Brownleigh Hall (Needham)

I always feel like Grove Street doesn’t get nearly enough attention when discussing the history of Wellesley and Needham. It begins at the Wellesley Square Post Office adjacent to Town Hall and stretches two miles all the way to Charles River Street in Needham. On that journey, it passes the Wellesley Square intersection, the site of the old Dana Hall campus, the current Dana Hall and Tenacre Country Day School campuses, the former location of the Charles River Hospital, and the long-gone Ridge Hill Farms. Certainly each of these sites deserves its own post. Here, however, I’m going to focus on another historical jewel of Grove Street: Brownleigh Hall, a beautiful estate house, built in 1882, that stood for 44 years until it burned to the ground in 1926. But before we get into all those details, let’s back up several years.

During the 1870s, the southern leg of Grove Street was part of the William Emerson Baker estate. Baker, a Boston businessman who made a fortune selling sewing machines, had acquired a number of large farms in that part of town beginning in 1868. Eventually, he had amassed 755 acres (of which 125 were in what would become Wellesley). On this land, Baker built Ridge Hill Farms, an ‘amusement park’ consisting of a collection of odd attractions, as well as objects of natural beauty, including man-made Sabrina Lake, which his workers had dug out by 1876. The vast majority of the attractions were located east of Sabrina Lake on both sides of Grove Street, as well as south of Charles River Street. (A future post will delve more deeply into Ridge Hill Farms.)

For reasons unknown to me, in 1881, seven years before Baker’s death and near the peak of Ridge Hill Farms’ popularity, a section of his property on the east side of Grove Street near the intersection with Charles River Street was sold to James Wentworth Brown. Perhaps Baker needed the money to continue to finance his amusement park (which was never profitable). Anyways, Brown was president of the Walker, Stetson & Sawyer Company, a Boston firm that imported and sold all sorts of fancy dry goods and novelties — everything from fine clothing & supplies to perfumery and soaps. It even had a large manufacturing division of “print dress wrappers” and fine women’s and children’s clothing. The business was immensely successful, making Brown quite a wealthy man. This being the Gilded Age, it makes sense that Brown would want to build one of the finest homes in the Boston area. And that house was dubbed ‘Brownleigh Hall’ (pronounced and often misspelled as ‘Brownley’):

PurdyEstate_flickr

Brownleigh Hall, late 1800s
(Courtesy of Cornell University Library)

Construction on Brownleigh Hall, which was designed by the Boston architectural firm of Allen & Kenway, began in October 1881 and ended in September of the following year at a total cost of $50,000. It was meant to resemble an English estate (with a focus on privacy and coziness), but drew heavily on the American and French desire for grand entertaining spaces. I find it amusing that it’s noted that efforts were taken to make the house not too opulent, yet here is a description of the interior space from an 1883 issue of The British Architect:

The hall (two storeys high) and corridor are finished in quartered oak; the billiard-room is finished in hard pine; the library in bird’s-eye maple; the morning-room in white pine shellac’d, and the dining-room in cherry; the chambers are finished in white pine shellac’d. The floors throughout are of oak, cherry, and hard pine.

A gas machine furnishes the house with gas, and every burner is lighted by means of electricity. The house is heated by two furnaces in the cellar, from which hot air is supplied to every room through tin pipes. Open fireplaces are also provided, the one in the hall being of stone and 5 feet wide.

Here’s a sketch of the house as it appeared in that issue:

BrownleighHall_BritishArchitect

Sketch and floorplans of Brownleigh Hall
(Courtesy of The British Architect)

There’s not much else I can say about its grandeur that isn’t obvious from these images. For 44 years, Brownleigh Hall sat at the end of Grove Street with views west and south of rolling hills and the meandering Charles River. As for its occupants, James Wentworth Brown died of a heart attack (while in a Boston streetcar) in 1894 at the age of 68. His son, James Freeman Brown, who had his own successful dry goods firm in Boston, must have inherited the estate, but died of a heart attack-induced drowning in 1901 at a beach near his New Jersey summer house.

In 1910, the Brown heirs sold the nine-acre estate to Martin Luther Cate, who ran a successful insurance and real estate business in Boston. Cate was born and raised in New Hampshire and graduated from Harvard in 1877. He then married the sister of Edwin Upton Curtis, who was mayor of Boston in 1895.  They had five children, three sons (all of whom went to Harvard) and two daughters (one of whom graduated from Wellesley College in 1907). The use of Brownleigh Hall as their summer residence was rather brief. Cate sold it only a year or so later at nearly the same time as the death of his youngest daughter, who was a student at Vassar College at the time. (A trip to the Registry of Deeds would clear up the timing of these events.) Martin Cate died in 1924 while living in Boston.

