- Historic Sites
Big Boom In Boston
“Come immediately … Nothing like it in a lifetime!” an exalted customer telegrapheds wife after hearing the opening number of the National Peace Jubilee in 1869
October 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 6
At least the press thought it made a good story. Gilmore gave Boston editors an extravagant announcement of the projected event, adorned with fancy type, exclamation marks, patriotic slogans, and drawings of flags and eagles; and the newspapers responded with enthusiasm and big headlines. “One of the most gigantic musical schemes in the world’s history is brewing in Boston,” blared the Boston Herald . “An event is being planned that will startle the city,” said the Traveler .
It did that, all right. Old Back Bay families were horrified at the thought of using the sacred Boston Common for such a “camping and tramping.” High-collar musical organizations considered the jubilee gauche. And the out-of-town press had a fine time casting aspersions on the whole shebang. “There is a limit to the number of voices which can sing effectively together,— a limit fixed by the laws of acoustics, and ten thousand is just about ten times too many,” said the New York Tribune . And the Philadelphia Bulletin prophesied direly:
This will be a big noise; there will be no concord in it … The bells, being at various distances, will send in their vibrations one after the other, two, three, and four beats behind time; the cannon will hang fire … The possible result will be the distraction, perhaps the absolute lunacy, of every sensitive musical man in Boston.
Yet a number of thousand-dollar pledges rolled in, principally from hotelkeepers, music publishers, and others who stood to benefit directlv. The school board agreed tentatively to allow 20,000 children to sing as a feature for one day only. And an ironmonger offered to furnish 100 anvils, free.
But this was hardly a drop in the financial bucket, and public interest remained low. Gilmore pleaded with Boston’s builders to supply lumber and workmen and wait for their pay from ticket sales, but the builders had little faith in that. Three promoters set out to sell fifty thousand dollars’ worth of tickets in a month for a five per cent commission, but gave up in disgust after three days. (Reserved seats were $5 each; choice season tickets for all five days, $100 each; general admission, $2.) Gilmore next tried to persuade each local lumber dealer to contribute a part of the building. No luck. He campaigned through the state, asking each town to send a volunteer corps of Civil War veterans to contribute one day’s work. Nothing doing.
The maestro wrote later that his “distress of mind at this time was indeed almost unbearable.” He was “so enraptured” with his project that he had given up “all remunerative sources of employment.” He was, in fact, broke: “Grim-visaged Want was staring [me] in the face.” When March arrived with the coliseum no nearer reality, Gilmore desperately resolved to hold his jubilee outdoors, “with the blue vault of Heaven as its canopy.”
But at this point he got a big break. Boston’s leading merchant, Eben D. Jordan, head of Jordan, Marsh & Company, had been watching Gilmore with mingled admiration, wonder, and the realization that a successful jubilee would be mighty good for Boston business. Early in March Jordan agreed to help organize the National Peace Jubilee Association and be its treasurer.
That did it. Top businessmen and bankers were quick to join the executive committee, and they agreed to underwrite expenses from their own pockets, to be repaid from seat sales. The site of the jubilee was changed from the Common to St. James Park, to quiet the Back Bay set. Circulars listing the numbers to be sung and giving detailed instructions for rehearsals were mailed to numerous choral societies. Each qualifying group was offered half the railroad fare to Boston and back, “reasonable” lodgings, and a bound volume of the festival music. In all, 103 vocal groups made it, and several dozen bands. And now, auditoriums and halls from Maine to the Midwest began resounding to nightly choral effusions and the brayings and oompahings of countless band rehearsals.
In Boston regiments of carpenters began work, and half the town came out to rubberneck as the great coliseum took shape like the ribs of Noah’s ark. Some religious citizens decided this signalled the beginning of the millennium. Others compared it with the Tower of Babel. And various nervous individuals left town to escape the anticipated onslaught of culture seekers.
The Temple of Peace, which was built in three months, was 500 feet long, 300 feet wide, and 100 feet from floor to roof ridge; it was constructed of fine Georgia pine. It contained 144 windows and a pair of six-foot-wide ventilators running the length of its roof. Main doorways were twenty-four feet wide, and forty-five great flagpoles projected from the roof. More than 7,500 pounds of mixed paint covered the exterior with sandstone color, trimmed withbrownstone; the interior with blue, gray, pink, and gold. Murals of harvest fields represented the return of plenty. The arch above the ten-thousand-voice choir was formed by two huge gilded angels, the torch of war lying extinguished at their feet. They clutched olive branches while gazing upward at a colossal scroll that proclaimed: “Glory to God In the Highest; Peace On Earth Good Will Toward Men.”