The Gates of Wellesley College

We’re all told not to judge a book by its cover. But who are we kidding? Everyone does it.

That’s why I don’t understand the main (vehicular) entrance to Wellesley College on Central Street. Imagine for a second that you’re a prospective or incoming student who’s visiting the campus for the first time. You have just spent months, perhaps years, dreaming of attending Wellesley. You’ve read numerous reviews of the College and even taped a poster of its Hogwartsian campus to your bedroom wall. The anticipation of arriving is almost unbearable. And then when you finally get here, this is what greets you:

Source: Google Maps

Source: Google Maps

Meh.

It’s certainly not ugly. (Nor is the other vehicular entrance on Washington Street.) But it’s completely unremarkable. And for $57,042 a year — the tuition and boarding costs for the 2013-14 academic year — I’d expect a grand entrance. If not a gothic archway, then how about a set of wrought iron gates? This is, after all, one of the Seven Sisters, not Podunk University.

The irony is that, prior to 1961 — when the tuition was much cheaper — the vehicular entrances to the Wellesley College campus were actually quite impressive. Perhaps some of you even remember the last of these: the set of stone gates at the intersection of Central Street and Weston Road. Although you can’t drive through them today, they served as the primary entrance to the campus for nearly four decades. But these weren’t the first set of gates. In fact, the College was almost fifty years old by the time they were constructed.

Source: Google Maps

Source: Google Maps

In order to explain the (surprisingly complex) history of the gates of Wellesley College, let’s start out with one of the earliest maps of the campus, dating from right around the school’s inception in 1875.

Before we worry about the four different entrances, let’s begin by taking a broader look at the campus. First you’ll notice that it’s bounded (as it is today) by the “highway to Natick” (Central Street) along the bottom of the image parallel to the railroad tracks and the “highway to South Natick” (Washington Street) in the upper left corner. You can also see the road “to Weston” (Weston Road) at the bottom left corner.

Now that your bearings are straight, let’s take a look at the campus itself. Unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot that you’re going to recognize because most of the buildings and roads on the map no longer exist.

First and foremost, there’s College Hall, which is located prominently in the center of the map at the northern edge of Lake Waban.

CollegeHall_bySeaver_cropped_labeled

College Hall (photograph taken by Seaver)
Source: Wellesley College Digital Archives

Without a doubt, the most awe-inspiring and breathtaking building ever constructed within the Town of Wellesley, College Hall was Wellesley College for the institution’s first thirty-nine years. One therefore can say quite a bit about the five-story structure. But since this story is more focused on the history of the campus gates, I’ll just refer you to my post on College Hall and move on to the other buildings on the College grounds.

So let’s now zoom in on the upper left corner of the map:

Given the topic of this post, it might make sense to start with the ‘Principal Entrance’ and the tiny structure to its left. But let’s hold off on that for the time being and focus first on the other buildings. We also need to travel further back in time long before the College was established.

The story actually begins in 1854 when Henry Fowle Durant — the founder of Wellesley College — began spending his summers in what is now Wellesley. He had just got married that spring and, having obtained great wealth through his law practice in Boston, sought to build a summer estate out in the country. (The reason he chose Wellesley is unclear, but I suspect that it had something to do with the fact that the both he and his wife, Pauline Adeline Fowle, were cousins of Horatio Hollis Hunnewell and his wife, Isabella Pratt Welles, who had already developed their own estate at the edge of Lake Waban.)

The Durants, however, held off building their dream house on their 75-acre estate and instead resided at the ‘Farm House’ (as seen on the map above).

DurantHomestead_Legenda1925_labeled

The ‘Farm House’ (now known as Homestead) 
Source: 1925 Wellesley Legenda

Over the next decade, the Durants developed the southern portion of their estate into a modest little farm, constructing a series of cow barns and greenhouses (conservatories) to the rear of the ‘Farm House.’ The plan then was to build a large manor — similar to that of the Hunnewells — far back from Washington Street on the current site of Stone and Davis Halls. But it never came to be. In 1863, their seven-year-old son, Harry, died after a short illness, leaving the Durants — in particular, Henry — too distraught to care about constructing their own mansion. (Their only other child, Pauline, had died in infancy six years earlier.)

