BROOKLINE HISTORICAL SOCIETY
ANNUAL MEETING, JANUARY 23, 1907
PUBLISHED BY THE SOCIETY
A SHORT HISTORY OF PIERCE HALL WITH SOME PERSONAL RECOLLECTIONS.
Read at Meeting of Brookline Historical Society, November, 1906.
The action of the First Parish during the past summer, in very materially altering and repairing Pierce Hall (so called), and recently the destruction of the parish house by fire, and the almost miraculous escape of Pierce Hall, which adjoined the parish house, from the devouring element, have brought the old building prominently before the citizens of the town, and it was thought that some account of what is now a historic building, and some personal reminiscences of it might be interesting to our society; and the following rather brief and, from the limited time since the fire, rather crude account has been prepared from such data as the writer could gather and the records could show.
The building was originally designed and built for a town hall, and also for a district school, to take the place of the old brick school. Until 1825, the town meetings were held either in the meetinghouse, which was owned and maintained by the town, or in the brick schoolhouse which stood on the triangular plot of ground just north of the meetinghouse, -the spot which one year ago was crowded by the people of the town, including the schoolchildren, gathered to dedicate the stone and tablet there erected to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the town. I say either the one place or the other, for it is an amusing distinction that our fathers drew between religious worship and secular transactions, in that while it was deemed sacrilegious to have artificial heat in the meetinghouse -no matter how severe the wintry winds,-if the town meeting was called on a very cold day an adjournment was made to the brick schoolhouse, which had a stove in it. It is interesting to note the reluctance of the town to authorize the expense of the new building, and the vacillation as shown by the contradictory votes on the subject.
The first reference we find to a possible new building was at the town meeting held April 5, 1824, when it was voted "that the selectmen Thomas W. Sumner, Ebenezer Heath and Joshua C. Clark be a committee to examine the state of the brick schoolhouse and report at the May meeting the probable expense of repairing it and erecting a New House of brick, Wood and Stone." These three were representative men and frequent reference to them is found in the town records. They all lived to a good old age, and I remember them well. Thomas W. Sumner lived in the old wooden house which stood so long on Warren street, on the spot where Mr. Hunt now lives. It is the same house where of old Jeremy Gridley lived, a paper on whose life our President wrote not long ago. A fine picture of the house was given in the records of our Society. His garden took in what are now the estates of Mrs. Poor and Mr. Townsend. He was a retired Boston merchant, a kindly gentleman and a good citizen. Ebenezer Heath lived in the house now occupied by the Misses Dana on Heath street. He was a farmer and his farm took in the beautiful hill west of the old reservoir. Joshua C. Clark, or Deacon Clark, as he was generally known, lived in the house on Warren street now occupied by the Olmsteds. He was a farmer, his land being part of that covered by the reservoir, and extending south of Dudley He was a most excellent citizen.
On May 3d, the following action was taken: voted, "That the Brick schoolhouse be not repaired"; also voted, "that Mr. Sumner be employed to draft a plan of a one-story building to accommodate the Town"; also voted, "that the Selectmen be required to call a meeting on Monday next to see whether the Town will build a schoolhouse." The schoolhouse rather than the townhouse was the all-essential thing. Then, on May 10th, the inhabitants of the town having been duly warned, a town meeting was held to consider the subject. Deacon John Robinson was chosen Moderator.
Deacon Robinson was a most estimable citizen, and was called upon in almost every emergency in which the town found itself. He lived on Washington street near the gas holder, just south of Beacon street, and was a tanner by trade. He was a selectman for thirty-four years; represented the town in the General Court for many years; was a moderator at town meetings, and indeed held almost every office in the power of the town to bestow. He died in 1854, at an advanced age. It may be interesting to state that I recently had the pleasure of shaking hands with Deacon Robinson's great-great-grandson, a lad of eighteen or nineteen years.
At the meeting mentioned it was voted "that the town build a two-story building, the basement to be entirely above ground"; voted, "that the building be of wood 48 x 28 feet"; voted, "that the committee to build be the same who were appointed on the expediency of repairing the Brick School House"; voted, "that Mr. Richard Sullivan be added to the committee." (Mr. Sullivan lived just above the meetinghouse, where Mrs. Bowditch afterwards lived. He was a retired Boston merchant, and made several gifts to the meetinghouse.) Voted, "to reconsider the vote for building of wood, so far as to give the committee the power to build the basement of stone if they think advisable that the building be of stone"; voted, "that the Town Treasurer be empowered to borrow what money is necessary to erect the building voted above."
