The Jewel That Wasn’t Built

I think anyone who has read my previous blog posts knows that I am obsessed with Wellesley’s historical buildings and houses. But what actually interest me more are those that were designed, but for some reason never built. I’d argue that we can learn a lot about a city or town’s history from its failures to complete a proposed project. And there are plenty of examples in Wellesley that fall into that category, from schools to administrative buildings to movie theatres. Here I want to write about one such example, a combined library and community center that was proposed in 1919 and would have stood where the Wellesley Hills Branch Library was later erected in 1928. Without a doubt, this building would have been one of the most elegant and stately structures in town. But instead, the project never got the approval of Wellesley voters and the proposed building was relegated to history.

There’s really not a lot of background to this story. What you need to know is that by 1919, the Wellesley Free Library, which had been housed in the eastern half of the Town Hall building since 1883, was in desperate need of more space. Although there were a few branch libraries, each one was nothing more than a single room in an otherwise occupied house or building. The one exception was a branch library run by the Wellesley Hills Women’s Club out of the vacant James A. Beck House since 1912. That house was located more or less on the site of the current Wellesley Hills Branch Library. Nevertheless, this situation — a cramped main library and an old house for a branch library — was not ideal for a town that was well on the path towards becoming an affluent suburb. Beginning in 1914, Wellesley began considering building a new library, but no significant action was taken until 1919 when the Special Library Committee that was formed to investigate the matter and make recommendations drew up plans for a new main library. This post is about those architectural plans and the fate of that building.

So let’s start with a sketch of the proposed building:

Sketch_proposedlibrary

Proposed Library and Community Center
(Source: Wellesley Townsman)

This brick building with ornate stone trimmings (designed by Boston architects Blackall, Clapp & Whittemore) was to be more than just the main public library. It would also be the headquarters for the American Legion and a community center featuring a large 363-seat auditorium that could hold theatre productions, lectures, public meetings, and even “moving pictures,” as well as space for a museum or art gallery. In addition, there would be a memorial to Wellesley veterans, including those that served in the Great War that had ended only months earlier. It was to be located on the site of the aforementioned Beck house. Now to fully appreciate the formidable presence this building would have had, you need to understand the geography of the area at the time. So take a look at the following image:

1919_library_map

Street Configuration in 1919

I’ve done my best to draw the roads as they were in 1919. Washington Street was almost exactly as it is today. Worcester Street (Route 9), however, was completely different. It wasn’t until 1933 that the road went under Washington Street, bypassing Wellesley Hills Square to the north. Before then, Worcester Street split to the east of the current underpass into a westbound road that merged onto Washington Street and an eastbound road that went more or less along the current eastbound on-ramp. Once in Wellesley Hills Square, these two branches merged back together. In addition, there was a road called Beck Lane to the west of the Beck House that connected Worcester Street and Washington Street. And as you can see, a large triangular tract of land, known as Ware Park, was formed by this street configuration. (Grantland Extension, the road that currently runs just to the east of the Hills Branch Library, did not exist in 1919.)

So given these changes, try to visualize the proposed building where the Wellesley Hills Branch Library is today, overlooking an expansive grassy park to the west. Wouldn’t that have been wonderful? Instead, all that exists there today is a little bit of grass to the west of the Branch Library, the Route 9 westbound off-ramp, and a void where the highway dips down to go under Washington Street.

When I look at the floor plans of the proposed building, I’m even more disappointed that it was never built. Everything about them prove to me that it would have been one of the jewels of Wellesley. (Source: Wellesley Townsman — CLICK ON A FLOORPLAN TO ENLARGE)

So why wasn’t this beautiful building constructed? Well, that brings us to our lesson in town politics. For starters, the building would have cost between $110,000 and $125,000, adding $1 to the property tax rate, which was already thought to be too high. And the town desperately needed additional school buildings more than a new library. However, one of the most interesting reasons that the plans didn’t pass at the 1920 Annual Town Meeting was that those voting were upset that the Special Library Committee spent money that hadn’t been appropriated to draw up architectural plans. The voters were sending a message that “when the Town appoints a committee to do a specific job, and does not appropriate any money therefor, the committee must not expect the Town to foot any bills incurred by the committee in doing the job, especially if they go beyond the scope of the specifications, and expend money in the full knowledge that none has been appropriated for their use…The voters made it clear that such policy would not be tolerated.” [Wellesley Townsman: 19 March 1920]

And with that, the drive to build a new library ended for some time. To be fair, it wasn’t just spite from the voters that led to further inaction. In fact, it was mostly because the town’s overcrowded schools took center stage. In only one year, four new elementary schools opened (Hardy in late 1923, Kingsbury in early 1924, and Sprague and Brown in late 1924). There were also large additions to Fiske in 1921, Hardy in 1925, and Phillips Junior High School in 1928. This further reduced the need for a new library because additional branches opened in the recently closed Fells School (now the Fells Branch Library) and in a room at the enlarged Fiske School.

Therefore, in 1927, when the town finally revisited the issue of a new library, it voted to build just a branch library. The location chosen was the site of the Beck House, which was conveniently owned by Isaac Sprague, chairman of the building committee. And with the library’s construction came a slight reconfiguration of the streets: Grantland Extension was laid out to the east of the new library and Beck Lane was removed and incorporated into Ware Park. Unfortunately, only five years after the library’s 1928 opening, Ware Park disappeared when the Worcester Street underpass was constructed.

1024px-Wellesley_Hills_Branch_Library_MA_03

Wellesley Hills Branch Library
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Although Wellesley didn’t get the proposed library and community center, the consolation prize of the Wellesley Hills Branch Library wasn’t too shabby. That said, I still think the town missed out on an absolute treasure. Not just in terms of the building’s architecture and aesthetics, but also in its potential ability to unite Wellesley’s literary, artistic, scholarly, and heroic citizens under one roof. It would have been truly representative of the diverse population that makes Wellesley a great town. Sadly, it just wasn’t meant to be.

Sources:

  • Norfolk County Registry of Deeds
  • Wellesley Historical Commission files: Wellesley Hills Branch Library
  • Wellesley Townsman: 6 December 1907; 28 February 1919; 21 March 1919; 9 May 1919; 19 December 1919; 27 February 1920; 19 March 1920; 3 December 1920; 30 December 1921; 7 September 1923; 25 January 1924; 4 September 1925; 8 January 1926; 12 March 1926; 27 May 1927; 15 July 1927; 24 February 1928; 14 July 1933; 24 May 1956
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2 thoughts on “The Jewel That Wasn’t Built

  1. and it would have been right around the corner from my house! assuming it would have been built at all… or maybe it already had been? who knows.

    i really enjoyed this one as it was almost literally on my doorstep.

    you can also add that the current branch library smells like old people and has seriously poor lighting. – PRIMARY SOURCE.

    e

    • Your house was built in 1929. Just a year after the current branch library was built. I never hung out there, but I’ll take your word about the smells and lighting.

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