Durant decided instead to use his money to establish an institution for the education of young women. That leads us back to the map. Given that the entire College was to consist of a single building — College Hall — and that this building was so large that it could only fit on the hill overlooking the north shore of Lake Waban, the only question was where to place the gates to the campus.

In total, there were four different entrances when the school opened in 1875. The most significant of these was (not surprisingly) the ‘Principal Entrance’ on Washington Street a little bit east of the ‘Farm House.’ This gate was, after all, the first site of the College seen by incoming students and visitors. Remember, this was loooong before the days of the Internet and giant glossy college brochures. Thus, there was an opportunity to make a strong first impression.

And so Henry Durant commissioned Hammatt Billings (the same architect of College Hall) to design a set of gateposts along with a charming little gatehouse — known as East Lodge — at the Principal Entrance. In fact, it’s believed that East Lodge was completed in either 1869 or 1870 before construction on College Hall even began, so as to give passersby the perception that the arrival of the College was well on its way.

EastLodge_HistoryofNorfolkCounty_DHamiltonHurd_1884_archiveorg_cropped_labeled

East Lodge
Source: Hurd (1884)

EastLodge_LOCcirca1908_cropped_labeled

East Lodge circa 1908 (photograph taken by Detroit Publishing Co.)
Source: Library of Congress

Other than East Lodge, there were three other entrances to the campus: one by the ‘Farm House’ that followed an old cow path that led from Washington Street to the barns, another on Central Street somewhat west of Weston Road, and a third at the far western edge of the original campus on Central Street. But only the last of those had a gatehouse. This tiny structure — known as West Lodge — was also designed by Hammatt Billings and constructed around 1870. The job of its attendant, however, wasn’t to greet visitors. Rather it was to check in the materials and supplies offloaded from railway cars directly across Central Street — including seven million bricks — that were needed for the construction of College Hall.

It appears, however, that this entrance closed soon after the construction of College Hall was completed in 1875. This is evident on a map of Wellesley College from 1897. (Click map to enlarge.) You can see that West Lodge sits all alone in the northwest corner with no connection to the rest of the campus.

Source: 1897 Atlas of Wellesley

Source: 1897 Atlas of Wellesley

There are also two more differences of which to take note. First, a third gatehouse — North Lodge — now appears at the other Central Street entrance to the campus. Although this road had been used by drivers delivering coal to College Hall since 1875, a gatehouse hadn’t been necessary until 1896 when the Natick & Cochituate Street Railway Company installed the first trolley line through Wellesley. Worried that unwelcome visitors from the surrounding cities and towns would now trespass on the campus grounds, College officials constructed North Lodge to provide protection against intruders.

The other difference between the 1875 and 1897 maps is the addition of the entrance to the campus at the intersection of Central Street and Weston Road. Established soon after 1892, when the first Hunnewell Grammar School was moved onto the College grounds from its original location on Cross Street and converted into the Fiske Cottage dormitory (through a generous donation from the widow of Boston banker, Joseph Norton Fiske), this entrance quickly became popular with members of the College community. It wasn’t until the early 1920s, however, that the stone gates that now flank this entrance — a gift from the Class of 1916 — were constructed.

Class of 1916 Gates Source: Wellesley College Digital Archives

Class of 1916 Gates
Source: Wellesley College Digital Archives

The roads and gates of the campus would begin to take their modern configuration over the next four decades. The first significant change occurred in the early 1930s, when East Lodge was closed to vehicular traffic and North Lodge was razed to accommodate the construction of Munger Hall.

But the more drastic modification to the College grounds occurred during the summer of 1961. After years of studying ways to the make the campus more pedestrian friendly, the Administration decided to close the Class of 1916 gates to vehicular traffic and reconfigure the roadways that ran through the campus. There were just far too many cars and trucks speeding around and putting the College community at risk. By rerouting the main road and closing off and grassing over long sections of roadways, they were able to create a campus that was both far less dangerous to pedestrians as well as more aesthetically pleasing.