Evidently the town proceeded forthwith to erect the building, for at a meeting called November 29th, it was voted "that the selectmen be a committee to dispose of the Brick Schoolhouse at auction when they think proper." In consequence they (the Selectmen) appointed the next Friday, the 3d day of December, at 2 p. m., "at which time the building was sold with a few useless logs for about one hundred and forty-eight dollars." My grandfather bought some of the bricks, which probably were put into the house which he was then building, and which stands today on Stearns road. Thus ended the old schoolhouse which had stood for so many years, marking the centre of the town; the school of the infamous Master Adams. Miss Woods speaks of Mr. Ebenezer Heath planting an elm tree on the spot where the door of the brick school stood.
Miss Woods has this in her "Sketches of Brookline": "After the close of the second war with England, the town began to grow more rapidly. Several gentlemen came here and built fine houses and there was a general increase of prosperity. The subject of building a townhouse began to be discussed, but met with considerable opposition from old citizens who thought the old schoolhouse had been good enough for them and their fathers, and ought to suffice for the coming generations.
"However, the more enterprising carried their point at last, so far as to get a vote to build a townhouse. The next thing to be considered was the place and the material. The brothers John and Lewis Tappan, and Mr. Joseph Sewall had built stone houses, and it was proposed to build a stone townhouse.' This was opposed of course, as unnecessary extravagance, by the men who thought the old schoolhouse was good enough. But once more enterprise triumphed, and the building was decided upon, as well as the location. This was the origin of the building known as the old stone schoolhouse, still standing next to the Unitarian Church.
January 1, 1825. -Saturday evening the new Town Hall was dedicated by prayer and sacred music. The new building with the Town Hall above and the District School below was now complete.
January 3, 1825.-A town meeting was held, at which the town voted "a unanimous vote of thanks to Deacon John Robinson for the valuable present of a chandelier for the use of the Town Hall, and that the same be placed on the Town Records." No further allusion to the building occurs in the town records until a meeting called April 27, 1834, when a committee was appointed to separate the land occupied by the meetinghouse from that occupied by the townhouse -the occasion being the dissolution of the town and parish. At that time the town owned quite a piece of land to the east of the town house, which was subsequently sold to Ignatius Sargent.
The school at that time in the new building was, as I have said, one of the district schools of the town, and was used as such until 1843, when the High School was first established. The hall was used as a town hall, and was also let for various purposes. I have heard my parents tell of singing schools, Lyceum lectures, and temperance lectures being held there; indeed, it was until 1840, when Lyceum Hall in the village was built, the only room of its kind in the town. Miss Woods speaks of the Lyceum lectures, and of a prize offered by one of the citizens to the young person who could best commit to memory and write out one of the lectures. The prize was won by Miss Sarah Clark, daughter of Deacon Clark, and who died but a few years ago.
The High School was organized August 17, 1843, -a rather singular date for beginning a school, but my earliest remembrance of summer vacations was three weeks in August, and the above date was evidently the beginning of the fall term. The first master of the school was Mr. Benjamin H. Rhodes, a graduate of Brown University, who resigned the position after four years of service. He had for a time as an assistant Mr. James Pierce, a relative of Dr. Pierce. He was a graduate of Harvard, and afterwards studied for the ministry, but before he had an opportunity to preach his health failed him and a voyage to Europe was prescribed; he died on the voyage and was buried at sea. Mr. Rhodes, of whom I have no recollection, had the respect and love of his pupils. He went from Brookline to assume the post of librarian of Redwood Library, Newport.
In 1845 the second Town Hall was built on or near the spot occupied by the present Hall. The dedicatory address by Dr. Pierce was almost a complete history of the town up to that date. The address was published and it is a most interesting account of the growth of the town. It has been frequently consulted and quoted, as Dr. Pierce was known far and wide as a faithful and conscientious historian. After this time the old building was used exclusively for school purposes, the girls occupying the upper story and the boys the lower. My first introduction to the school was in the spring of 1848, when having attained my eleventh birthday I was considered fit to enter the High School, age rather than ability being the test of entrance. At that time Mr. Hezekiah Shailer had succeeded Mr. Rhodes, and he was the master during the four years of my attendance there. He was a brother of Rev. William H. Shailer of the Baptist Church. Mr. Shailer was a believer in the old adage, "spare the rod and spoil the child," but he was on the whole a faithful, conscientious teacher, and had the respect of his scholars. The boys occupied the lower story, and a most dismal, damp and dark room it was. The building had no cellar and was placed Iowan the ground. The windows were small and the whole atmosphere of the place was depressing. The upper floor was occupied by the girls and was a light, cheerful room, and it was a great boon to the boys when the whole school gathered
there, or when they went there to recite.
