I always thought that Washburn Avenue was named for some literary figure. After all, the road is part of the Poets’ Corner neighborhood that includes streets named after Alfred Lord Tennyson, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. But it turns out that the namesake of Washburn Avenue — Cyrus Washburn — wasn’t a writer or poet. Rather, he was a carpenter and developer who built at least ten houses during the late 19th Century that still stand on Washburn Avenue, Walnut Street, and Longfellow Road.
The story of Cyrus Washburn and the development of this section of Wellesley is pretty simple. Let me start by showing you a map of the region in 1856, long before Washburn Avenue and Longfellow Road were laid out:
Although the roads are unlabeled, you should be able to see how ‘Florence Grove’ is bounded by Worcester, Oakland, Washington, Walnut, and Cedar Streets (starting at the bottom and going clockwise). In addition to these woodlands, there was a large stretch of farmland south of Walnut Street at the current location of Poets’ Corner.
This area stayed largely undeveloped until 1880, when the subject of this post, Cyrus Washburn, arrived in Wellesley and purchased part of the western edge of this farmland. A carpenter by trade, he had spent decades building houses and renting them in his hometown of East Weymouth. The only reason he left there and moved to Wellesley was that East Weymouth cut down the beautiful trees in front of his mansion.
The first house that Washburn built in Wellesley was for himself and his wife, Elizabeth, on the recently laid out Florence Avenue (which, in 1914, was renamed Longfellow Road after the Longfellow family who had owned property along Worcester Street since the 1840s). He would then go on to build nine more large houses: two on Florence Avenue, two on Walnut Street, and five on Washburn Avenue (laying out the road in the process). The majority of these homes were kept by Washburn and rented out to families. A notable exception was 35 Washburn Avenue, which is believed to have been the home of his gardener or housekeeper — the house was built perpendicular to Washburn Avenue along a now-extinct path that led to the Washburn estate house on Florence Avenue. Below is an 1897 map of the area:
And here are photographs of the ten houses that Cyrus Washburn built, as well his barn, which was converted into a residence around 1954. (All photographs were taken by Joshua Dorin in February of 2013.)
When Cyrus Washburn died in 1899, most of these properties were sold. The rest of the estate was held until his wife’s death in 1906. (The Washburns did not have any children.)
The development of the rest of the Poets’ Corner neighborhood did not begin until 1919. Although it’s not exactly clear why the streets were named after literary figures, it is probable that the developer noticed that Longfellow was also the name of a famous poet. Unfortunately, only a few lots close to Walnut Street were sold before the developer was foreclosed upon in 1920. It wasn’t until the late 1920s that construction began again.
Today, over eighty years later, the Poets’ Corner is arguably one of the more desirable and charming neighborhoods in all of Wellesley. And to that, I’d like to add ‘historical’ — at least for its western edge along Washburn Avenue, Walnut Street, and Longfellow Road. Such a large cluster of pre-1900 dwellings all built by one person is rare in Wellesley. Unfortunately for Cyrus Washburn, his legacy has been forgotten, probably in large part because everyone assumes that Washburn Avenue was named for some obscure poet. Well, now that I’ve written this post, hopefully that will soon change.
- Norfolk County Registry of Deeds
- Wellesley Historical Commission files: #22 Longfellow Road; #26 Longfellow Road; #350 Walnut Street; #354 Walnut Street; #9 Washburn Avenue; #11 Washburn Avenue; #13-15 Washburn Avenue; #25-27 Washburn Avenue; #35 Washburn Avenue; #303 Worcester Street
- 1856 Map of Needham
- 1876 Map of Needham
- 1888 Atlas of Norfolk County
- 1897 Atlas of Wellesley
- Souvenir History of the New England Southern Conference by Micah Jones Talbot (1897)
- Boston Herald: 23 September 1897
- Obituary Record of the Graduates of Bowdoin College and the Medical School of Maine (1899)
- The Wellesley Review: 17 February 1899
- Wellesley Townsman: 13 July 1906; 6 March 1914; 25 June 1920
- History of the Town of Wellesley, Massachusetts by Joseph E. Fiske (1917)