Does anyone else find it odd that Wellesley — a town with three colleges, two if you don’t count Mass Bay — is somehow not really a college town? Not in the same way that Amherst and Northampton are college towns. You can live in Wellesley and go days, even weeks, without noticing the two internationally renowned schools that lie within the town’s borders. Um…how is that possible??? Are we so self-absorbed that we can’t see what’s on the other side of our big backyards? (Please don’t answer that.)
In all fairness to us townspeople, it’s not entirely our fault. Babson College, for example, has done a great job of isolating itself on the southern edge of town since it moved from Washington Street in Wellesley Hills to its current campus in the early 1920s. Additionally, it isn’t like these colleges have competitive sports teams that the community can rally around. (Sorry, Wellesley College Blue and Babson College Beavers.)
But maybe we’re at least a little bit responsible for the awkward relationship between Wellesley College and the area around Wellesley Square. Something’s wrong if you can eat a bagel at Bruegger’s or play a round of nine holes at Nehoiden and have no idea that Wellesley College is mere feet from you. It’s also a problem that some Wellesley College students can survive quite happily for at least a month without once stepping outside the campus walls.
See, it wasn’t always like this. For more than 75 years — from the time Wellesley College opened in 1875 until the 1950s — Wellesley Square and Wellesley College were very much joined at the hip. Perhaps the single greatest reason for this was that, for most of this time, much of the student body lived off-campus in large dormitories that lined Washington Street south of Wellesley Square.
Just imagine the roads clogged with students walking or riding their bikes to and from campus. And it wasn’t confined to this stretch of Washington Street. Wellesley College students were all over the Square.
And the center of activity — for at least the first few decades of the 20th Century — was the Wellesley Tea Room (later known as the Wellesley Inn). Its origins actually date to the fall of 1897, when two recent Wellesley College graduates, Mary Esther Chase (‘96) and Clara H. Shaw (‘97), rented a few rooms in a nearby business block and opened a small tea room. The exact location of the Wellesley Tea Room is difficult to pin down — my best guess given the limited records of the Tea Room is the original Partridge Block, which stood on the south side of Central Street directly to the west of the Village Church graveyard.
At first, the Tea Room was nothing more than a place where their friends could come to socialize over tea and dessert, as there was no such gathering spot on campus. But it quickly became a sensation with the entire student body. Perhaps it was the freedom that came with hanging out off-campus, away from the house mothers that watched over all the young women with the eyes of hawks.
Or maybe it was the food, which was certainly better (and sweeter) than what was being served in the dining halls. Just take a look at this menu:
As you can probably tell, at this point in time — only three years after opening — the Wellesley Tea Room had become a full-fledged restaurant. And by 1901, it also had six bedrooms for visiting alumnae of the college (and of Dana Hall, whose students embraced the tea room with equal adoration).
This success, no doubt, was a testament to the leadership and business acumen of Mary Chase. (Her co-founder, Clara Shaw, had left for Chicago after one year.) With little to no experience in the hospitality industry, Chase had turned the Tea Room into one of Wellesley’s most popular establishments. This included presiding over a staff of more than a half dozen servants (which included a cook, who was described by the Mansfield Daily Shield as a “typical old-time southern mammy with a gift in the matter of Maryland biscuit” — other national newspapers that wrote about the Wellesley Tea Room and, later, the Wellesley Inn, often included similar racial epithets to describe the staff, almost all of whom appear to have been African-Americans originally from either the South or New York City).
Chase even led the Wellesley Tea Room through its transition into a stock-owned corporation, a move that would generate capital and allow for the necessary expansion of the business. It’s hard not to be impressed by this. After all, the year was 1901. Not exactly a time when women — even college graduates — ran corporations. So it’s no wonder that the 25-year-old Chase received national attention after raising $20,000 (over $500,000 in 2013 dollars) by selling thousands of $5 shares to the public.
In 1902 — after having long outgrown its original quarters — the Wellesley Tea Room used some of this money to purchase a large house on Washington Street opposite the end of Church Street. Up until that time, this dwelling was nothing remarkable — just a simple farmhouse built between 1859 and 1866. Coincidentally, however, the Wellesley Tea Room’s acquisition of the house wasn’t the home’s first connection to Wellesley College. From 1866 until 1868, it was the residence of the parents of Henry F. Durant, the founder of Wellesley College. (Though Durant never lived there — his estate was further along on Washington Street near the current entrance to Wellesley College.)
Before moving into their new quarters, Chase and the rest of her team spent two months renovating its interior and constructing several additions that nearly tripled the square footage. When the new Wellesley Tea Room held its grand opening in September of 1902, the guests saw a building that barely resembled the original farmhouse. And the first floor interior consisted of two separate spaces, each with different entrances from the outside. One half of the building, with its own large reception room and dining room was open to the public for both tea and full meals. But the other half — along with the entire second and third floors — was only accessible to Wellesley College students. In fact, from the time it opened until 1906, the upper floors served as a dormitory for nearly 20 students.
