We often refer to the owners of historically significant properties as their "stewards" and the term so aptly applies to the match between Gretchen Keyworth and her exquisite West Concord Street residence. The spectacular South End property, which features significant detail and unusual architectural flourish, already had a storied past when Gretchen first saw and fell in love with it nearly 25 years ago. Gretchen's passions and considerable talents both initially drew her to the property and have also been the wellspring from which her own refinements and contributions to its evolving story have been made.
Gretchen has spent her entire career trailblazing through the art world as purveyor, curator, Director Emeritus of the Fuller Craft Museum and even as the city of Boston's Director of Cultural Promotions. Above all, Gretchen considers herself to be an artist and that identity is what has fueled her commitment to supporting her fellow artists in virtually every way imaginable. "I don't think I've ever strayed far from the fact that art is my central core value. My father was an artist so I have always had that perspective. I did not come in from the outside. It's always in the back of my mind. What can I do to help the artist?"
All the way back in the 1970s, Gretchen and her brother took to the road to search for worthy art of which they could be purveyors. They understood that most art was sold on consignment, so they merged their finances and, referring to combining their financial resources, coined the term "cash in a bag." Gretchen recalls that once people understood that she and her brother were buying art, it was like a smoke signal. "They just started calling their friends and saying that these two crazy people were buying art." From their acquisitions, they were able to open their first gallery in Hyannis and it was a very successful venture. Interestingly, their particular orientation was to view art as craft and Gretchen brought that perspective to her role at the Fuller Art Museum in Brockton, where there had been discussion about making it the Fuller Craft Museum. She persuaded the board to make the change. "I actually approached the board and this was a community board and said this will make us unique. This will differentiate us from everyone else in the country. When you think about Brockton, it made its reputation from the work of the hand, the shoe industry. So I thought there was a great connection to the community, the aesthetics of the community, the culture of the community." The common thread throughout Gretchen's career, whether as gallery owner, curator, museum director or civic leader, has been her ability to bring a fresh perspective and fiscal savvy in advocating on behalf of the artist in every capacity which she has served.
Gretchen's roots run deep in the South End, discovering with her sister Randi’s help that their father had lived next to the Chatham House on West Concord Street. Their grandmother sang soprano in the Clarendon Street Church which was later restored to become condominium residences in which Gretchen also lived. Gretchen’s mother was not an advocate of her retracing their family's roots when she first decided to move to the South End. Upon making that decision, her mother flatly told her, "Gretchen, I think you are out of your mind." Gretchen had actually called three other South End addresses home before making the move to her current residence. She got a call from her realtor while on the beach in the Caribbean letting her know that a special property had become available. "So I walked in and said, “I'll take it. '', Gretchen remembers.
The property was not in the best condition when Gretchen purchased it. A couple from California had begun a renovation but ran out of money. Gretchen's daughter pointed out to her that many architectural elements throughout the home required attention. Walking through the house, one cannot but marvel at the Italianate faceted bay windows, high coved ceilings, ornately carved fireplace mantels and other architectural details. Gretchen was determined to sensitively restore the artifacts of her new home. Her daughter sourced the period surrounds for the keyholes in the dining room’s magnificent wooden doors from a convent in California. The floor had to be replaced and the working fireplaces were missing tiles from their surrounds. "So what was I going to do, being in the craft business? Naturally, I hired an artist to come in. I couldn't help myself but to do it right."
We always imagine when living in an historic property, all of the events that must have taken place before us and all of the interesting lives that must have been lived there. Usually, however, we are not privy to the details of events that took place in the distant past. Gretchen was delighted when having lived in her home for a short time, she received a letter from a former owner named Judith Pfeifer who possessed some interesting information that she wanted to be sure was shared with the home's current owner. Gretchen's eyes lit up as she relayed the details.
"She had this incredible tale to tell. And what was interesting to find out, was that the woman who owned this home was an African American woman who ran a brothel in the 20s and 30s and catered to some of the high profile politicians of the time. So I just have this wonderful image of this woman. I'm sure she was absolutely gorgeous...entrepreneurial...running a brothel in this house, with all of the politicians coming in. Of course, there was a big jazz scene at the time. It's just an incredible story. When she passed, the home apparently was just filled to the ceiling with all kinds of things, including some that were likely necessary for the operation of her business. When you go through a hallway you start visualizing, fantasizing, about someone else being here and their life at the time.”
It is wonderful when storied homes attract worthwhile and fascinating people. These are precisely the people who appreciate the richness of what once transpired within their walls and also the people who add new and interesting stories that become chronicled as part of the growing historical record. And that's the story of Gretchen Keyworth and the house on West Concord Street of which she has been a most worthy steward.