The Medford library building.
EIGHTY-five years ago Medford had a population of about two thousand. Allowing an average of five to a dwelling would give four hundred structures for human habitation. But the average family of those days was larger, and three hundred is the more likely number. These varied in type from the few survivors of the earliest days, the low-studded, two-storied, four-room house, to which a lean — to may have been added, if not originally thus built, or the one—and two-story gambrel roofs with roomy attics, to those more modern and pretentious, erected after ship-building began. The exceptions were the Royall, Peter Tufts, Major Wade and Hastings houses, with the country seat of Peter C. Brooks, the finest and newest of all. But at that time there was erected one that was, and still is, unique in design, substantial in construction, on an eligible and commanding location, that is worthy of more than a passing notice, and should hold in the estimation of Medford people the same place that the original Bulfinch State house does in that of the Commonwealth. We refer to the residence of Thatcher Magoun, now the public library building. Who knows the name of its architect, or yet the master builder that erected it, or even any workman that wrought in its construction? The old house holds its secrets well. Who knows the make — up of those massive circular walls, or the year, or years (for work was not hurriedly done in those days) of its erection? Prior to its time no one in Medford, that we know of, had ventured the construction of a house with circular rooms, save that of Abraham Touro, and that in but one particular. But here [p. 2] we find a combination of two adjacent circles of twenty-six feet placed under one roof of the most substantial kind. We have been led to make these observations and queries for the information, not only of ourselves, but for those of Medford's people who may take interest therein. Soon after coming to Medford we noticed its peculiarity, and remember it as it was ere the terrace and lofty portico were added by the owner to ‘the mansion house of my honored father.’ We are quoting the words of his letter to the selectmen relative to his gift of it to the town. Familiar with its exterior, yet with one exception (soon after its opening for library use), we were never within its walls till after the construction of the brick stack-room and the attendant changes within. The men who refitted it for library use have passed on, and we can find no one to intelligently answer our queries. We have desired to add a trustworthy description of this unique building to the archives of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, in reply to query and request made in Boston Transcript of May 30 (last), as well as to our local history. So we turn to such sources of information as we have at hand. A tradition has been current that it was built in the same year and by the same builder as was the Gray mansion next west from it, and that early in the nineteenth century. That, however, upon consideration is highly improbable, as Thatcher Magoun (born June 17, 1775, in Pembroke, Mass.) was but twenty-seven years of age when he came to Medford in 1802 and commenced the business of ship-building. His first residence was near his ship-yard on old Ship street, corner of Park, and it was near the close of his active career that he erected this house, which was in some respects superior to any in town. His son Thatcher had already purchased the estate across and further up High street (in 1832) when the elder Magoun purchased of Nathaniel [p. 3] Bishop, on October 5, 1833, ‘a certain piece of land with a dwelling house,’ having a frontage on High street of ‘seven rods and twenty-two links, to land of Widow Gray.’ The record of Medford ships shows that he built his last ships in 1834 and 1835, one in each year, and that after 1835 the building at the Magoun ship-yard was by others. It would appear that the ‘mansion-house’ was commenced at about the time of his retirement, about 1835. Facing page 357 in Brooks' History of Medford (1855) is a steel engraving by F. T. Stuart, showing the house and stable, with (presumably) the owner in his carriage driving out across the sidewalk. Two pieces of statuary, and large vases, adorn the ample grounds. An iron fence surmounts the granite wall in front. A. C. Rawson was the delineator, and the print also bears the name of O. R. Wilkinson, Medford's daguerrean artist of that time. But for the eastern chimney being a little out of place, (probably the fault of the delineator) the view is an excellent one, and valuable as evidence of the original building. Thirty years later Usher's history gives a line-cut (p. 303) from a different and nearer point of view, showing the present terrace and portico, with the statuary and vases upon the pedestals of the balustrade. One of the vases and the eastern chimney are hidden by the big elm, and no photographer's name appears, but one Copeland was delineator. In this view the words ‘Public Library’ appear on the frieze of the portico, which indicates that the view was secured subsequent to 1875. It is a matter of regret that no files of either the Medford journal or Medford Chronicle were preserved by their publishers, for to such we would naturally refer for information. In the early seventies (probably ‘74) the younger Magoun had put the building in ‘the most perfect repair’ and added the terrace and portico. His father passed away on April 7, 1856, at the age of eighty years, leaving no will disposing of his [p. 4] estate of $800,000. His widow survived him until April 23, 1862, attaining seventy-eight years. Caleb Swan made note soon after of the same, saying-
She left no will and the property which was not divided after Mr. Magoun's death now all goes to the only two surviving children, Thatcher Magoun Jr. merchant of Boston and Medford and Mrs. Revd. Dr. Wm. Adams of New York. The Mansion House of their father built by him about 1835 is already advertised for sale.Of the occupants, or if there were any during the succeeding years prior to 1874, we have no information. Early in 1875 the selectmen of Medford were informed by Mr. Magoun, by letter dated January 22, 1875, of his intention to donate to the town the ‘Mansion House’ of his ‘late honored father’ for a library building. A copy of this letter was published in the Medford Chronicle at the time and may be found in the annual reports of the town. He stated in the letter—