And just as it had been at its original location, the Tea Room was the unofficial clubhouse for all Wellesley College students. I think the New York Tribune described it best:
“Coming back from Boston at the fag-end of an afternoon’s shopping, a group of students find it easier “to gain the timely inn” — as their study of Shakespeare has taught them — than to go on the mile further to the college for refreshment. Again, when a student feels a trifle homesick, or is disheartened over an accumulation of “papers due,” the hospital inn looms up invitingly on her mental horizon and she starts off, sure of diversion and sure of the warmest welcome.”
And what food awaited her? How about…
“…[g]rapefruit with maraschino cherries, bouillon with whipped cream, broiled chicken on toast, French fried potatoes, asparagus tips, French peas, cranberry ice, fruit salad, café mousse, fudge cake and coffee. If they are having some Harvard men out to dine, and want a hearty meal, the menu would be more likely to run after this wise: Mock turtle soup, sirloin steak with mushrooms, French fried potatoes, celery, scalloped tomatoes, apple fritters, cheese and pepper salad, apple pie with ice cream and coffee.”
Talk about clogged arteries!
And what post on the Wellesley Tea Room would be complete without an expanded discussion on the aforementioned “fudge cake.” After all, this was the famous Wellesley Fudge Cake — a rich chocolate cake with fudge-like chocolate frosting. Its popularity even inspired a rival fudge cake in a rival tea room in Wellesley Square. And then it went national, with recipes for the Wellesley Fudge Cake appearing in newspapers and magazines all over the country. Here’s one such example from a 1941 issue of Life Magazine:
And for those amateur pâtissiers out there, here’s a close-up of the recipe:
Mary Chase would end up stepping away from the Wellesley Tea Room following her engagement in the summer of 1903. (It’s comforting to know that instead of staying at home, she ran a bungalow resort in the Poconos of Pennsylvania.) The Tea Room, however, would not suffer one bit in her absence — newly minted graduates of Wellesley College filled her void and ran the business with equal success.
But the Wellesley Tea Room wouldn’t last forever. In 1914 — six years after formally changing its name to the Wellesley Inn — its Board of Directors sold the Inn to the Bransfield family, who would own and operate it for the next 46 years. Among the many changes the Bransfields made to the Inn were the addition of the portico over the main entrance as well as the acquisition of the adjacent house (as seen in the old photograph above) which occasionally had been leased for additional space beginning in 1903. This dwelling — known as the Inn Annex — was razed in 1964 to make room for the new Inn Annex seen below.
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact year that the Inn transitioned from a college hangout to the place that we all remember. Even after the Bransfield family took over, the Inn remained a hotspot for Wellesley College students and their friends and family. But whatever clubhouse atmosphere remained probably dissipated following the 1952 construction of Bates and Freeman Halls and the ensuing closure of the dorms along Washington Street. Wellesley College students were now far less likely to stray into Wellesley Square.
The rest of this story is pretty straightforward. After decades as one of the premiere lodging and food establishments in Wellesley, the Inn had lost its luster by the 1990s and early 2000s. And so, in 2005, the Wellesley Inn shut its doors after 108 years in operation. It was razed the following year.
After seven long years, the hole in the ground where the Inn once stood is finally about to be filled. Just like everyone else, I’m anxious to see this project completed. But there’s a completely irrational and unrealistic part of me that wishes the developer would rebuild the Wellesley Tea Room circa 1902. Or at least something that would help break down the barriers between Wellesley College and the rest of the town. The status quo just isn’t ideal — not for the merchants of Wellesley Square, the students, or even the rest of us Wellesley folks. Yeah, maybe this separation allows for an enhanced college experience, but students can bring vibrancy to a community like no one else can.
Is anyone with me on this?
- Norfolk County Registry of Deeds
- The Wellesley Legenda: 1895; 1900; 1905; 1907; 1920; 1931; 1935; 1941; 1948
- Atlas of Wellesley by George W. Stadley & Co. (1897)
- 1900 U.S. Federal Census
- The Wellesley Magazine: June 1900
- Boston Daily Globe: 6 October 1901; 22 September 1902
- Mansfield Daily Shield: 19 October 1901
- Boston Evening Transcript: 20 September 1902; 24 December 1908
- New York Tribune: 12 October 1902; 17 January 1909
- The Wellesley News: 29 October 1902; 13 April 1904; 28 March 1906; 25 April 1906; 30 November 1911
- Our Town: November 1902; August 1903
- ‘A College Inn’ by Jeannette A. Marks in June 1903 issue of Good Housekeeping
- ‘New Occupations for Educated Women’ by Mary Caroline Crawford in June 27, 1903 issue of New Outlook
- Glimpses of Wellesley by E.H. Benner (1904)
- Wellesley College Record, 1875-1912: A General Catalogue of Students (1912)
- Wellesley Townsman: 15 March 1918; 16 October 1952; 19 March 1953; 26 December 1963; 12 March 1964; 24 September 1964; 10 December 1981; 16 April 2009
- Life Magazine: 6 October 1941
- Wellesley College, 1875-1975: A Century of Women edited by Jean Glasscock (1975)