Belmont, the estate that was so large it gave the Massachusetts town its name. It is said that once when the town tax collectors came to see him, he asked what the total of the years' tax requirement for the town would be, and wrote a check for the full amount.

Edward did enter the bar, but did not practice for long, if it all. He and Mary Louisa, known as Iza, travelled to Europe, and spent much of the rest of their married lives there. During stays in Italy and France, Edward took painting lessons and became a painter. While travelling between Rome, Paris and Boston, the Boits had four daughters: Florence, 1868, Jane, 1870, Mary Louisa, 1874, and Julia, 1878. Edward Darley Boit is now considered more an art patron than an artist. It was his association with John Singer Sargent, who painted both his daughters and his wife, that keeps his name alive for posterity. The Boits met Sargent at a Paris art exhibit, and commissioned him to paint a portrait of their daughters. The painting now sits in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, together with the same two oversize vases that are seen in the painting.

I am not an art critic, nor even particularly interested in painting as an art, but this work is a treasure of the MFA collection for a reason. If it is a portrait, it is a strange one. It seems like a psychological study, but of the group rather than of the girls as individuals. I think the word unsettling is appropriate for the effect it gives.

The story of the four girls is well known - at least as far as it is known. None of these four wealthy girls ever married, and the two oldest are described as hovering somewhere between eccentric and emotionally or mentally disturbed. As a final note on Edward: three years after the death of his wife in 1894, he remarried. Did the constant travelling of their childhood and the loss of their mother affect the psyche of the girls? Or does their extraordinary portrait make us imagine things about them that were only on the canvas?

While the famous Boit daughters never lived in Jamaica Plain, their families did, in multiple homes over multiple generations. From sea captain to lawyer and businessman to future expatriot artist and patron, the Boits certainly deserve mention when exploring Jamaica Plain's notable residents. The famous painting, a jewel of the Museum of Fine Art's collection, just makes the story all the more interesting.

There is much more to the story of the Boit family. Here is a start for online information:

Chronicles of the Boit Family
- download the PDF version to read.

Museum of Fine Arts

Edward Darley Boit

The Harvard Graduates' Magazine

The Washington Historical Quarterly
- John Boit's log of his voyage on the ship Columbia. When men were men.

Norfolk Registry of Deeds:

68:45 - 9/30/1822 David Greenough to John Boit, Eliot st.

155:26,27,28,29 - Boit heirs to Anson Dexter, Eliot st.

174:85 - 7/9/1847 John Parkinson to Edward D. Boit, Walnut ave. and Scarboro st.

179:137 - 4/11/1848 G. Winthrop Coffin to Edward D. Boit, Glen rd.

232:6 - 12/6/1854 Elisha James to Edward D. Boit, Eliot st.

255:24 - 5/1/1857 Edward D. Boit to George T. Curtis, Walnut ave and Scarboro st.

276:211 - 5/19/1859 Edward D. Boit to Anne L. Balch, Eliot st.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Shadows Of The Past

West side of Washington street, just south of Green street.

Any photo that shows trees with green leaves is appreciated right about now. These two pictures show a brick building on Washington street just south of Green Street - towards Forest Hills. The old paint job - and the bricked-in arched entrance - tell us that the building was once a garage/repair shop. As automobiles became more common on the streets, a need was created for parking garages and repair shops. Here and there, we find these kind of clues about a building's past, but only if we look for them.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Forest Hills Square - 1899

Forest Hills Square, looking south. The microfilm this image is based on is lined with scratches, but the sketch is still clear and legible. Click on the image to expand.

Perhaps no part of Jamaica Plain has changed more over time than Forest Hills square. At the turn of the 19th century, a toll road was built from Roxbury south to Dedham and on to the Rhode Island line. A toll gate was placed at the valley between the hills of today's Arnold Arboretum and higher land of the Forest Hills cemetery. In the 1830s, the Boston Providence railroad tracks were put through the same valley, with a station at the same site. Over time, Morton street, Hyde Park avenue and the Arborway would all connect at the location, creating the square seen above. Horse car lines were run down Washington street, and electrified streetcars of multiple companies filled the square, as shown above. Soon after this sketch was drawn, the elevated train line was extended down Washington street to a terminal station at the square. In the 1950s, the Casey Overpass was built to relieve traffic congestion, and in the 1980s, the current MBTA station replaced the old Elevated terminal.

Jamaica Plain News October 28, 1899

The above sketch, kindly loaned to the News by the Boston Globe, gives a clear idea of the proposed plan for widening Forest Hills square. Probably no needed public improvements have received more attention in the news than this widening of the Square, and the carrying to the square of the South street car tracks. That these two things would be of incalculable benefit to many property owner and residents of all parts of this section we have always believed, and so have for years past agitated and urged some such action as is now about to be taken in these matters.

