DeSorgher: The Curtis Mansion, an Historic Treasure Lost Forever
DeSorgher recalls the history of Medfield's "royal family" and their home at the corner at 50 North Street.
They were the closest thing Medfield had to Royalty and their home, built in 1859, the closest thing to a castle. The demolition of that 50 North Street mansion in 1987, along with the demolition in 1961 of son-in-law Edwin V. Mitchell’s Manor Inn, which was next door, constituted an irreplaceable loss that damaged the appearance and the character of Medfield and which, looking back, produced strong agreement that it should have never taken place.
The family was the Curtises. Daniel D. Curtis came to Medfield from the wilds of Maine in 1851, at the age of 21. Here he was employed under Walter Janes, in the manufacturing of straw hats. He rose fast through the ranks and by 1856 he had entered into partnership with Mr. Janes. He married Ellen Wight in 1859, built the North Street mansion and tied into the Wight family, which had strong roots in Medfield’s history. Upon the death of Janes in 1867, he succeeded in the ownership of the hat factory, which he then enlarged. His business increased in magnitude and he built a new modern plant (site of today’s Montrose School), employing more than 1,000 persons and producing more than two million hats annually.
Business was his life. He built many houses in town to be used as rental property for the workers at the hat factory, he carried on the stream mill and box factory from which the boxes were made that carried the hats to national and overseas markets. In the midst of all his business dealings and his being politically and economically the most powerful man in Medfield, he died suddenly on December 7, 1885 of paralysis of the brain. His death truly impacted the entire town. As William Tilden says in his History of Medfield, “a pall fell upon the entire community.”
Ellen Wight Curtis and her four children, Blanche (who married Edwin V. Mitchell), Maud, Bracey and Daisey remodeled their Italian Villa in 1888 into its Queen Ann style. It remained, until its demolition in 1987, the finest example of a Queen Ann style house in Medfield. With the Curtis and Mitchell mansions side-by side on North Street, and with Baker’s (Meetinghouse) Pond across Frairy Street, that area could have passed for the mansions of Newport, Rhode Island. Here the Curtises lived in grand style.
In 1925, Frank D. McCarthy purchased the house. McCarthy would go on to become moderator in Medfield and then be elected state representative. His North Street mansion became the site of many political events and parties. McCarthy, a Republican, became good friends with Democratic Governor Paul Dever who was out often to McCarthy’s house, as a guest. In 1952, a rift developed within the Republican Party, with many Republicans feeling that McCarthy had become too friendly with the Democratic Governor. Local resident Bill Nourse ran against McCarthy in the Republican Primary, defeating the incumbent in Medfield 494 to 411 and winning the district. There was clearly no love lost between the two Republicans. Nourse had hoped to one day purchase McCarthy’s mansion, to which McCarthy is reported to have replied, “It will never happen.” McCarthy died suddenly the following year of a heart attack; he had served the town as town council, moderator, selectman and representative.
After McCarthy’s death, the 50 North Street mansion was put up for sale. What happens next, according to town lore, was what appears to be a “strawman.” A strawman is when a buyer gets someone else to buy a house he was unable to purchase, with the agreement that that person will then, in turn, sell the house to him. The North Street home was sold to Robert and Linda Lovell of Newton on September 30, 1957 and then three months later in January of 1958, sold to William Nourse. Despite McCarthy’s wishes otherwise, Nourse had gotten the house after all.
A lawyer by profession, Representative Nourse and his wife Carlene raised their family in Medfield and Rep. Nourse also served the town as moderator. In 1979, Nourse petitioned to have his property moved from being residentially zoned to business zoned. At the same time, the Medfield Historical Commission was attempting to establish a Historic District that would run from East Main Street through the center a of town and include Nourse’s historic property on North Street. Nourse was able to mount a successful Town Meeting campaign in getting his property re-zoned while at the same time the Historic District went down to defeat. Without a historic district to protect it and with the successful re-zoning of the 50 North Street Queen Ann mansion, the stage was set for the eventual destruction of the landmark.
In 1985, Bill Nourse ran for Selectman and won unopposed. The following year Nourse announced plans to sell the landmark to Jackson Fabrics of Needham, who planned to tear the structure down and build a new building to house his fabric business. Many thought the Queen Ann mansion would be a perfect setting for a fabric store. Jackson claimed the building had been neglected for too long and too many renovations would be required. Gay Bonoldi, who put an unsuccessful bid on the house said she knows interested preservation-minded buyers who met Nourse’s asking price and were turned away. Town pressure mounted on saving the landmark. Susan Sauter mounted a petition drive to save the house. She blamed Nourse citing the house becoming run down and his refusal to sell to buyers interested in preserving the house. Nourse denied all charges.
The following year, Selectman Nourse attempted a comeback run for State Representative, a position he held in the 1950s. He was defeated in the Republican Primary, losing also in his hometown of Medfield. The following year Selectman Nourse ran for re-election and lost overwhelming in the selectman race to political newcomer Harry Pritoni 1142 to 308.
All attempts to save the house failed and in June of 1987, the 128-year-old former Curtis Mansion succumbed to the repeated attacks of the backhoe. Gone were its corner towers, an oriel window, its large encircling porch, its exterior dressed in white wood shingles arranged in a variety of shapes and patterns, its interior characterized by shinning wood floors, spacious rooms and Victorian details, and the once-sweeping lawn with large and scenic shade trees. In its place, the current Jackson Fabric Building was constructed and the Gilded Age look of North and Frairy Streets was gone forever.