July 17, 2012

How one student combined his love of architecture with a love of Boston’s past in a new museum exhibit

James Cleveland, BSA ’14 next to his 18th century rope-making facility scale model

Ever since moving to Boston after a military stint in Iraq, James Cleveland, BSA ’14, wanted to know more about the city he now called home. His opportunity arrived in April when English professor Lois Ascher sent him an extracurricular assignment: build a scale model of an 18th century rope-making facility, the kind which used to exist throughout West Boston.

Ascher had been contacted by the West End Museum, a neighborhood museum dedicated to protecting and promoting the area’s history and culture, which was seeking students who might be able to design and construct a model of the long, covered walks and shacks of the rope-making facilities that supplied seagoing vessels, like the famous War of 1812 ship, the USS Constitution. Ascher thought of Cleveland: “If he commits to something, he does it, and does it well,” she said.

So Cleveland got started. He needed an estimated $2,000 in materials, but the museum gave him a budget of just $200. He treated the limit as a challenge and set out to build the model from scavenged and discarded materials.

And he found plenty of material in the campus architecture studios—a lot of it new and waiting to be dumped.

“For about a week or two right at the end of the semester, I kept walking up to the masters [students] and the seniors,” Cleveland said. He told the students: “I’m not trying to steal from you, but I know traditionally you guys leave all your stuff here after you leave—and wouldn’t you feel better if you gave it all to a better cause?”

The students agreed. Cleveland found himself with five carloads of basswood and other materials, which he shuttled to a storage locker. With the help of faculty and the use of school lab equipment, he then successfully built a 20-foot-long model of an 18th century “ropewalk.” And Cleveland built it all for less than $100.

“I wanted to have a piece of work that’s on a larger scale and reflects my skill and commitment to a project,” Cleveland said. “I think this project did that pretty well.”

“Ropewalks of the West End and Beyond” will be at the West End Museum until mid-August. 

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