Two Medford buildings of the Fifties.
UPON the wall of the principal's room in the Brooks schoolhouse hang four pictures of the successive structures that have housed that school. Each is in marked contrast to the other, as might well be expected. It is of the second that we wish especially to treat just now. It is not known that any photograph was ever taken of the building itself. The picture mentioned is a photographic enlargement of the engraving illustrating Brooks' ‘History of Medford,’ which was probably made from the architect's drawing, and was made by Erving Conant at the instance of some friend of the school. Of the earliest West End schoolhouse an account may be found in Vol. VIII, page 75, of the Register, and the accompanying half-tone is a reproduction of the penandink drawing which is one of the four above mentioned. The most casual glance at this will suffice to show a marked difference from its successor, while the appearance of the second will be striking as compared with the then prevailing style and appearance of schoolhouses. There was a reason for this. Historian Brooks devoted nearly a page to this house and its public exercises, and records that on March 10, 1851, the town voted to build it and appropriated $2,000 therefor, and says,
The inhabitants of West Medford, desirous of having a schoolhouse more ample in its dimensions and more classic in its appearance than the town's appropriation would procure, cheerfully united in adding to it, by subscription, the sum of nine hundred dollars.For some years prior to the writer's advent in Medford he passed to and from Boston on the railway, and often noticed the striking architecture of this building (the more noticeable because of the few adjacent houses), and [p. 50] very naturally thought it was the village church. Mr. Brooks gives the names of the building committee and adds, ‘they spared no pains in procuring a skillful draughtsman.’ We wish he had given his name, as careful search fails to reveal it. He mentioned the builder, George A. Caldwell, but in his history omits many interesting and noteworthy matters because ‘courtesy,’ ‘usage,’ or ‘custom forbids.’ Not so the committee, however, for in the city clerk's office are its reports, both majority and minority. The former, dated March 1, 1852, shows the entire expense to have been $3,370.82. Of this, $417 was for land at three cents per foot, and $187.52 for furniture and stove. The committee, pleading guilty to exceeding the appropriation, began by saying that one of its number had declined to serve, prior to the commencement of the building. It told of a plan, ‘presented by a liberal hand,’ and of $939.55 subscribed toward the construction, ‘rather than to have a one-story’ structure erected. It reported $893.55 of this collected, and that there was still due the contractor $477.27, all other bills being paid. This sum the town later appropriated and paid. This report was signed by John B. Hatch and James M. Usher. The minority report covers about four times the space of that of the majority, and is signed by Charles Caldwell, who says he ‘was met at the very outset by one Gentleman of the committee with a cool indifference that both surprised and astonished’ him, and intimating that this was because the said ‘Gentleman’ was not placed as chairman by the town. Evidently the committee were not harmonious, as they could not agree on a location, and three lots were named. Mr. Caldwell describes one as being ‘out of the way of nine-tenths of the children that attend or will attend in future, beside the Continual passing on the Lowell Rail Road trains of Carrs that can be seen and heard for miles, which Certainly would not greatly aid a Close application to study.’ Thereupon several meetings of the district were held and another lot [p. 51] chosen, the price of which was four cents per foot. At that stage of the matter Mr. Usher was in the minority, but by ‘his powerful eloquence’ in the district meeting this conclusion was arrived at. Then, ‘that there be no want of excitement the school committee stept aside from their proper Calling in order to give their advice in the matter.’ Then, after more turmoil, when ‘one would have supposed there was a foreign invasion by the noise,’ and ‘Mr. Smith said he would follow the Committee from the foundation to the pinnacle,’ the schoolhouse was at last located on land of Samuel Teele at the corner of Brooks and Irving streets. Mr. Caldwell says dimensions were agreed upon and he was asked to, and did, draw plans (a front and side elevation) with which no fault was found, the committee meeting soon after to stake out foundation, and fronting it southwest. Mr. Usher was to proceed with the foundation, as he said he had raised money by subscription for that expense. It appears from Mr. Caldwell's writing that Hon. Edward Brooks had become interested in the proposed building, and had suggested or offered to furnish plans for the same. These plans, he writes, were ‘drawn in the old English style,’ and were adopted, not without his criticism. Then the question of frontage came up again. ‘Mr. Usher wanted it northwest,’ and ‘here was open war again.’ ‘Mr. Usher controlled the subscription,’ saying, ‘Unless the house fronts to suit me you can have none of this money.’ At last Mr. Hatch is quoted as saying that he wanted that style of house, and rather than not have it, would vote to front it northwest, though against his wish. Mr. Caldwell closed the minority report with, ‘I was now fully satisfied that the present majority of the Committee were proceeding without regard to expense or the interest of the town. . . . I refused taking any further responsibility. . . for I was convinced that the whole thing from the beginning was a selfish speculation, Conceived in iniquity and brought forth in sin.’ [p. 52] And so at last the house was begun. Historian Brooks tells of the corner-stone laying on the sixth of August. Let us trust that the prayer of the good Baptist clergyman helped still the warring factions. Fortunately the swath the tornado cut two weeks later was a little southward, and the new schoolhouse escaped the fate of the old. On Forefathers' Day, very cold, and a heavy snowstorm under way at its close, the dedication exercises were held. This time the senior clergyman of the town, Dr. Ballou, made the prayer. Mr. Brooks mentions on each occasion original poems recited by pupils. Probably modesty forbade naming their author. The effort to locate on land of higher price may have savored of ‘selfish speculation,’ but at this date we fail to find warrant for the iniquity and sin referred to. Possibly the plans finally adopted contributed to the dissatisfaction of the minority, and the final location broke the strained relation. The ‘old English’ architecture of the edifice could not fail of attracting attention, and the more because of its elevated position. After eighteen years of use, the town decided on a larger structure and secured the present admirable location on High street. In 1869 this second house and land was sold for $I,200 to Edward Kakas, who had it converted into a dwelling-house. The cupola and the four corner turrets were removed and the exterior refinished. The entrance porch forms a bay-window, and the roof is slightly elevated at the eaves. The vertical siding was covered with clapboards, the projecting corners below the turrets removed, and the basal finish still shows the corners filled in. This building is now the residence of George H. Remele. For some years its arched cupola found a resting-place on the ledge next Hastings lane. Till very recently one (or two) of the tall turrets have stood on the hill slope in the rear of Mrs. Kakas' residence, and within a few months the writer has seen and examined the remains of one. They were octagonal, two feet in diameter, were [p. 53] of open construction, and each corner was of pine timber four by six inches in size. Their pagoda roofs were of heavy sheet iron, terminating in iron finials, in which were the letters E. B. in monogram. It would have been well if Principal Hobbs' idea of placing it in the corridor of the new Brooks school could have materialized. Historian Brooks said the locality was ‘where pure air comes from the heavens, and pure water from the earth’—and hereby hangs a tale, told the writer in 1866 by an elderly Medford man. He dug a well in the dry summer time into a hillside's underlying ledge; a slow, laborious process, and all the broken rock had to be hoisted out in buckets by a windlass. He had excavated below all other wells, and no water was reached. Resuming his work one day he noticed a moist and seamy place in the rock, and struck it with the sharp point of his crowbar. A chip of stone fell off, and a stream of water flowed in. His helper shouted, ‘The tub! the tub!’ and before they were hoisted out by the men on the surface the water was up to their necks. The writer had not heard of the Brooks schoolhouse then, but very likely this is the place. Reference has been made to the excess of expense above the town's appropriation. In the immediately preceding years several new houses had been erected in the ‘West End,’ notably those of Revs. John Pierpont and David Greene Haskins, the two Hastings, and two by D. N. Skillings. Beside these were the Wood, Breed and Spaulding residences beyond the railway. These were all large, well-built houses, which shame some of more modern construction. Too large for present-day use by one family, they do not lend themselves well to the recent craze for ‘two-flat houses.’ These and the less pretentious ones of that period can readily be identified by careful observers. With these came the call for increased school accommodation and for a meeting-place or social center. So for this latter was the subscription list and funds the historian and committee mention, and [p. 54] we are told the new school building was for a little time thus used. In 1852 the West Medford Lyceum and Library Association was incorporated, and continued operative until 1871, and may have had its earlier meetings in the school hall, or until the building known as Mystic hall was erected in 1852. This was done by Mr. T. P. Smith, who was alluded to by Mr. Caldwell in his minority report. Mr. Smith had purchased the almshouse just vacated by the town, thus adding the old town farm to his extensive domain, which stretched away to the river and on which was the large house in which he lived. (See Register, Vol. XI, No. 3, frontispiece, for this and Mystic hall.) Upon the completion of this structure it became the social center for such public gatherings as the West End had, with those of the Lyceum Association, and there was the latter's library, until placed in the care of the Village Improvement Society in about 1880. Later this building was the home of the famous Mystic Hall Seminary, which was opened subsequent to the death of Mr. Smith by his widow, and which took its name from that of the hall. During the sixty-three years that have elapsed it has been more or less a social center of West Medford, seminary, lyceum, Sunday school, union religious services, churches, fraternal organizations, clubs and polling place. It still houses, as it has in all the forty-six years the writer has known it, a village grocery, with the exception of a few months, conducted by the present proprietor. This is not an advertisement, but history, and ‘custom’ need not forbid mention of the name, Joseph E. Ober. Possibly its owner (its builder's name has escaped us) may have been dissatisfied with the schoolhouse wrangle and erected Mystic hall as a rival; if so he builded better than he knew for a social center, but certainly both these buildings were and are a credit to their designers and constructors, and the latter bids fair to so remain.