Demolition of the West End House on Blossom Street – one of now less than a dozen structures in the old West End to survive urban renewal – got underway at around 11 a.m. on Saturday, Oct. 1, as part of Mass General Hospital’s planned $1 billion expansion of its Cambridge Street campus.
Originally located at 9 Easton St., the West End House was established in 1906 as a headquarters for the Young Men’s Excelsior Association, a group of 35 boys of Eastern European Jewish immigrants who all lived in the West End. The seed money for the settlement house was donated by James J. Storrow, the Boston attorney and investment banker who was chosen as the third president of General Motors. Storrow also served as a member of the Boston City Council from 1915 to 1918, but he was defeated in his sole bid for mayor in 1909.
Some speculated that Storrow was considering a run for mayor when he made this gift to the West End in 1906, which he hoped would land him in the good graces of Martin Lomasney, Boston’s first and last ward boss “who made the West End the most politically unified neighborhood in Boston,” said Sebastian Belfanti, executive director of the West End Museum.
In 1929, the West End House used funds bequeathed by Storrow’s widow, Helen Osbourne Storrow, to relocate to a three-story Classic Revival building at 16-18 Blossom St. (Storrow had died three years earlier in 1926.) This building, which underwent renovations in the 1950s, was purchased by MGH in 1967 and originally housed the hospital’s Child Development Laboratory. In recent times, it contained offices for MGH Safety Administration, Cancer Center Administration, Facilities Engineering, MGH Planning and Construction, an addiction unit, and basement-level storage.
While the West End House was founded as a Jewish boys organization and never went multi-gender, it expanded out of the “Jewish silo” to become more integrated, especially between the First and Second World Wars when the neighborhood went from being predominantly an Eastern European Jewish enclave to becoming home to Italian and Polish immigrant as well, said Belfanti.
Leonard Nimoy, a West End native would go on to portray Mr. Spock on the classic TV series “Star Trek,” took public speaking, ran track, and played basketball at the West End House, while the prominent 1940s singer, Buddy Clark (nee “Samuel Goldberg”) sang, acted, debated, and played baseball and basketball at the West End House in his youth. Both Nimoy and Clark maintained their relationships with the West End House after achieving their respective stardoms.
Besides these marquee names, the West End House made a difference in the lives of countless boys before urban renewal, like Joe Greenberg, who was attending Boston Latin School until 1957 when, he said, “everyone was thrown out of the West End.”
Recalling his boyhood experiences at the West End House, Greenberg, who was born in 1944, wrote in an email: “As a member and active participant in the West End House, I was exposed to a variety of learning experiences that became significantly important in my career. I learned how to play basketball, how to box, how to deliver a speech, how to improve my math skills, and so much more.”
Added Greenberg: “A day rarely goes by that I don’t think about my life in the West End and how growing up there impacted my entire life. I would not have wanted to live anywhere else. I spent 38 years as a professor at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. I credit the West End House with so many of the things that I learned there that I was able to use in my career.”
Greenberg’s family moved to Revere after they were displaced from the West End, and today, Greenberg lives in Israel, where he recently became a dual-citizen.
“Believe it or not, I live in a place that reminds me very much of the old West End,” Greenberg said of Isreal.
(Incidentally, Nimoy said he looked up at Joe’s father, Harry “Buddo” Greenberg, who long served as a basketball coach and official at the West End House, as a boyhood mentor, according to Joe.)
After being displaced from the West End in 1966 during urban renewal, the West End House relocated five years later in 1971 to 105 Allston St. in Allston-Brighton, according to the West End Museum’s website. In 1976, the West End House Boys Club became one of the first in the nation to include girls as full members and changed its name to become “West End House Boys & Girls Club.”
Along with the Elizabeth Peabody House – another one-time West End settlement house that relocated to Somerville amid urban renewal – Belfanti said, “These institutions are part of why the West End produced so many successful people. It’s the last settlement house in the West End…so it’s symbolic of the fact that the West End mattered.”
Besides the West End House, the planned MGH expansion is also resulting in the loss of two other historic West End buildings – the 1884 Winchell Elementary School (a.k.a. Ruth Sleeper Hall) at 24 Blossom St., and the tenement house at 23-25 North Anderson St. The tenement house was razed over the summer, but a portion of the façade of the Winchell School will be integrated into the exterior of the new MGH project after that building’s demolition next month.
Moreover, per the conditions of Massachusetts Historical Commission’s approval needed to dismantle the West End House, Mass General agreed to incorporate the building’s door surround at 75 Blossom Court, when it builds out a new West End Community Center there (which will be an interior renovation as opposed to a new building). The West End House’s surround was removed prior to demolition, and is now stored offsite, according to an MGH spokesperson.
City Councilor Kenzie Bok, who, together with Rep. Jay Livingstone, worked closely to negotiate with the hospital and the community on the mitigation package for the Mass General expansion project, said the neighborhood must now find ways to help the spirit of the West End House endure after the loss of the building itself.
“Obviously, this settlement house been a long-treasured building in the West End, and it’s been very important for those of us who represent the West End to think about ways that the spirit of the house can continue,” she said. “Even though it hasn’t been used as a community center for many decades, it still represents the community gathering spaces that were lost with the demolition of the old West End.”
Added Councilor Bok: “That’s why I’m very glad that the stone entrance to the settlement house is being preserved and actually being moved to the site of a new community center for today’s West Enders that’s being financed as part of the mitigation package for this project.”
Moreover, Councilor Bok said, “Additionally, it was important for us to ensure that the mitigation package included extensive resources for organizations that tell the story of the West End today, including the West End Museum, the Museum of African American History, and Old West Church.”