The Loring-Greenough House in Jamaica Plain isn’t a traditional historic house museum. In fact, there are those who say it isn’t a house museum at all. To be sure, visitors can drop in for tours of the 1760 grand Colonial mansion, located at 12 South St., on Sunday afternoons from April through December, or at other times by appointment. But the place is almost always stirring with activities and events that reflect its role as a community institution, not just another house museum.
It is the unique stewardship model employed at the Loring-Greenough House that imbues the property with a current-day vitality that maintains its historic character while averting the sometimes static and staid atmosphere that can settle over house museums. The owner, the Jamaica Plain Tuesday Club, has operated the house this way since saving it from demolition in 1924.
Besides tours, during which visitors can hear about the many experiences of those who resided at the mansion during its 164 years as a private home and learn about local history, including the rebellious colonists’ military use of the property during the Revolutionary War, the public can partake in activities and programs such as “Thursdays on the Lawn,” which features a farmers’ market; luncheons and high tea parties; artists’ open studios, where artwork can be purchased; author readings; a concert series; movie nights and the “History Happy Hour,” to name a few. The Loring-Greenough House is also available for wedding rentals and other private functions.
Remarkably, management of the Loring-Greenough House is an all-volunteer affair, from the docents on up to the board of directors of the Jamaica Plain Tuesday Club. Established in 1896 during the nationwide women’s club movement, the Tuesday Club – which now admits men – has expanded its community-oriented founding mission to serve as a center for historical, cultural and educational activities initiated by the club as well as other organizations in Jamaica Plain.
It was mid-1924, and the Georgian manse had been cleared of its furnishings, readied for razing; the owner, David Stoddard Greenough V, had sold the property to a group of speculative developers who planned to transform the site for commercial use, keeping apace with the modern changes that characterized the immediate area in this “streetcar suburb” of Boston. It was one of the last surviving 18th-century homes in Boston’s Jamaica Plain section, and though its occupants had taken their belongings and moved out, the residence had not been stripped of its character-defining features. The Jamaica Plain Tuesday Club took on the challenge of saving the house from demolition. The club’s intent was to use residence not only as its headquarters but also to establish it as a community betterment institution. Tuesday Club members were also keenly aware of the historical significance of the property because of its Colonial roots and the role it served during the Revolutionary War, recognizing the contribution that the continued existence of the house would make to heritage preservation.
The Tuesday Club didn’t have enough capital to buy the property from the developers until member Marguerite Souther stepped in to fund the purchase in July 1924, using a $15,600 loan she obtained and securing a bank mortgage of $30,000. In March 1925, she transferred ownership to the Tuesday Club. Among the conditions the Tuesday Club agreed to was repaying Souther for the personal loan and paying off the mortgage within three years.
The Landed Gentry
Five generations of the Greenough family had owned the homestead, acquiring it in 1784 when it was part of an agrarian estate that encompassed at least 60 acres. The estate was created in 1760 by Joshua Loring, who, though having advanced from a privateer for Britain to a commodore in the Royal Navy, was a Massachusetts native and had grown up in the town of Roxbury, not far from Jamaica Plain. Severely wounded in August 1760 on Lake Ontario during the French and Indian War, the disabled Loring retired to his Jamaica Plain estate, living the life of a gentleman farmer, in part on his pension from the British government.
The Lorings resided at their country estate for 14 years; because of the increasing Colonial dissent, the Loyalist retired commodore fled with his family, to Boston, seeking the protection of British forces. The Lorings then made their way to Nova Scotia and finally to England. They never returned to Jamaica Plain, though it seems the commodore thought that they would; besides leaving many of their belongings in the house when they fled, the commodore had bricked up his wine and liquor cellar, to be discovered in the mid-1800s during the installation of an iron vault by David S. Greenough III for the family’s silver near the west chimney on the first floor.
With the Lorings gone, the property became the headquarters for Nathanael Greene, a major general in the Continental Army, in the spring of 1775. On June 23, 1775, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress seized the property and used the house as military hospital. The property remained under military control until March 1776, after which it was confiscated by the state, which leased and later sold it. On April 5, 1784, a wealthy widow named Anne Doane bought the estate in anticipation of her marriage to David Stoddard Greenough I.
The architect of Loring’s two-and-a-half story, grand-style residence is unknown. The timber- frame, clapboard-sheathed structure is capped with a hipped roof and dormers, which provided light in the garret servants’ quarters. Although the main entrance to the house faces south, the building’s design gives the appearance of three façades, with the south, west and north elevations featuring pedimented center entryways.
The interior was designed with the traditional Georgian floor plan containing a center hall with two tiers of rooms on either side, all with fireplaces. These included a drawing room, dining room, kitchen and breakfast room on the first floor and on the second floor, a bedroom and adjoining dressing room, a nursery, two small bedrooms and, what most likely was Mrs. Mary Curtis Loring’s room, which she called “the Blue Chamber.” Much of the original building materials and architectural features from the Lorings’ residency are still intact, such as paneling, finishes, doors and hardware. The 12-panel front door with its HL hinges and massive rim lock date to the 18th century.
The successive generations of Greenoughs made various modifications and upgrades to the house, among them, the 1811 construction of an ell that features a summer kitchen on the main level, servants’ quarters on the second level and an excavated root cellar, cistern and smoke chamber; and much later, after the turn of the century, the addition of central heating and an indoor bathroom, and a coal-burning stove in the kitchen. Also by this time, subdivision had whittled the once 60-plus-acre estate down to its present size of just under two acres.
None of the furniture and fixtures is original to the Lorings or the Greenoughs. However, the house is furnished and decorated with antiques donated over the years by Tuesday Club members or friends of the Loring-Greenough House, as were the collections held there. These historically significant items include china and decorative art, American and European paintings (including several Greenough portraits), folk art, ornate calling card cases, dolls and other toys, handmade beaded bags, quilts and period costumes.
Next year, the Jamaica Plain Tuesday Club is planning to honor the 300th birthday of Commodore Joshua Loring, who was born on August 3, 1716.
The Loring-Greenough House was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972 and designated a Boston Landmark in 1999. Visit the house online at http://loring-greenough.org/ or https://www.facebook.com/lghouse.