By Aram Arkun
BOSTON — The Bostonian Society hosted a special evening program, “Becoming Bostonian,” on April 7 in the Old State House to honor the life and works of Moses Gulesian, a Bostonian and Armenian preservationist. The event, cosponsored with the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR), was part of a growing wave of attention to Gulesian’s philanthropic work, which helped both Boston and Armenians, sometimes simultaneously.
Brian LeMay, president and executive director of the nonprofit Bostonian Society, spoke about Gulesian’s work as a preservationist, as “somebody who had a deep appreciation for the fundamental ideas that lie at the foundation of this country, that are embodied in many ways in this building.” He pointed out that the discovery of the time capsule on top of the Old State House building spurred interest in Gulesian’s life and works.
LeMay provided background information about the Bostonian Society’s mission and activities, and the importance of the Old State House building itself. He said that Gulesian’s historical significance is tied to Boston and the Bostonian Society. Gulesian joined forces with prominent members of the abolitionist and suffragist movements yet until the discovery of time capsule, the Bostonian Society was not well informed about his activities.
LeMay introduced Dr. Joyce Van Dyke, playwright and Shakespeare scholar, and a lecturer at the Harvard Extension. Van Dyke managed to make Gulesian’s personality and life immediate and accessible through a very lively five-minute presentation. She found Gulesian to be a man with a “romantic soul and an iron will.” Born in the Ottoman Empire under Turkish rule, after coming to the US all alone at the age of 17, he was well placed to make Americans understand what Turkish rule really meant in those days.
He became prominent in Boston society after succeeding in business, with a copperworks factory in the South End, and real estate holdings. He made the copper replicas of the statues on top of the Old State House. In 1905, he intervened to try to save the historic ship Old Ironsides, and this turned into a national movement which led to its preservation.
Gulesian helped save many thousands of lives by organizing the Friends of Armenia, working alongside Clara Barton, Julia Ward Howe, Alice Stone Blackwell, and William Lloyd Garrison Jr., raising funds for Armenian relief. He turned the top floor of his copperworks factory on Waltham Street into a shelter for several hundreds of Armenian refugees.
Van Dyke concluded, “You can see that he had a very large soul, a very large Armenian-American-Bostonian soul. It is a beautiful example of how immigrants can make the greatest patriots in this country.”
LeMay then presented Don Tellalian, an accomplished architect who among other things consulted for the Bostonian Society for the Old State House renovations. Tellalian spoke about the discovery of the time capsule inside the Lion above the east façade of the Old State House. He went over the clues that spurred on his research.
During renovations, Skylight Studios was able to confirm the existence of this capsule, and so it was removed and opened up in a controlled environment. The contents, over 113 years old, were in very good condition. Most striking was a large red book which dealt with US foreign relations.
This book was not listed in a contemporary newspaper inventory of the capsule. Tellalian related that his “wife Barbara has in certain circumstances very sharp instincts,” and in September 2015, she noticed that the date of 1896 of the documentary collection coincided with the Hamidian massacres of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire.
Indeed, Don Tellalian found that a large section of the book dealt with Turkey and the Armenian massacres. He found that on only one page in the book, page 887, the corner turned was down deliberately, and this section concerned, among other things attacks in Marash, Gulesian’s hometown. He concluded that it must have been Gulesian who placed the red book into the time capsule.
Stephen Kurkjian, prizewinning reporter for more than 45 years at the Boston Globe and winner of three Pulitzer Prizes, represented NAASR as a longtime board member on the program. He spoke of the pride Armenians felt to see the Armenian flag flying at full mast in front of the State House during the visit of Armenia’s President Serzh Sargsyan the week prior to the Gulesian event. He felt this was a turning point for Armenians like himself, who, he said, “would have to say who we were…we had to say that every time, time and again at every class, at every school we went to, and explain ourselves.”
Then came the extraordinarily quick removal of a defamatory billboard only a few blocks from the Old State House and Armenian Heritage Park, placed to cast doubt on the Armenian Genocide, through rapid action by friends of the Armenians in Boston as well as Armenians themselves. He said that this was in due to “all of those people who we have touched and told our story for fifty years, and told them who we were, and told them the pride we felt, the Moses Gulesians, the Mugar family, the Nubar Afeyans, for the Armenians back in the 19th century all the way up to the Armenians here in the 21st century.” Finally, this evening came about to commemorate Gulesian, showing that the way Armenians played an important role in Bostonian society even over a century ago was again being recognized by Boston society.
Kurkjian concluded, “Our story has finally been heard and reckoned with, and it is the proudest moment for me, as I hope it is for you, that we are here tonight, together, brothers and sisters of Hayastan, brothers and sisters of old historic Armenia and new Armenia, and Armenia here in the Old State House.”
The audience was then invited to go look at a display of the time capsule and its contents in the room next door. Each visitor received a specially prepared program booklet with five articles about the Old State House and Gulesian.
The audience itself in some ways was as interesting as the program, though its size was limited by code restrictions and space limitations to 75 people. A number of the guests had direct connections to Gulesian. Donald Tellalian, who played an important role in restoration of the Old State House, declared afterwards: “We are so pleased that the Bostonian Society in collaboration with NAASR hosted the evening at the Old State House, bringing together extended Gulesian family from New York, Vermont and Maine, and others.”
One of these guests was Adrienne Richardson, whose great-grandfather was Moses Gulesian’s brother Joseph. The Richardsons have inherited interesting documents concerning the Gulesians, including a property list of the Gulesian family from Marash, and an oil painting by Armand Ishlemeji. The latter, given to them by the wife of the architect Dudley S. Gulesian, is thought to be a portrait of Moses (see accompanying image), but the family is looking for confirmation of this.
There were non-Armenians present whose lives had been touched by Gulesian too. Cameron Peters, chief financial officer of 24M Technologies, Inc., related during the reception for the event that his lithium-ion battery startup company moved into an old building at 130 Brookline Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology had bought and refurbished. On the door was written Gulesian’s name. The building was probably initially a workshop garage in the 1920s. Gulesian lost the building to foreclosure during the Depression.
Peters grew interested in the history of the building and Gulesian, and prepared a PowerPoint presentation for the 55 employees of his company. Peters said that among other things Gulesian erected the first electric street lighting along Huntington Avenue in Boston and the first parking garage in Boston.
Dr. Jack Keverian, Professor Emeritus of Drexel University (and brother of the late Speaker of the House of Massachusetts) and his wife Dorothy, Sheriff Peter Koutoujian, members of the Board of Directors of the Bostonian Society and NAASR, and representatives of the Tekeyan Cultural Association were part of the audience that evening.
After the event, Sarah Ignatius, executive director of NAASR, declared: “Part of what was so special for us was partnering with the Bostonian Society in a new setting and talking about how Armenian immigrants had been crucial to Boston’s own history and preservation. We hope to follow up with other Armenians who similarly have played a strong role in the development of Boston’s history.”