The style of the ‘Mansion House,’ certainly in its exterior, appears to me to be admirably adapted for the purpose proposed; and my idea is, that the front or main building, above and below should all be used for library purposes as it is well arranged for that purpose.He also offered the town the sum of $1,000 for bookcases and furnishing, and after adding suggestions as to the utilization of the rear portion of the building, stated his intention of inserting
in the deed of conveyance that the title therein contained will be forfeited, should the stipulation [of library use] at any time not be strictly complied with.At the annual town meeting next following, Mr. Magoun's gift was duly accepted with thanks and he was asked to sit for his portrait, which he did, and the same is hung in the lower west room of the library. The building was formally opened for its new use on June 20, 1875 (the Usher history says 1873, manifestly an error in proof-reading), three days after the hundredth anniversary of the birth of the first Thatcher Magoun. We do not recall ever hearing the coincidence mentioned, [p. 5] and have had curiosity whether or not the donor might not have had in mind even when he made the addition to the front, its being a centenary memorial of his father, who was the founder of the Medford industry of ship-building, had been a leading business man, and the largest tax-payer in the old town. We have said this building is unique in design. Geometry demonstrates that the circle contains the largest area that can be enclosed by a given amount of exterior boundary line. But in actual building practice, when wood is the material used, the cost far exceeds the advantage gained. However, we have no thought that Mr. Magoun had that in mind. He was a ship-builder, and accustomed to curved lines, both in theory and practice. We have often thought he may have been his own architect, as we find those ‘wooden walls’ are as thick as those of a ship—sixteen or seventeen inches. No wooden house of that day, or this, exceeds six or seven. The foundation walls conform to the circular form within and the rectangular without, the cellar having windows only where the circle joins the outer straight lines. The six great pillars, of the Ionic order, which form a colonnade outside the enclosing walls, are nearly three feet in diameter at their bases, and support the entablature and cornice that is purely classic in design. They rest upon a granite foundation with a flagging resembling soap-stone. These columns are doubtless built around sizable timbers strong enough in themselves to support the roof. In all their details of bases, fluting and capitals they are architecturally and proportionately correct. The entablature rests honestly upon the voluted capitals and on the impinging circles of the walls, and is correct in every detail. The original gables are perfectly plain, with no windows or openings into the attic, and their cornices are carried a little higher than the main roof, which is covered with slates. These were imported from Wales, as at that time few slate quarries had been opened here. The windows are long and of [p. 6] fifteen panes in the lower story, which is eleven feet high, and their splayed openings have recessed pockets into which the panelled shutters fold back. The ceilings of these four large rooms are heavily corniced, and all the door and window openings have a moulded trim enriched with carved center and corner blocks. In the lower story such doors as were in curved partitions were made to conform to the curve. The entrance hall took a segment of four feet off each circle, making a straight side of fifteen feet in each room in which were wide doors of two leaves on the lower floor. The entrance hall had a heavy panelled door, with transom and side-lights, and a window at the rear. The latter is shown in the enlarged photograph which is preserved in the library. This was secured by the forethought of former President Eddy of the Historical Society, prior to the alterations made at the erection of the brick stack-room, and shows the fine old stairway as originally built. As yet we have found no one to tell us of the mode of construction of those circular walls. The alterations made twenty years ago (by workmen from out of town) may or may not have revealed it to them. The windows set deeply into the walls from without and more so within, and suggest that the circular walls may be of rough brick-work. If not, they may be of planks, sawed in segments and spiked or ‘trunnelled,’ one upon another, as was the circular house of Enoch Robinson on Prospect hill in Somerville.1 On the exterior they are sheathed vertically with narrow boards whose edges are devoid of heading or rounded corners, and their joining is now, after the lapse of so many years of exposure, barely noticeable. There is apparent sincerity of construction, in that no attempt is made to imitate a lintel over the windows, only a narrow plinth of wood at the flagging, and no cornice or moulding at the top. [p. 7] There is a tradition that Mr. Magoun had the front portion erected in its classic architectural style ‘to please his wife,’ and that he built the ‘L’ at the rear ‘to live in and to suit himself.’ Certainly there was a contrast, in that it was perfectly plain, with low-studded rooms, ‘like a ship's cabin,’ and these were the ones mostly used. By the alterations for library use these have disappeared. By the removal of part of the second floor, partitions, and exterior wall in one story they have become the reading room and part of the corridor. It is doubtful if Mr. Magoun expected the library to grow to its present proportions when he suggested the librarian's residence in those cabin-like rooms. It has been said that Oakman Joyce of Medford was the builder. This is not unlikely, as a little later (1839) he built the Unitarian church. Whoever he was, his work does him credit. In this article we have been unable to answer our own queries. Possibly it may serve to awaken other and more successful ones that may add to our knowledge of old Medford's history.
M. W. M.