Sadly, a beautiful Greek Revival house in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood, erected as long ago as 1841, is on what seems a sure path to demolition. The fate of 305 Chestnut Ave. is not sealed, however, and in a world where so much of beauty and history is at greater risk than ever, my concern for this house equates largely with my concern for its owner. He is my longtime friend David Mittell, who served with me for years on the editorial board of the Providence Journal, worked for years at the Duxbury Clipper, worked for peace in his poor beloved Ukraine, which he has visited 25 times, and who is now abed in a Newton care facility after a stroke that has drained his ability to act on the causes for which he cares most – including his house on Chestnut Avenue.
Saving the house could help save my friend. In the last week David has wrestled with his house pride, finally letting a group of those who love him take steps to save his house as they work to secure his health.
But saving David’s old house could also help save Jamaica Plain. After years of dilapidation, the house has been condemned by the Boston Fire Department and placed in the hands of a receiver, who could order its demolition as a fire hazard at any time, or sell it to a developer who would probably rip it down and put up something at odds with the street’s historical character. For now, that block of Chestnut is a modest mecca of 19th and early 20th century houses. Elsewhere in Jamaica Plain the forces of modernity are gnawing away at JP’s historic charm. Saving 305 Chestnut could slow if not halt that trend.
The J. Alba Davis House, as 305 is known to historians and preservationists, is named for the leather dealer who purchased it in the 1860s, after ship carver John Foule (or Fowle) built it along with his brother, William, in about 1841. Davis moved it round the corner from Green Street to Chestnut Avenue, setting it back from the street so that today it sits amid a wee charming woods of its own.
The Davis House was built in the Greek Revival style that was sweeping the nation as its citizens sought to figure out what Thomas Jefferson and George Washington had in mind when they selected Greco-Roman classical architecture to reify the principles of the first nation ever conceived to carry out an idea rather than to protect the interests of a ruling class. Most Greek Revivals are relatively modest affairs, well within the capacity of shipwrights and other tradesmen or artisans to build on their own.
Preservationist Gretchen Grozier, in tour notes for the Jamaica Plain Historical Society, describes the architecture of the house at 305 Chestnut:
This house is grander than the house we saw earlier. It displays the main characteristic of Greek Revival buildings, which is to be completely symmetrical. The structure is square, with an octagonal cupola in the center of the roof. Note the semi-circular window on the third [attic] floor and the prominent porch with the four columns. Due to the symmetry, it [once had] the same configuration on the back.
The porch’s four Ionic columns are mirrored behind and above on the second story by Ionic pilasters. Maybe it is my desire to imagine the house in the utmost of its nobility, but it seems to me that, even in the right-hand photo of 305 in its currently forlorn condition, the volutes, or scrolls, of its column capitals almost shimmer, seeming to revolve with a hallucinogenic, come-hither allure.
Well, be that as it may, 305 Chestnut cries out for restoration by loving historians and preservationists. Its interior elegance could be even more difficult to restore than its dilapidated exterior. Ah, but what beauty, what local affirmation would attend such a community effort! If successful, with the help of the JPHS, the Boston Preservation Alliance, Historic Boston Inc. or other organizations with the will and maybe the capacity to raise the money to do the job, work on the house will contribute to the integration of the streets of Jamaica Plain with the Emerald Necklace of the great landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer (with Calvin Vaux) of New York’s Central Park. Many elements of his Boston necklace of parks run through Jamaica Plain.
The revival of 305 Chestnut Ave. will work, also, to revive the spirits of one of Boston’s finest citizens, David A. Mittell Jr. Let’s all help get him back on his feet, so he can help Jamaica Plain revitalize its own delicate civic glory. For the achievement of both high ends there is not a moment to lose.