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This richly carved and embellished oak cabinet and bookcase, built for Robert Treat Paine about 1880, may have been designed by architect Henry Hobson (H. H.) Richardson. A monumental piece of library furniture—more than eight feet long and five feet high—the bookcase is now a prize possession of the Massachusetts Historical Society where the Biblical verse inscribed on the doors, “Wisdom is better than Rubies” (Proverbs 8:11), could serve as a motto for the Society.
Born in 1835, the third of nine children of Charles Cushing Paine, a Boston lawyer, and Fanny Cabot Jackson Paine, Robert Treat Paine was a great-grandson of Robert Treat Paine, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Young Robert attended Boston Latin School, as generations of his ancestors going back to “the Signer” had done before him, and Harvard College where his life-long friendship with classmate Phillips Brooks began. Paine studied for a year at Harvard Law School and then read for the law in the office of Richard Henry Dana. “Real estate law,” he said, was his “delight” and he specialized with great success in the development and incorporation of—and investment in—Michigan copper mines and western railroads. Paine married Lydia Williams Lyman in 1862. The newlyweds divided their time between a winter home in Boston, across the street from the house where Lydia had been born at 6 Joy Street, and a summer house at the Vale, the Lyman family estate in Waltham. In 1881, after the death of Lydia’s father, George Williams Lyman, the Paines moved into his house on Joy Street where they raised seven children.
Before he was thirty-five, Robert Treat Paine had already amassed a large personal fortune and from 1869 onward, he began to devote much of his time—and later, nearly all of his energies—to civic reform, charitable work, public welfare, and the Episcopal Church. He helped bring cooperative and workingmen’s banks to Boston and created, through workingmen’s loan and building associations, model housing for “plain people” in Boston and its suburbs. He was the first president of the Associated Charities of Boston and served in that capacity for twenty-five years. Paine believed that true philanthropy was found in friendship and moral guidance for those in need, rather than in material gifts. He took the motto of the British Charity Organization Society, “Not Alms but a Friend,” for the Associated Charities of Boston. He also was an active member of the American Peace Society, and Boston children’s aid and prison reform societies.
For all of his enthusiasm for public welfare, in no field was Paine more energetic than in his support for the activities of the Episcopal Church. Although raised a Unitarian, he joined Trinity Church in Boston when his college classmate and friend Phillips Brooks became the minister. Paine played a key role in the effort to move Trinity Church from the old city center to Copley Square in the newly-developed Back Bay district of Boston. This plan already was underway when the old Trinity church building was destroyed in the great Boston fire of 1872. Paine raised funds to expand the building site and headed the building committee that selected the young (age thirty-three) and untried architect, H. H. Richardson of the New York firm of Gambrill & Richardson, for the project.
After the completion of Trinity Church, H. H. Richardson moved to Boston and began a solo architectural practice. Among his clients were Robert and Lydia Paine. Working on a wooded landscape in Waltham designed by Frederic Law Olmsted, Richardson planned “Stonehurst,” a reconfigured and expanded out-of-town residence for the Paine family. After Richardson’s early death in 1886, Stonehurst was completed according to his plans by his talented assistants, George F. Shepley, Charles A. Coolidge, and Charles H. Rutan, who continued the firm under their own names. Their later projects included a memorial pulpit in Trinity Church dedicated to Robert Treat Paine by his children in 1916.
The attribution of the Paine bookcase to H. H. Richardson is a matter of family tradition, but it is supported by at least one manuscript record. It is listed in a 1911 inventory of the back parlor of the Paine’s Joy Street home under the cryptic entry: “ Bookcase—‘Rubies’—[H.H.R. 80 Norcross 800]--.75.” “Norcross” may refer to Orlando W. Norcross, Richardson’s “master builder,” or to his firm, Norcross Brothers of Worcester, Massachusetts. The bookcase also appears in a photograph of the interior of 6 Joy Street, the Paine family home from 1881 onward.
From 4 October 2013 through 17 January 2014, the Paine bookcase, along with almost fifty other pieces of Boston furniture dating from the seventeenth century through about 1900, will be on display at the Massachusetts Historical Society as part of a new exhibition, The Cabinetmaker & the Carver: Boston Furniture from Private Collections.
The exhibition provides a rare opportunity to view privately-held furniture created by many of the city’s most talented cabinetmakers, turners, and other craftsmen, together with pieces from the Historical Society’s small, but important furniture collection including a piece “better than Rubies.” The Cabinetmaker & the Carver is part of the Four Centuries of Massachusetts Furniture collaboration. Exhibition galleries are open to the public from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
Clifford, Ann and Thomas M. Paine. Stonehurst: The Robert Treat Paine Estate. An American Masterwork by H. H. Richardson and F. L. Olmsted. Waltham, Mass.: Robert Treat Paine Historical Trust, 2007.
O’Gorman, James F. H. H. Richardson: Architectural Forms for an American Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.
Paine, Robert Treat. Autobiographical sketch dictated by Paine in Paine Ancestry. The Family of Robert Treat Paine, Signer of the Declaration of Independence, Including Maternal Lines. Sarah Cushing Paine, comp., Charles H. Pope, ed., 276-315. Boston: Printed for the family, 1912.
Paine, Robert Treat. Robert Treat Paine Papers, II. Massachusetts Historical Society. The collection includes diaries kept by Lydia (Mrs. Robert Treat) Paine, and papers of one of their children, the Rev. George Lyman Paine.
Paine, Robert Treat. Writings of Robert Treat Paine. 1904. A two-page list of Robert Treat Paine’s published addresses and reports, 1868-1904.
Paine, Thomas M. “Chairman of the Building Committee: Robert Treat Paine.” In The Makers of Trinity Church in the City of Boston, James F. O’Gorman, ed., 32-60. Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 2004.
Van Rensselaer, Schuler. Henry Hobson Richardson and His Works. New York: Dover Publications, 1969. Reprint of the 1888 edition with a new introduction by William Morgan.
Ward, Gerald W. R. The Cabinetmaker & the Carver: Boston Furniture from Private Collections. Boston: Distributed for the Massachusetts Historical Society by the University of Virginia Press, 2013. An illustrated catalog of the exhibition.