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Over the River

Shipbuilding was once the pride of Medford. The Mystic River, located close to the Middlesex Canal, brought low-cost timber to town, and, at full tide, its bed was deep enough "to float an empty ship of twenty-five hundred tons." During the 19th century, more than 500 ships were built on the banks of the Mystic. From China to California, the name "Medford-made" became synonymous with speed and quality.

Paul Curtis ranks among those early shipbuilders who found success on the sea. In 1839 he established a shipyard and displayed his prosperity by building a house on the river in the Greek Revival style, incorporating an older farmhouse at the back. This site is believed to be the same referred to in Lydia Maria Child's poem "Boy's Thanksgiving" which begins with the familiar "Over the river and through the woods," published in 1844.

That beloved tradition, combined with the house's stately character, led Tufts to take an interest in 114 South Street, less than a mile east of campus. Back in 1976, when it was about to be torn down for an apartment complex, the university, through its Walnut Hill Properties affiliate, stepped in. It seemed a good idea to ensure the preservation of the house for future generations. A wise move, and one that seems to have presaged the arrival of the future dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. John Galvin, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander in Europe and Commander in Chief of the U.S. Army, Navy and Air Forces in Europe, and his wife, Ginny, had lived the peripatetic life that comes with a military career. Homes have included historical residences such as a 19th-century chateau in Belgium. When Galvin first saw the Greek Revival in 1995, which was by then on the National Register of Historic Places, he was intrigued, though Ginny was not so impressed.

"Her first comment was 'No way!' says Galvin. "I thought it had a lot of possibilities, but it had a lot of problems, too. But I thinkthat you preserve old houses by making them livable today. So we did what anyone should do:we improved the kitchen, bathrooms, wiring and plumbing." No doubt Curtis would have given an approving nod to the Galvins' restraint in modernizing. With help from Tufts and the guiding hand of an architect, the Galvins upgraded while preserving the many fine original details that Curtis' carpenters took pains to get right: pumpkin pine floors, inside "pocket" shutters that fold ingeniously into the molding, lidded window seats, and brass fixtures.

A respected scholar of early American history who once worked alongside his father in the building trade, Galvin says he and his wife grew to admire how each detail added up. "I can stand at the top of the stairs in the morning looking east and see how the sun comes up and falls on the wood floors," Galvin says. "It is a wonderful feeling."

This summer Dean Galvin retires from Tufts, and house "number 35" is a ranch on a lake outside Atlanta. The Galvins take with them many fond memories, among them planting perennial gardens and entertaining countless guests with ease. Foreign dignitaries have found generous accommodation here, and Galvin always invited each of his students for dinner. Many international students also had their first taste of American holidays around the dining-room table. With its "Thanksgiving song" connections, the house has also been open to schoolchildren for field trips and to local citizens during the Jingle Bell Holiday Festival. (Medford has the unique distinction of being famous for not just one popular holiday song but two: "Jingle Bells" was written by James Pierpont in downtown Medford.) That hospitality, says Galvin, is a natural responsibility of living where historic industry, literature and sentiment remarkably converge. "The house belongs to us as tenants, to the university as owners, but to all of us as history," he says. "It would be a shame not to share it." -L.F.

   

 

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