It has been a stop on the Underground Railroad, the home of a quirky wood importer, the hub of Boston’s Black community and even the home of Coretta Scott King when she attended college.
The grand League of Women for Community Service building at 558 Mass Avenue has been many things, but what it hasn’t been lately is relevant and/or occupied.
However, a group of new and old members of the League have breathed new life into the organizations, and they told the Chester Square Neighbors last week they plan to do what they can to rehabilitate the historic property and put it back to a good, community use.
Adrienne Benton and Jacquelyn Arrington, both of the League, said they have been operating out of 18 Holyoke St. in the South End, but would like to do preservation work on their historic headquarters and make it a hub for Black history – perhaps even a type of museum and function facility for the League.
“One thing we’ve been doing in conjunction with the work to preserve the building is to look at the operations of the League,” said Benton.
“Our greatest efforts have been to preserve the building and keep it from collapsing on us,” said Arrington. “I’m happy we have new members with a new energy and intelligence and doing the work and driving the things the way they need to go.”
Both said they have been working with Boston Landmarks to get a designation for the building, and they now have a Henderson Grant to fix and secure the front steps and portico. Already, the amazing ironwork that adorned the front of the building has been put in storage to repair and replace later in the project. Beyond that, Benton said they are working to secure Community Preservation funding to restore the exterior and hope to hear about that by the end of March.
They also plan to kick off a huge capital campaign to restore and clean up the property. Remarkably, they said, the damage to the interior is minimal and much of the grandeur from the original home has been retained.
Benton said, “558 is probably one of the most intact buildings in the South End in terms of its original construction.”
The history of the home goes back to a quirky, but wealthy, importer of fine woods named William Rice Carnes. When he built the home, he decked it out with fine elaborate Mahogany woodwork, carved marble fireplaces, gilded mirrors, French gold-tipped finish chandeliers and wallpaper from Paris. The original carpeting from Brussels is still in place as well. Also, an original linoleum made from cork dust and linseed oil is also present in part of the home. Almost all of the details from the original home remain and are not damaged, miraculously. That’s mostly because the roof has been replaced and there is very little damage, plus a great deal of good stewardship through the years.
Carnes is said to have operated the home as a stop on the Underground Railroad, but his business changed during the Civil War and he sold the home and moved to an island off the coast of Maine in 1868.
The League took possession of the home in the early 20th Century, and formed in 1920 to do educational, charitable and beneficial work for the community. The first president of the League was Maria Baldwin, who died just after the incorporation of the League.
Arrington said it was a hub of activity for the Black community from the 1920s to the 1970s. At that time, there were many grand functions, community events and historic and educational lectures at the League. That was mostly because many function halls and hotels would not allow Blacks to enter in those days.
“The League emerged from the ‘30s and ‘40s and as late as the 1950s as a safe place and a popular gathering place for Blacks in Boston,” she said. “Hotels were not willing to accommodate Black patrons at that time. Many, many grand events were held there and prominent Bostonians held weddings there and there were dance recitals for the Emma Lewis Dance School.”
It was during that period of time that Coretta Scott King lived in the home while she attended college at the New England Conservatory and honed her amazing singing skills. It is at the home that she and Martin Luther King Jr. – then a student at Boston University – likely had dates and began their courtship.
“Being a Black woman in Boston going to college after World War II, you were not allowed to stay in student housing at their own schools,” said Benton. “That’s why Coretta Scott King lived here when she was in college.”
However, in the 1960s, many social service organizations began to serve the Black community, and many people living in public housing or apartment buildings would use the new “community rooms” rather than the League for their big events.
“The use of the building changed along with ‘progress’ in Boston,” said Benton.
The future of the building, once repaired, will be to take on more of a museum, lecture and function space, with room for visiting scholars. Arrington and Benton said they’ve uncovered a vast amount of amazing Black and pre-Civil War history in the archives housed in the building. They are working on an agreement to transfer some of it to Northeastern University for safe-keeping, but intend to have a good amount on display for the public and for scholars.
“There are amazing things we’re uncovering from our archives so we hope very soon we’ll be able to tell some wonderful stories in our building,” said Benton. “We will have socials in the building there’s no question about it and that will be a key component.”
Right now, they hope to be able to do some simple first steps, like fixing the front stairs. “Our main priority is getting the front steps fixed, getting rid of all that plywood and getting the portico back to the way it was,” said Benton. “That’s our number one focus. We’re just very excited about what’s happening in the building and we hope to get to a point where we’re giving tours again.”