As to the Square, we have maintained that the present congestion is unbearable, and that immediate relief is not only imperative, but also much less expensive than it will be later. The present dimensions of the Square and the use made of it by the different street railway lines have many times been described in our columns. It was not until this year, however, that a united effort resulted from this agitation. The drawing up of a petition to the Street Commissioners and its circulation by Councilman Newhall and others, and the consequent hearing upon the matter, have been duly reported.

At this hearing there was practically no division as to the proper steps to be taken, although Mr. R.S. Barrows and one or two others strongly maintained that the widening to 150 feet instead of 120 would not more than provide for future increase of traffic in the Square.

The Square is already the terminus of three street railway companies: the Boston Elevated, West Roxbury & Roslindale and Norfolk Suburban. With double tracks and turnouts, the safe capacity of the Square, with pedestrians and carriages, is much exceeded. In the near future, the Elevated will have another line in the Square from South street. It will not be long before tracks are run in from Milton, and a line from the Newton direction is not an impossibility.

Altogether, it has seemed to us that 150 feet would not make too great provision for the future increase of traffic. Nevertheless the change from 60 to 120 feet will be a wonderful improvement, and the people of this section are to be congratulated on the prospect of its early realization. We hope that the time is not far distant when the financial condition of the city will allow the commissioners to go a step further and have removed the block of buildings between Washington street and Hyde Park avenue. This would solve for all time a problem which will grow more and more serious and far more expensive of solution. There is, however, a possibility that when the Boston Elevated extends the elevated tracks to Forest Hills Square this block will be taken by the company for a station. When this comes, either the city or the Railroad must take this tract, or the remaining section of the Seaver estate to the Brook, a distance of only forty feet beyond what has already been taken.

Friday, February 13, 2009

"Tink" Billouin Jr., Class President.

I found the aging clipping above in a desk drawer at home. The caption reads:

"OVATION FOR CLASS PRESIDENT -- Silbert "Tink" Billouin Jr., of Jamaica Plain, is born triumphantly on the shoulders of his classmates as they cheered the Negro Class President at graduation exercises at the Mary E. Curley Junior High School in Jamaica Plain. With his heart full of hope for his future, "Tink" delivered a powerful message to leaders of Boston's one day school boycott."

At the top right, In the upper right corner, in pencil, is written:

"June 1963 Hurrah for Tinkey and all of us!"

My brother Jim graduated from the Curley school that year, and the writing is his. I've known of this clipping for a year, but the article that went with the photo was not saved with it. This week, I finally took the trip into the Boston Public Library at Copley Square to find the article. The photo caption notes that it appeared in the Record American, an antecedent to today's Boston Herald. The article was published on June 20, 1963, and the photo above was featured on the first page, as seen below.

Record American, June 20, 1963 (click to enlarge).

In later years, my mother told me that as a child, my brother Jim always seemed to make friends with the one black boy in a group. There was no political or social significance to it - grade school kids don't know enough to take virtuous stands. Rather than claiming any sort of positive effort towards "diversity" in his young life, it might be more accurate to say that he simply lacked the negative attribute necessary to exclude potential friends by race. Based on the inscription on the clipping, I have to assume that Tink, his Junior High School class president, was one of those friends he made so naturally.

The article that went with the photo relates to the city-wide school boycott of 1963 - the first wide-spread protest by African Americans in Boston over the conditions of the schools in predominately black neighborhoods. The boycott was very successful in the publicity it engendered, but not all African Americans favored the approach. Silbert "Tink" Billouin and his parents represented a voice often lost when the era is considered. This topic would take us away from the subject matter of this site, so I'll just say that the Billouin family lived in Jamaica Plain, and they played their part in the community.

When I finally started to write up this entry, I got to thinking that it would be great to contact Tink Billouin and interview him. An Internet search came up with the two Silbert Billouins, father and son. Silbert Sr. was born in March of 1912 and died in June of 1978. Silbert "Tink" Billouin, Jr., was born in 1948 - like my brother Jim - and died in November of 2001.

My hopes of contacting Tink and seeing if he remembered my late brother were disappointed. The photo doesn't even include my brother - it was just a memento of his, a reminder he may never have seen since it was put away with class pictures and crayon drawings in our parent's desk drawer. Be that as it may, the clipping, Tink Billouin, Jim Bulger and the Mary E. Curley Class of 1963 are remembered here one more time.

Record American June 20, 1963

Negro Boy In Slap At Boycotts

By Jean Cole

"You should be teaching Negro youth how to get out of their ghettos... not how to stay out of school."

This was the powerful message to leaders of Boston's one day school boycott, from a 15-year-old Negro boy who graduated Wednesday as president of his class from the Mary E. Curley Junior High School.

