The Mystic Mansion.
SOMEONE once made the remark that Medford was noted for its rum, ships and old houses,—and with good reasons. The ship-building industry of the old days is gone, though there has recently come the building of the modern motor boats; the other famous product (no longer made) is becoming rare, the real article commanding a high price; but the old houses are well holding their own. The subject of this sketch is not one of the oldest, but attains the century mark this present year, and is now generally known as the Mansion House. Now in private ownership, it was at the time of its erection a public building, the Medford almshouse. The Puritan settlers of Massachusetts had little need for almshouses, for idleness was whipped out of the men by the magistrates and out of the boys by their parents; at least so says the historian. It was not till a hundred and sixty years after the town's settlement that an almshouse was provided, and then by the purchase of a house and three acres and a half of land, barely enough for a vegetable garden, as was said; and this house served for twenty years, till it became unsuitable. At the ‘March meeting,’ in 1811, steps were taken to build a new one. The committee chosen to attend to this duty was a notable one. The chairman, [p. 81] Timothy Bigelow, was for many years Speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives. The others were Dr. John Brooks (afterward and for seven years governor); Abner Bartlett, Medford's noted lawyer; Jonathan Brooks and Isaac Brooks, the latter an efficient Overseer of the Poor. This committee reported their plan, which was to build a three-story brick building ‘on the lane leading from the great road from Maiden, to Turner's ship-yard.’ This lane is now known as Cross street, and the acre and a half of land is the cemetery. The house was to be 36 × 44 feet in size, and with the land was to cost $4,000.00. The committee also reported that the old house, with its three and a half acres of land, could be sold for one eighth of that amount. Opposition to this plan soon found expression in the remonstrance of twenty-one prominent citizens, and a committee was chosen to wait upon the former named committee and request them to desist from their work. The result of this action was that on March 9, 1812, the committee reported that such house of brick could be built in either place for $3,354.00; that one of the same area, of two stories of brick, but without shed, for $2,600.00; or if of wood, for $2,300.00. It was thereupon voted to build on the old location a two-story house of brick, and the committee proceeded with its work. After the lapse of a hundred years the substantial brick walls stand today in testimony to the committee's good judgment, as well as to the skill of the workmen who built them. Whether the committee employed an architect to draw plans does not appear, and the exterior appearance of the house when completed is a matter of some doubt. From conversation with the oldest residents in its vicinity, the writer has been led to think that the roof and end walls were like those of the Seccomb house and the Historical Society's building, and with that idea in mind it was so represented in the background of the picture, prepared in 1905, of the first West End schoolhouse. (See Register, Vol. VIII, p. 77.) [p. 82] The house was then practically three stories in height (as the basement floor was but slightly below grade), and had a pitched or possibly a gambrel roof, making a roomy attic therein. Built into the end walls were four chimneys and numerous fireplaces for warmth, as this was before the advent of hot-air furnaces or steam-heating apparatus. The windows were wide and well up from the floors, and the glass was in numerous small panes. A stone set in the eastern wall, above the entrance door, bears the date 812. Medford's streets (roads they were then called) were few, and had not the specific names they now bear until 1829. Then the selectmen took action and named the various public ways that radiated ‘from the town pump’ or ‘from the hotel.’ That high ‘way to Menotomy’ they called High street, and the almshouse was ‘somewhat back from the village street’ that was appropriately named High as its course lay over ‘Marm Simond's hill.’ This road was the one taken by Paul Revere after he awakened Capt. Isaac Hall of the Medford Minute Men on April 19, 1775. From the earliest times there had been near the river a dwelling, with a brick yard between it and the bend opposite the mouth of Menotomy river. A lane had led thereto, and on the opening of the Middlesex canal, nine years before the building of the almshouse, the canallock, tavern, and ‘landing number four’ made this lane something of a thoroughfare. Its proximity, and the more remote course of High street, probably caused the fronting of the house toward the lane, which became very aptly called Canal street, and it still bears the name. Soon after the completion of the house, eight acres of land adjoining were purchased for as many hundred dollars. The historian remarks, ‘This was planted and it had the magical effect of thinning out the male occupants.’ During the construction of this new house the town's poor were returned from Woburn, where they had been quartered, and doubtless fared better by the change. [p. 83] Benjamin Young was the first keeper of the new almshouse, probably beginning his duties late in the autumn of 1812, and was allowed for his services (and wife's, also) $250.00 per year. It was stipulated that he ‘was to maintain himself and family, and to have house rent and the use of the kitchen fire.’ In 1813 thirty-three persons were supported wholly by the town, and thirteen assisted. The Overseers of the Poor were chosen from the most worthy and prominent citizens, and doubtless administered affairs as well as means and customs of the time permitted; still, the almshouse ‘was a nightmare in those days to many a poor soul battling with poverty.’ The town had the usual barn and out-buildings near by, including the ‘crazy pen,’ where a few unfortunates bereft of reason were kept. Happily such are cared for in these days in a different manner, and not exposed to the view of idle passers, or the teasing of ill-mannered youths who need the parental discipline of birch or shingle; but such were the conditions of those days. Of this latter, mention is made advisedly, for in 1831 the schoolhouse, built elsewhere two years before, was moved into the corner of the almshouse lot, as a more convenient site, and fronted on the canal lane. In 1835 the Lowell railroad was opened for travel, having been constructed through the town's land and within two rods of the house. In 1851 the great tornado which wrought such havoc in West Cambridge (now Arlington) and Medford totally wrecked this schoolhouse, but did little damage to the almshouse. Fortunately there were no children hurt in the schoolhouse wreck, as it was vacation time, but the school was to have opened two days later. It is said, however, that the great September gale of 1815 blew down the chimneys and broke the almshouse windows badly. In 1853, Medford having built a new (the present) almshouse, this house, with its land, was sold for $3,690.10. [p. 84] Thomas P. Smith was the purchaser, and he had also acquired all the territory in Medford lying westward there — from between High street and Mystic river. Traversing this had been the Middlesex canal, but this had been discontinued in the preceding year. Mr. Smith was a man of much public spirit and enterprise, and had planned here a suburban village to be called ‘Brooklands,’ with numerous streets and two parks, Gorham and Lakeview, therein. His residence and great barn was on High street, just westward from the parochial residence of the present St. Raphael's Church. He had erected several first-class houses, and in 1852 the substantial building of classic design (that has ever since had a prominent place in the public thought—educational, religious, social, fraternal, political—as well as of business use), the Mystic Hall building. All this has been in accordance with his design, as time has proved, though he lived to see but little of it, as he died on April 27, 1854. A radical change in the old almshouse and its reconstruction went on in that year, till, as Medford's historian records, its ‘strong walls only are yet standing to support a new, expensive and commodious country seat.’ Its old shingled roof, with its battlement walls, was replaced with one of pyramidal form covered with red slate of the most expensive kind, and crowned by an octagonal cupola. Since the first preparation of this article the writer has made a careful examination of the building, and especially of the framing of the roof, so far as it can be seen, and is now of the opinion that the roof timbers and boards may be the original ones. It is more than likely that in 1854 a wider cornice was placed upon the eaves, with ornamental brackets and copper gutters, and the entire roof then slated. The new staircases were furnished with a continuous rail of mahogany from basement to attic, while the interior was most substantially finished and supplied with all the conveniences of that time. [p. 85] As an almshouse there had been nothing of ornament within or without, but for its new use no expense was spared. The window openings were lengthened downward, as may be seen by an examination of its walls. Great four-paned windows replaced the old sashes, and were probably among the first of their kind in Medford. A wide corridor extended through the house, and over its western door was a canopy supported by iron brackets of elaborate make and design. That it was an almshouse no longer was evident to all observers from the railway cars, as ‘Mystic Mansion’ appeared in the glass in great gilt letters. A vestibule at the front door, with a basement entrance beneath, gave character to the eastern front, while the broad and bracketed eave-cornice showed marked contrast to the old appearance. To serve the new use, a wing some forty feet long was built southward, with baths and sleeping apartments on the second floor, and the first in one large room. Mention has been made of Mr. Smith's residence and of Mystic Hall. When the reconstruction of the almshouse was complete, Mrs. Smith, on February 5, 1855, opened in these three buildings her boarding school for young ladies, the somewhat famous ‘Mystic Hall Seminary.’ An examination of its prospectus and year books reveals the names of men well known in the literary and professional world as its board of visitors, together with clergymen, jurists and merchants, as references. No inconsiderable number of the young misses were daughters or wards of Southern people, and several Southern papers printed flattering notices of the school that read strangely today. Mrs. Smith's plan of study embraced four departments: ‘Physical, Moral, Mental and Graceful.’ To become expert in the physical, the pupils availed themselves of the salt tides of the Mystic, three bath-houses built on its banks being a part of the seminary equipment. The disused canal provided a safe skating park, and there was a gymnasium and bowling alley in the great barn [p. 86] near the Smith residence. There also were kept the horses for their equestrian feats, as also the seminary ‘omnibus.’ In the graceful department the noted Louis Papanti of Boston taught dancing. All the modern languages were taught, some of the instructors coming from Harvard, and the ‘French language only, used at table.’ Mrs. Smith herself taught in general literature and science, working out her elaborate plan. After four years of apparently successful operation she deemed it advisable to remove the school to the national capital, expecting a greater Southern patronage. This she did, reopening there in the autumn of 1859. Her expectations were not realized; the John Brown raid at Harper's Ferry proved disastrous to her hopes and plans. During the following year the seminary was in operation and was visited by the Prince of Wales and suite, this being the year of their American tour. Leslie's Weekly of that date gives an account thereof, and has an illustration showing the prince (later King Edward) exercising in the gymnasium of the seminary. The outbreak of the Civil War blasted all hope, and the school closed. For a time thereafter, with her father, Ebenezer Smith, Mrs. Smith resided in the Mystic Mansion. The town of Medford still held a mortgage on the property and had taken possession thereof. The elder Mr. Smith died in August, 1864, and in 1866 the claim of the town was satisfied by the payment of nearly $3,500.00, and the property came into the hands of trustees under the Smith will. Early in 1870 the entire estate came into new ownership, and after lying dormant for seventeen years the enterprise of building a village, begun by the younger Mr. Smith, was commenced anew. During later years the Mansion House had been neglected. It was in 1871 repaired and three quarters of the dormitory extension removed, the latter made into a comfortable dwelling. The owners, however, found [p. 87] the proximity of the railroad detrimental to its occupancy as a high-class residence by any one able to maintain its style, but planned to make it a ‘genteel boarding-house,’ as they termed it. After a few years it fell by foreclosure of mortgage into the possession of a Boston bank, and later into ownership of Olin O. Foster, who for several years resided there. During his occupancy there was a plan formulated by a Mr. Dana Bickford (himself an inventor) of obtaining it for a home for aged and indigent inventors, and he secured an option on the same in 1902. He was unable, however, to interest great capitalists, as he hoped, and the project failed. A few years since, Mr. Foster sold the property and removed from the city. It was then repaired to some extent and has since been used as a boarding-house. The old mansion, erstwhile the almshouse, has been a silent witness to the march of a century's progress. When its substantial walls were erected our country was engaged in war with England, over which the third George was then reigning sovereign. Communication was so slow in those days that the battle of New Orleans was fought after the treaty of peace had been made. Only five years had passed since Fulton's steamboat, but no such one had dared the stormy Atlantic. The stagecoach was then the only public conveyance overland. Since 1803 it had been possible to journey from Boston to Chelmsford by water through the Middlesex canal, but the travellers were few. Lowell was yet to be. The dwellers in the almshouse doubtless looked with wonder on the novel sight of Captain Sullivan's steamboat Merrimack as it passed through the canal, but a few rods away, in 1818 and 1819, its noisy engine and the smoke of its wood and tar fire very noticeable. Then again, seventeen years later, there came the snort and neigh of the iron horse at their very door, that must have created great excitement, and been looked upon with amazement by the older people. [p. 88] Two trees stood by the entrance gates in those old days, an elm and a willow. The latter succumbed to the ravages of the gypsy moth; the elm is now fourteen feet in circumference. A half dozen others have grown in later years (one over two feet in diameter) where the schoolhouse stood, and since its destruction by the tornado. The site occupied by the various ‘appendages,’ as the building committee called the out-buildings, is covered with dwellings, stable, and granite works, but the old mansion stands, shaded by the trees, substantial and useful after a century's busy use. Probably its palmiest days were in the four years when the Mystic Hall Seminary was in its prime, and which but for its untimely removal might have longer continued to educate young misses of Medford and from other places, in matters physical, moral, mental and graceful. As it is, there are yet some living who recall with pleasure their youthful days spent in its classic halls, and occasionally come to look again on the old Mystic Hall and Mystic Mansion.—
M. W. M.