The female teachers, as I remember them, were Miss Harding, who was transferred from the intermediate school; Miss Annie Ware, an older sister of Mr. Charles P. Ware of this town. She afterwards married Dr. Frederic Winsor of Winchester, and is still living, a widow, in Weston. Miss Taber was another teacher. She was a daughter of E. Taber of Roxbury, a famous clock maker of the old time. We have in our house one of his tall clocks, which must be at least seventy-five years old and is still ticking away. Miss Taber died a few years ago. Miss Emily Ripley was for a time a teacher in the school. She married the Rev. James Reid, Swedenborgian minister of Boston, and is still living.
Among the scholars were Spencer Richardson, the senior partner of Richardson, Hill & Co.; Roscoe Deane, a brilliant fellow, who studied law, but was addicted to taking morphine and died in early manhood; William Philbrick, a brother of Edward S. Philbrick, who lived in the old stone house on Walnut street; David Wilder, a brother of Burt Wilder, Professor at Cornell; Edward Thayer, a son of Seth Thayer, who for many years kept a store in Brookline; Walter Wild, a younger brother of Gen. Edward Wild; William Ventris, a relative of Mr. Shailer and who lived with him while at school. He became a Baptist minister and married Miss Murdock, also a scholar of the school. He came from Connecticut and introduced a game called Haddam Fox: after a newly fallen snow, he would mark out a large circle in the adjoining field, with radii to the center, and he (Ventris) was the fox, and the whole school as hounds would chase up and down these paths, with a penalty for the one who cut across.
Mr. Shailer used to open the school with prayer, kneeling down on the platform, resting his hands on a chair, facing the school. He seemed to have his eyes closed, but woe to the boy who would presume to take advantage of the situation; for, the prayer ended, the culprit would be called forthwith to the desk to receive his punishment: such were his occult (?) powers. He was paying attention while master of the school to Miss Jane Griggs, a daughter of Deacon Griggs, and a sister of Deacon Thomas Griggs of Washington street, and I remember a grammatical exercise one day in which occurred the sentence to be corrected, "Jane and I was invited," which caused a titter among the scholars and a blush on Mr. Shailer. After they were married they lived in a house on Corey Hill, directly behind Mr. Mitton's house, and which was pulled down a few years ago to make room for his stable. Mr. Shailer resigned in 1853 or '54, and went to New York, where he engaged in the book business. He died some years ago. His death was quite tragic: he owned a farm in Connecticut, and while stowing away hay in his barn one summer's day a thunderstorm came up suddenly, and the lightning struck the barn, and Mr. Shailer was instantly killed. His widow still lives in Brookline, over eighty years old.
I have spoken of the rather cheerless condition of the schoolhouse. It was not an architectural success, inside or out, -dull, gray, with no opening towards the street except a heavy solid door, a rather narrow window above, and a little round hole under the ridgepole; it was not unlike a tomb, a resemblance which was heightened by the two square recessed slabs of stone on either side of the door, as if ready to receive a " sacred to the memory of."
But if the schoolroom was cheerless, what shall I say about the recesses and the meetings before and after school. What an ideal playground! The whole meetinghouse lot was ours, and indeed the whole neighborhood for that matter. What glorious times climbing the hill behind the meetinghouse: the rocks, the trees, the glorious sunshine and the delightful views from the hilltop were ours to enjoy, and in boy fashion we did enjoy them, and the recollection of the good times often comes back to me as I go by the place now. In rainy weather we had the whole range of horse sheds, only separated from each other by a piece of timber, and here was our gymnasium all ready for us, without a cent of expense to the town. This in the summer season; in the winter what grand coasts! Often on our double-runners, beginning at the top of the hill beyond the church and ending on Cypress street where Boylston street crosses it; no police interference forbidding coasting in the streets in those days. Directly opposite the school was Mr. Sumner's land. On what is now Mr. Townsend's lawn was a cherry tree, which he gave to the boys,-generous, and at the same time politic old gentleman, for no better protectors to his garden could be found than his loyal friends the schoolboys. I attended the High School four years, leaving in 1852. Mr. Shailer continued as teacher about a year longer. After he left, the school had several masters of short duration of service, and the morale suffered materially, and quite a number of the parents took their children from the school and sent them to private schools. In 1854 Mr. John E. Horr was appointed to the post, and the school began at once to improve. It is not necessary that I should give any account of his stewardship, for it is but recently that he was taken from us, leaving an enviable record as a teacher and a citizen.