The last owner of Brownleigh Hall was Orville N. Purdy Jr., a successful Boston wool merchant, who bought it from Cate around 1911. Not much information is easily available about him or his family.

Tragically, in April of 1926, Brownleigh Hall burned to the ground, the result of a fire that started in the third-floor attic. All that was left standing was a small section of the exterior walls and a few of the home’s six chimneys. Fire departments from Needham, Natick, and Wellesley responded to the scene, but were unsuccessful in fighting the fire — perhaps due in part to a broken crank shaft on Wellesley’s only pump truck, leaving the fire department unable to do much besides remove all of the valuable furniture from the first floor.

The Purdy family, who used the house as their winter residence, chose to rebuild on the same spot. The new home, built entirely of stone, was completed in 1929.  However, when the Great Depression hit, the costs of its upkeep were too great and in 1944, the house was torn down despite its fine condition. Orville Purdy later lived in Brookline and died in 1960 at age 82.

There’s one more historical note to add to the story of this estate. On June 6, 1944 (D-Day), a small plane piloted by a British officer with an enlisted man on board crashed on the estate grounds, killing both men. (I believe this was just before the house was razed.)  According to Tom Walker, who witnessed the event as a young boy from his home on Longmeadow Road only a few thousand feet from the crash site, the teenage pilots had been stationed at the Squantum naval air base in Quincy. During a training mission, they took the opportunity to fly by this section of Wellesley and Needham to impress some local girls they had met at a dinner party here a few days earlier. The plane apparently had engine trouble, so the pilot tried to circle around to find a place to land, but went into a spin and plummeted to the ground. The plane dug a crater 3 feet deep and 15 yards long before crashing into a large tree. The explosion and fire from the impact left only twisted steel wreckage. Additionally, the machine gun and other live ammunition on the plane were set off. The resulting fire destroyed a large section of the woods, but it doesn’t appear that any homes were damaged.

Beyond that event that occurred 68 years ago, I’m unable to find any record of Brownleigh Hall or the house that replaced it in 1929. I think it’s fair to assume that the estate grounds stayed as fields and woods until the early 1990s when the area was developed into Pinehill Drive. Check out this aerial view from Google Maps:

For those of you curious about the precise location of Brownleigh Hall — it was located about 300 feet to the east of Grove Street in line with the southern edge of Sabrina Lake. Thus, its precise location today would be in the middle of Pinehill Drive, almost two houses in from Grove Street.

So I hope you now have a new found appreciation for the history of Grove Street.  There’s a lot more to discuss beyond Brownleigh Hall, but I’ll save that for another day.

Sources:

  • American Architect and Building News: Volume 14, Issue 144 of September 8, 1883
  • The British Architect: A Journal of Architecture and the Accessory Arts, Vol 20, Issue of September 14, 1883
  • Boston and Bostonians by American Publishing and Engraving Co.  (1894)
  • Boston Evening Transcript: 6 December 1894; 5 May 1906; 25 June; 25 June 1910
  • The Ancestors of the John Lowe Family Circle and Their Descendants by Ellen Maria Lowe Merriam (1901)
  • America’s Textile Reporter: For the Combined Textile Industries, Vol 15, Issue of September 12, 1901
  • 1909 Atlas of Needham by G.W. Bromley & Co.
  • The Fulham Genealogy by Volney Sewall Fulham (1910)
  • Harvard College, Class of 1877, Seventh Report (1917)
  • The Harvard Graduates’ Magazine, Vol 32 (1924)
  • Wellesley Townsman: 23 April 1926; 9 June 1944; 25 April 1946; 30 December 2010
  • Boston Globe: 25 October 1960
  • The Baker Estate or Ridge Hill Farms of Needham by Leslie G. Crumbaker (1975)
  • Google Maps

(I’d also like to thank Scott Beckwith for bringing the above photograph to my attention on the Facebook group ‘Remember when? Growing up in Wellesley…’ In trying to answer a few questions, I was inspired to research Brownleigh Hall more deeply. This post is the result. A trip to the Norfolk County Registry of Deeds is missing, but I did what I could.)

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