BOSTON — More than a century after it was established, the spirit of the West End House (WEH) remains strong. The history of the eminent organization that has attracted generations of affiliates is the subject of “In Pursuit of Excellence: The West End House,” a new exhibit at the West End Museum in Boston.
From 1880-1920, Boston’s West End experienced a population boom, with Irish, Italian and Eastern European Jewish immigrants flocking to the area, living in tenements in densely populated neighborhoods (the museum’s permanent exhibit “Last Tenement” concerns the culture of the neighborhood). Neighborhood “settlement houses” were established as places for youth to socialize and assimilate.
“The West End House was originally a boys club,” explained Duane Lucia, curator of the West End Museum, adding that many successful members graduated from the West End House, including prolific film producer Joseph E. Levine, crooner Buddy Clark and actor Leonard Nimoy. Among the many photographs in the exhibit are three of Nimoy, including one of him as a young manager of the WEH basketball team, and one of a young John F. Kennedy, who was a member of the WEH Veterans’ Association.
According to Lucia, boys joined a variety of academic and athletic teams, or inter-clubs, within WEH. There were approximately 100 inter-clubs for diverse interests such as declamation, a form of public speaking practiced by Nimoy, and speed walking. The inter-clubs competed in events within WEH and the best were selected to compete against other organizations.
“All inter-clubs required public speaking and house debates, and served as a proving ground for young men entering adulthood,” said Lucia. “It was a very successful program in terms of building literary and academic skills … [It] helped immigrant children conquer the language, and sports helped develop a sense of group loyalty between the kids and in the house.”
The success of West End House attracted the interest of philanthropist James J. Storrow, who became an early sponsor. “Storrow was one of a group of progressive Boston Brahmins who believed that everyone should be given opportunity based on merit,” explained Lucia.
In the 1950’s, the poor, ethnically diverse West End was seen as an economic drain on the city, and nearly the entire neighborhood — 23 streets in all — was razed over the next three decades. Enlarged photographs in the museum show the neighborhood as portions were demolished over time.
This early urban renewal effort was controversial. “The process wasn’t transparent. Poor people were kicked out and luxury housing was put in,” explained Lucia. “It is remembered as an injustice, and has been studied by psychologists, sociologists, urban planners and the Institute for Justice.”
Today, the West End House is one of only two neighborhood houses that still exist, although in the 1970’s it moved from the West End to Allston-Brighton, where it continues to serve an immigrant population that now includes girls, as well as boys.
“The lasting legacy of the West End House is servicing young people,” said Lucia. “That’s the legacy, that’s the mission.”
The exhibit, arranged chronologically, documents beloved leaders (Mitch Freiman, Jack Burnes, Bill Margolin and, currently, Andrea Howard), well-known alumni, generations of neighborhood boys, West End House campers (though they are separate nonprofit organizations, the West End House Camp, also over 100 years old, still thrives as a summer camp for boys in East Parsonfield, Maine, and recently the West End House Girls Camp opened on an adjacent property), and the men and women who supported the organization with a plethora of well-preserved photos, trophies from competitions and interesting mementos such as a display of dance cards. It is a trip down memory lane for those with a connection to WEH.
Stuart Snyder of Newton, who attended the boys camp from 1973-1982, is a current board member of both the WEH boys and girls camps. “My grandfather, Charlie Chadis, grew up in the West End, and the West End House was important to him and his brothers their whole lives,” said Snyder. “My personal involvement has been with the camps, but I feel a deep connection and sense of belonging to the West End House generally. Two lines from the boys camp song express the feeling well: ‘When you’re one of the boys, you’re always one of the boys’ and ‘The spirit of the House will never die.’ And since the club in Allston has long been co-ed and now there’s also a girls camp, these sentiments are true for all West Enders.”
“In Pursuit of Excellence: The West End House” will be on display through August 22 at The West End Museum, 150 Staniford St., Boston. Admission is free. Visit thewestendmuseum.org.