In 1856 the High School building at the corner of Prospect and School streets was opened and the old building was abandoned for a while. Mr. Horr in his report on the occupation of the new schoolhouse says: "Nor are we slow to remember our improved facilities: we have emerged from those low-browed arches of stone, and from damp and darksome cells to the more genial influences of solar light and wholesome air."
On the 25th of May, 1857, a new school called the South Primary was opened in the old building. The School Committee report says: "The requisite alterations in the heating plant and fixtures of the building have been effective: and a comfortable room meets all the necessities of the school for the present."
There certainly was room enough for improvement! Miss Adelaide Pope was the first teacher. She was a sister of Col. Albert A. Pope of bicycle and automobile fame. In the School Committee report of 1860-61, it reads: "Early in the year it was found necessary to place an assistant in the South Primary," etc., and Miss Ellen Hedge, a daughter of Rev. Dr. Hedge, was appointed. The report goes on: "While on the subject of this school (the old stone schoolhouse on Walnut street) it is well to call the attention of the town to the fact that there is not a foot of playground belonging to it: and your committee has been memorialized by citizens dwelling in that neighborhood on the subject of the great inconvenience to which they are subjected from this cause. It certainly is not just that the children from any part of the town should be forced to be a nuisance: yet from the necessity of the case they are so in this instance. Except into the street, they can scarcely step out of the schoolhouse without becoming trespassers on the property of some one." But the building continued to be used as a primary school until 1868, when the present Boylston Primary schoolhouse was built. Among the teachers in the old building was Miss Eliza Kenrick, aunt of the Messrs. Kenrick of our village. She afterwards married Capt. Asa Smith, and with him made several voyages around the world. In 1869 the building was sold to Edward Atkinson and Nathaniel G. Chapin for $1,000, and this terminates its ownership by the town. The building continued to be used as a school, private of course, and a number of different teachers were employed.
Mr. Atkinson, some years after, proceeded to make quite extensive changes in the building, adding a large wooden structure in the rear. The size of the old hall was about doubled an d was really made quite attractive, a new chimney was built, giving cosy fireplaces, and the lower story of the original building used entirely for dressing rooms.
Mr. Atkinson bought the place more especially for a place to have his own children educated, and also for an opportunity for others to come in, and under the care of Miss Rideoute the school became very popular. Miss Seamans, who afterward married Mr. Andrews, the architect, was Miss Rideoute's assistant; other teachers were employed and the school had a large attendance. After Mr. Atkinson's children got beyond the school age, his interest in the building waned, and about 1887 or '88 the school was closed. The old hall was now in the market for sale, and the First Parish, feeling it might be for their advantage to own the building so near its meetinghouse, bought it from Mr. Atkinson in March, 1890. Since that time it has been known as Pierce Hall, a name given to it in memory of Dr. Pierce, for fifty years the minister of the Parish, and also a resident of the parsonage opposite. It has been used by the Parish for social purposes, and also by the public in various ways: it has been a favorite place for private theatricals, having a stage and dressing-rooms, and many an enjoyable evening has been spent there in comedies, farces and charades. About a year ago it was found that the sills of the building had decayed so much as to cause a settlement of the Hall, and temporary props were put in during the past winter. Then came the project of a new parish house, and the plans adopted included the repairing and enlarging of the old hall. The parish house had just been completed and Pierce Hall nearly so, when the fire came, destroying the former and badly damaging the church, and the hall was saved only by the heroic efforts of the firemen. It has now been finished and is used by the Parish for Sunday services during the repairing of the meetinghouse.
The hall has been practically rebuilt, excepting the original stone walls. It has been lengthened, giving additional seating space, the ceiling has been removed, and the old roof timbers encased, a new and commodious stage built, and an entire renewal of dressing rooms, heating plant, etc. Since the Parish has owned the hall, it has been from time to time considered whether it were worth while to keep the old building standing. It has constantly required a considerable amount of repairs, and some members of the Parish have advocated tearing it down; but now with its renovation and its connection with the parish house it will doubtless stand for many a day, and at least celebrate its one hundredth birthday, which is not many years distant.
CHARLES H. STEARNS.
BROOKLINE, November, 1906.