This September marks the 75th anniversary of the opening of Hunnewell Elementary School on Cameron Street. While this is certainly a milestone that needs to be celebrated, what’s even more impressive is that, technically, it will be the start of Hunnewell’s 144th consecutive school year. That’s because there were two schoolhouses of that same name that predate the current building — the first one was built in 1870. So follow me below as I explain the histories of the first two Hunnewell Schools.
To be complete, we should actually begin in the year 1785 when the town of Needham (to which Wellesley belonged) voted to establish the first school districts, one of which was to be called the West district and would serve the entire western portion of what is now Wellesley. (I’m guessing that means everything west of around Forest Street.) The first West district schoolhouse, however, wasn’t built until at least 1791 and was located a bit west of Weston Road south of Central Street on the current Wellesley College campus. Around 1844, a new West district schoolhouse was constructed on land now bounded by Central Street, Weston Road, and Cross Street. This would be the first of three schoolhouses built here — the latter two called Hunnewell School. To those of you familiar with Wellesley, it might be hard to believe that this property was ever home to a school. As seen in the satellite view below, it is entirely commercial today with a block of stores along Central Street, a fire station at the corner of Central Street and Weston Road, and a large parking lot in the rear.
However, back in the mid-19th Century, Central Street was entirely residential. It wasn’t until the early 1920s that commercial blocks began to pop up along the street. Today, the only remaining dwelling is the Hathaway House, a circa 1830 farmhouse at the corner of Weston Road that is now home to the Stuart Swan Furniture Company.
The second schoolhouse on this site — the first Hunnewell School — was built in 1870 fronting on Cross Street directly opposite where Church Street ends. (The first schoolhouse had been moved south of the school grounds, converted into a dwelling, and then burned down sometime before 1906.) At the time of its construction, this new schoolhouse, a three-story Second Empire building, was the largest school in Wellesley. It was built by Freeman Phillips (the father of Alice L. Phillips, the namesake of the original Junior High School on Seaward Road) at a substantial cost mostly covered by donations from some of Wellesley’s most notable residents:
- Horatio H. Hunnewell (patriarch of the Hunnewell family)
- Henry F. Durant (founder of Wellesley College)
- Edmund M. Wood (owner of Wood’s paint shop at Paintshop Pond near Lake Waban)
- William E. Baker (owner of Ridge Hill Farms on Grove Street)
Mr. Hunnewell’s donation must have been the largest because the school was officially named after him when it opened in 1870. For its first five years, the building housed students of all ages: primary on the first floor, intermediate on the second floor, and high schoolers on the third floor. (In 1875, the high school moved to the newly completed Shaw School on Forest Street.) Interestingly, indoor plumbing wasn’t added to Hunnewell School until 1885. As a former teacher, I have to say that a school without bathrooms would be a dream come true. Students might actually be forced to sit there and learn instead of ‘going to the bathroom,’ which usually means roaming the halls and texting their friends.
The occupancy of the first Hunnewell School, however, was short lived. In 1892, the second Hunnewell School (the third schoolhouse on this lot) was built, this one fronting on Central Street. Sometime over the next two years, the first Hunnewell School was moved onto the Wellesley College campus and remodeled into a dormitory using money from a donation by Charlotte Matilda Morse Fiske, the widow of Joseph Norton Fiske, one of Boston’s most successful bankers in the mid-1800s. Amazingly, neither Morse nor Fiske appear to have any relationship to the well-known Morse or Fiske families of Wellesley — their only connection to the town was that Mrs. Fiske was a close friend of Pauline Durant, the widow of the founder of Wellesley College. The renovated schoolhouse was renamed the Fiske House and served as a co-op dormitory until 1939 when it became housing for graduate students in the Hygiene and Physical Education program. Since 1953, the Fiske House has been used for faculty and staff apartments.
The second Hunnewell School served the town until the 1938 opening of the current (and third) Hunnewell School, which was built on Cameron Street because traffic near the school grounds on Central Street had become far too dangerous over the years. Cars and trucks (and trolleys for some time) sped down the road to and from Natick, causing too much noise and posing too much risk to the children during recess. In 1939, the second Hunnewell School was razed and a commercial block was soon built along Central Street. (Previously, in 1929, the west corner of the school grounds had been taken over for the construction of the stone fire station that still stands there today.)
Before we leave the site of the first two Hunnewell Schools, there’s one more interesting thing to note, which is the presence of a pond at the corner of Weston Road and Cross Street near the southern edge of the schoolyard. There was no name associated with this pond because it was more like a giant puddle where all the runoff collected. And nothing good came from its presence. It was unsightly and smelly. Stagnant waters caused mosquito outbreaks and disease. Students were always falling into the water during their one hour unsupervised lunch breaks. What was even more ridiculous was that, in 1921, the town tried to grade the rear portion of the schoolyard where the pond would always reappear by permitting residents to dump their ashes and other clean filling materials. That plan backfired when people started dumping their trash and refuse, creating an even more unsightly and hazardous situation. Local residents soon protested to the Selectmen, who shut down the dump the following year. (And this wasn’t the only time that dumping was permitted either on school grounds or adjacent to them — there were also dumps by the North School at the current site of Warren Elementary School, as well as on the Sprague Elementary School playing fields.)
So as we note the 75th anniversary of the opening of the current Hunnewell Elementary School this fall, I propose that its two predecessors be included in the celebrations. Perhaps this story could be told to students on a field trip to the original Hunnewell school grounds. Only by really observing this location can one envision either of the old Hunnewell Schools surrounded by a grassy playing field and one swampy pond. Then everyone could walk towards the main gates of Wellesley College and take a look at the Fiske House (the first Hunnewell School). Perhaps a discussion of Katharine Lee Bates, the most famous graduate of the first Hunnewell School, could follow. Students would learn not just what Wellesley was like over 100 years ago, but also how this area of town transitioned from entirely residential to a bustling hub of commercial activity. It might not be as much fun as a field trip to the New England Aquarium or Drumlin Farm. But it would give students a better understanding of life in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, as well as a much deeper appreciation for their hometown. I don’t know about you, but if I was ten years old again, that field trip would be awesome.
- Needham Map of 1856
- Wellesley Atlas of 1888
- Wellesley Atlas of 1897
- Wellesley Historical Commission files: 103 Central Street; Hunnewell School (Cameron Street); Fiske House – Wellesley College
- The Wellesley Courant: 11 September 1885 (reprinted in the Wellesley Townsman of 13 September 1935)
- Professional and Industrial History of Suffolk County, Massachusetts by William Thomas Davis (1894)
- Life, Letters, and Diary of Horatio Hollis Hunnewell by Hollis Horatio Hunnewell (1906)
- Wellesley Townsman: 7 December 1906; 27 May 1921; 31 March 1922; 16 March 1923; 15 February 1929; 20 April 1934; 29 April 1938; 27 December 1945
- History of Needham, Massachusetts, 1711-1911 by George Kuhn Clarke (1912)
- Wellesley College 1875-1975: A Century of Women edited by Jean Glasscock (1975)
- Google Maps