The Cliff Building and the Cliff, two apartment blocks with nearly the same name, sit facing each other at the corner of Broadway and Curtis Street. They are just two of the many properties developed by Zebedee E. Cliff: a carpenter, real estate developer and politician who made his mark on the city of Somerville near the start of the 20th century.
Cliff was born on September 23rd, 1964 in Fredericton, New Brunswick, where his father William worked as a lumber operator. At the age of eighteen, Zebedee came south to Boston when he apprenticed as a carpenter and enrolled in night school. In 1890, he married and settled down in Somerville with his new wife, the former Ada Kincaid. He continued to work as a builder and carpenter in Boston for the next four years until 1894 when he went into business for himself. As a developer, Cliff transformed the city of Somerville. He was responsible for more than $2,000,000 worth of construction throughout the city and built more than 300 homes, including most of those along Powderhouse Boulevard and Powder House Terrace. He himself lived at 29 Powder House Terrace, added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1989. The Cliff Building, completed in 1905, and the Cliff, in 1912, were some of the first to go up in Teele Square. Across the street, at 1150 Broadway, is a third Cliff property in the square. Cliff developed several other business blocks and multi-unit dwellings throughout Somerville and Greater Boston, including Bryant Chambers, considered West Somerville’s first “modern” apartment building, on College Avenue.
Cliff quickly became a recognized leader within Somerville’s business community and served as President of the West Somerville Board of Trade from 1902-03. He parlayed this visibility and success into a lengthy career in local politics. In 1905, he was elected to the Board of Aldermen as a representative of Somerville’s 7th Ward, where much of the electorate lived in Cliff-built homes. He followed this stint with three years of service on the Somerville Board of Health. Cliff successfully ran for Somerville’s seat in the Massachusetts House of Representatives and served from 1910-12. While in the state legislature, he was described in The Boston Globe as being “one of the most punctual in attendance at committee meetings and sessions of the House.”
In December 1913, Cliff was the Republican nominee for Mayor of Somerville. His opponent, John Herbert, was a lawyer, minister and newspaper publisher who had previously run an unsuccessful campaign for Congress as a Progressive, a short-lived political party split off from the Republicans in 1912 by Theodore Roosevelt. Frederick J. White, the Democratic mayoral candidate, withdrew his bid in favor of Herbert, who had been selected by a nominally nonpartisan convention made up of delegates from the city’s Democratic and Progressive Parties and a number of independent Republicans. Somerville’s Republican leaders alleged that this nonpartisan group was in actuality a Democratic and Progressive party maneuver to unseat the long dominant Republican Party – which had held the mayoralty since 1885 and controlled 17 of 21 aldermen positions. Some Progressives also balked at Herbert’s nomination and, upset with their party’s decision to join with the Democrats, endorsed Cliff. The close election came down to a little more than 300 votes, in a city of nearly 13,000 registered voters, with Cliff victorious. He would go on to win three more terms as mayor, becoming only the second person to serve four terms and the first to do so since William H. Hodgkins in 1895.
After the election, The Boston Globe interviewed the new mayor of Somerville. Central to Cliff’s vision for the city was a “clean, businesslike administration” that would be “free from partisan politics” and he “asked the members of the City Government as far as possible to ignore party affiliations.” Among his positions was a promise to “keep down [Somerville’s] cost of administration” and scrutinize every expenditure.” He likened the city’s budgets to those of its citizens and called for a fiscally conservative approach and surety that each “intended purchase is a necessity.” In this regard, he echoed the national Republican Party which stated in its 1912 presidential platform that “extravagant appropriations and the creation of unnecessary offices are an injustice to the taxpayer and a bad example to the citizen.” As part of his plan for a reduced government presence, he “[hoped] to see annual elections done away with in Somerville” and felt that Somerville had “too many elections and too many laws regulating persons and communities” and that “what we want is less politics, fewer laws and more business and greater prosperity.” Cliff described “the inequality of taxation” as “one of the problems which every community is confronted with” and, as a real estate developer, he had strong opinions on taxes and land valuation – he opposed “the policy of assessing vacant land lower than that occupied by buildings,” which he felt “puts a burden on the homeowner and the man who builds a business block.”
As mayor, Cliff seems to have been widely popular. In 1914, Cliff won re-election in a “striking triumph.” He defeated his opponents – independent candidate Robert R. Perry, a former police captain, and Democrat W. M. Smith – by a majority of 1870 votes, more than six times his 1913 majority. The next year he won re-election by the largest majority ever seen in a Somerville mayoral race. In 1916, running for his fourth consecutive term, Cliff was unopposed. The Democratic Party failed to nominate a candidate during the primaries and no independents chose to run. No mayor had run unopposed since George O. Proctor, running for his second term in 1899. In describing this honor, “the highest compliment the city pay him,” The Somerville Journal lauded a few accomplishments of the Cliff administration, including: “extensive highway improvements,” “increased school accommodations,” and a soon-to-be-constructed high school in West Somerville.
On June 13th, 1934, Zebedee E. Cliff was taken to Baker Memorial Hospital in Boston for a case of appendicitis. While on the operating table, Cliff died at age 70. He had been living with his sons Percy and Stanley Cliff in Lexington. His wife, Ada, had died five years earlier in 1929. Befitting a man of his stature, the pallbearers at his funeral included several political elites – Somerville’s mayor James E. Hagan (D), former mayors Charles W. Eldridge (R), John M. Webster (R), Leon M. Conwell (R) and John J. Murphy (D) and Massachusetts Secretary of the Commonwealth Frederic W. Cook (R), who had been a member of Cliff’s administration. The service was held at the West Somerville Baptist Church where Cliff and his wife had been members. He was buried in Medford’s Oak Grove Cemetery. In addition to Percy and Stanley, Cliff was survived by his son Fred J. Cliff and brothers Moses and Cooke.