His heart full of love and hope for the future, Silbert "Tink" Billouin Jr. joined his parents after graduation exercises in an urgent plea to freedom leaders to recognize the "true problem that haunts Negroes through the nation."


Sometime speaking for himself, and as often letting his adored father who has reached success in work and in the community despite overwhelming odds, do the talking, "Tink" and his parents agreed:

Strikes and boycotts for Negroes do not work.

The basic Negro problem is one of housing.

Decent jobs and good education evolve when Negroes are not forced to live in ghetto.

Negro leaders should spend all of their time, their effort and their money to help relocate families of their race in communities not predominately Negro.


Billouin, parent and child alike, are living examples of what they preach.

Silbert Sr. brought his family from Trinidad, British West Indies, first to Canada, where he attended McGill University, and then to the United States, where they became citizens.

That they understand fully ghetto living is attested to by five years residence in New York City's Harlem.

"Tink" was born in Portland, Maine, where the family lived for a time before moving to an all-white street in Jamaica Plain, not far from Boston's Negro areas.

"Tink" enters Boston English High School next September and eventually wants to go to college and become a lawyer.

His father, a sales representative, expressed the belief that there can be and will be more "Tinks" taking their place in society if Negro leaders will recognize and do something about the real problems,,, jobs and homes. He said: "I'm proud of Tink. He as grown up without the strong attitudes that might have developed in a family background of active antagonistic social attitudes."

There were kind words Wednesday from Negroes for School Committeewoman Louise Day Hicks too. Although she actively tried to stop the Tuesday school stay-out, Mrs. Hicks was embraced by a Negro mother at graduation exercises at the James P. Timilty school. The woman quietly whispered "God bless you."

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Urban Renewal Comes To Green Street

Woolsey square (JP Historical Society)

I copied this article from the Jamaica Plain News, but I neglected to record the date of the paper. It was after World War II, probably during the late 1940s or early 1950s. I have yet to find the article again, so I've been holding on to the article. Rather than keep it in the files, I though I'd publish it and leave locating the date to another time.

The Woolsey block is shown above. Today it would face east towards the Green street Orange Line station. At the time, it was opposite the Jamaica Plain railroad station - see the carriages waiting for passengers on the left. It was probably the coming of the Elevated train line to Washington street that killed the Green street station. Why take the train to Back Bay station when you could take the Elevated train all the way through downtown Boston and connect with the other rapid transit lines in town. And for the railroad company, why should they stop their trains at stations so close together, like Forest Hills, Green street and Boylston street? Some time after World War I, a combination of the automobile, the Elevated line and railroad company distaste for slow commuter lines killed Jamaica Plain Station. And with the death of the station, the viability of the Woolsey square as a business district was lost.

We can wish that the old buildings had been saved for historical reasons, but the I-95 project and the later Southwest Corridor train line would have taken them in the end in any case. The business district of Jamaica Plain moved to Centre street, and the hustle and bustle of Woolsey square was forgotten.

Jamaica Plain News

Urban Redevelopment Urged On Site Of Old J.P. Railroad Station.

The Mayor's Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Rehabilitation and Conservation Committee are highly elated about the removal of the ancient four story brick structures at 6 to 10 Woolsey square, opposite the former Jamaica Plain railroad station, says Col. Paul Hines, co-ordinator of the City's rehabilitation program. Demolition of the building was started last week on order of the Building Department.

With the removal of the structures long in disuse, it is the hope of the committee, says Chairman Robert T. Fowler, that it can induce the Urban Redevelopment Authority to designate the site of the buildings and adjacent land along the side of the railroad tracks for a spot clearance renewal program.

The rebuilding of the Woolsey square section, he says, would not only check blight, but would add to the City's tax rolls several hundred thousand dollars of real estate valuations. Furthermore, it would protect the adjacent Sunset Hill residential area for 50 years to come.

The Woolsey square building now being removed, before the automobile days were the most prominent ground floor stores and office properties in Jamaica Plain. In those days all the fashionable residents of that section rode to the area daily in their carriages or came afoot to take the train to their place of business in down town Boston. The result was that for a long period of years space in the buildings were at a premium. Since World War I however, and the shift from train service to automobile, the real estate in that area has steadily depreciated in value and appearance. With the elimination of the antiquated structure, it is the belief of the members of the Jamaica Plain Rehabilitation Committee that it will be the beginning of the restoration of that area to its former value.

Working hand and glove with the Rehabilitation Committee, the building and health departments, following the recommendations of Demolition Director John A. Murray, have removed more than a dozen sub-standard dilapidated residential structures from the Jamaica Plain district during the past year. As a result in several instances the owners of neighboring properties have been encouraged to repair and paint their houses.