The closing of the Class of 1916 gates was also undertaken in order to improve the intersection at Central Street and Weston Road. Ever since the advent of the automobile, serious accidents were extremely common at this location. But one that occurred in July of 1959 proved to be the tipping point. A pickup truck carrying eight teenagers from Wellesley — five of them riding in the bed of the truck — was traveling far too fast when it turned into the campus as the group headed from Howard Johnson’s on Central Street to Lake Waban for a midnight swim. The truck skidded, throwing those in back into the gates. Two 17-year-old boys — one a recent graduate of Wellesley High and the other a rising senior — died in the crash.

Since then, over a half century later, the Wellesley College campus has had a much improved record when it comes to pedestrian (and driver) safety. Although the main campus road is often used as a shortcut by motorists to get between Washington and Central Streets, the dangers caused by this practice aren’t remotely comparable to how it once was.

Given that success, it might seem petty to complain that the main entrances to the campus are underwhelming in their appearance. But I can’t help but feel that they are critical components of the campus especially given the attention that the College once gave to its various gates and lodges. So let me throw out the idea that Wellesley College — in conjunction with its efforts to improve the campus in anticipation of its Sesquicentennial in 2025 — consider constructing some sort of a handsome gate at each of the main entrances that harmonizes with the rest of the campus. Perhaps a graduating class can get involved just like the Class of 1916 nearly a century ago.

Isn’t it about time Wellesley College got the breathtaking entrances it truly deserves?

Sources:

  • Wellesley College Digital Archives
  • History of Norfolk County, Massachusetts by D. Hamilton Hurd (1884)
  • Reminiscence of the Family of Captain John Fowle of Watertown, Massachusetts (1891)
  • Professional and Industrial History of Suffolk County, Massachusetts by William Thomas Davis (1894)
  • Reports of the President: 1896, 1916-18; 1919-21; 1931-32; 1933-34; 1958-59; 1959-60; 1960-64
  • Atlas of Wellesley, Massachusetts by George W. Stadley & Co. (1897)
  • Wellesley Townsman: 13 May 1921; 23 July 1959; 11 May 1961; 7 September 1961;
  • Wellesley Legenda1925
  • Wellesley College, 1875-1875: A Century of Women edited by Jean Glasscock (1975)
  • Wellesley College website (accessed January 2014)
  • Library of Congress
  • Google Maps

Special thanks to the Wellesley College Digital Archives for granting me permission to post images from its collection.

Addendum:

I failed to mention above that both East and West Lodges still stand today. They are, however, quite hidden from view, perhaps so that the residents of each lodge — members of the College faculty — are afforded at least a smidgen of privacy. So if you decide to snoop around, please be respectful.

East Lodge Source: Google Maps

East Lodge
Source: Google Maps

West Lodge (Source: Google Maps)

West Lodge
Source: Google Maps

4 thoughts on “The Gates of Wellesley College

  1. I notice Weston Rd. was called Blossom St. in 1897. We were told it was because orchards grew there. In fact we had a couple of rotten old apple trees behind our house at 223 Weston Rd. Somewhere I have a later plat map (not sure the date) showing the name Blossom St. I wonder when the change was made to Weston Rd. It IS the road TO Weston, as in “the” Weston Rd (and changes to Wellesley St. at the town line) so perhaps both names were contemporaneous, one being official and the other utilitarian. We know the house was built in 1900, the mason having scratched the date in the cellar mortar. Our family lived there from 1961 to 1986 and the Wellesley College campus figured prominently in our childhood escapades, especially exploring the College Field which was directly across the street.

    • Weston Road is the original name (probably after being known as ‘the road to Weston’ for some time). Around the 1850s, its name was informally changed to Blossom Street after the beautiful gardens of Mrs. Mansfield, who lived at about the location of your house. The Town Meeting of 1907 voted to change its name back to Weston Road.

      And you’re correct that #223 was built in 1900 — the Annie M. Sweeney House. It’s a lovely home.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s