Update from Josh (7/12/2014): Like Wellesley in the summer, this blog is dead. At least until September. Too much other Wellesley history stuff going on. If you want to receive notification of my next post, you can ‘follow’ the blog by entering in your email address into the box on the right (and clicking on a link in a confirmation email).
There are 518 different streets in Wellesley. Their combined length: 130.12 miles. But for this post, we’re going to concern ourselves with only one of those roads — Central Street — and really all we’ll focus on is the quarter mile stretch between the Crest Road and Weston Road bridges.
Why care about such a small section of roadway? Well, quite simply, there isn’t any other street in Wellesley that has as rich a history compacted into such a short amount of time. Between 1838 when the road was laid out and the 1920s and 1930s when it took its present form, Central Street exhibited a wide range of identities: residential neighborhood, grammar school grounds, livery hub of the town, and upscale shopping district.
Perhaps this hodgepodge of land uses would not be so remarkable had there been a shortage of property on which to build in Wellesley Square. But available land wasn’t that rare, as there were large parts of both Washington Street and Church Street that were totally undeveloped throughout this time. It was therefore quite amazing that this stretch of Central Street underwent so many changes during its first hundred years.
Before we discuss the development of Central Street in more detail, let’s start with the laying out of the road. As I mentioned above, the section of Central Street we’re focusing on in this post didn’t exist until 1838. That, however, doesn’t really tell the whole story. Technically, there was a road from West Needham village (Wellesley Square) to North Natick as early as 1726. But it didn’t correspond one-to-one with what is currently Central Street. Although the part of this roadway west of Weston Road more or less followed the same route as Central Street, almost all of its eastern section is now what we know as Church Street.
And to add more confusion to the story, this older road wasn’t known as either Central Street or Church Street. In fact, throughout the 1700s and into the early 1800s, it doesn’t even seem to have had a name — as most roads at the time were only referred to by the town or village to which they led. Hence, this road was originally called ‘the road to North Natick.’
Quite frankly, I have no idea when this road was given its first official name. But if I had to guess, it would have been around 1830 when the road became part of the Central Turnpike (which ran from what is now Wellesley Hills Square to Hartford, Connecticut).
The creation of this turnpike may also explain why the part of Central Street we’re considering in this post was laid out in 1838; they were simply trying to straighten the thoroughfare. (At that point then, it is believed that people began referring to the eastern end of ‘the road to Natick’ as ‘Common Street’ before eventually settling on its present name: ‘Church Street.’)
It’s also unknown when exactly ‘Central Street’ came into usage. But 1853 seems probable given that was the year the Central Turnpike closed, suffering a similar fate to most other turnpikes in New England during the era of railroad expansion. Just as the Worcester Turnpike in Wellesley became ‘Worcester Street,’ the Central Turnpike became ‘Central Street’ (or ‘Central Avenue’).
Okay, enough with the road itself. Let’s talk buildings. For starters, take a look at the following map of West Needham village in 1856.
Central Street is the roadway in the middle of the map running north of the Congregational Church. And as you can see, there really wasn’t much on it at the time — three houses and a grammar school.
The oldest of these structures was the residence of Ruth Crocker (which was actually a tavern at the time that this map was made). Historically, however, the circa 1770 house is better known as the home of several generations of the Flagg family — both before and after the Crockers occupied it. Sadly, the Flaggs are all but completely unknown to Wellesleyites today despite being arguably the most active family in Town affairs from the Revolutionary War era all the way up to the turn of the 20th Century. Alas, if only a school or road had been named after the Flagg family…
You’re probably more familiar with the second oldest structure on the 1856 map — the residence of William Carhart — which is better known today as the Hathaway House and is currently occupied by the Stuart Swan Furniture Company. Built circa 1830 and now the oldest building still standing on Central Street, it was nothing more than a simple farmhouse up through 1925 when two Wellesley College professors, Julia Swift Orvis and Phillips Bradley, decided more or less on a whim to purchase and renovate the dilapidated structure and open the Wellesley Community Bookshop Cooperative (which was more affectionately known as The Hathaway House Bookshop — named for Rebeckah (Morse) Hathaway, the sister-in-law of Carhart, who had lived there from 1853 following the death of her husband until her own demise in 1916 at the age of 91).
We’ve reached the part of the post where I’m going to stop typing and let some of my readers take over. Let’s face it. My knowledge of the Hathaway House Bookshop is probably pretty skimpy compared to that of some of you. After all, I never once had the chance to set foot in the place. (It closed in 1979.) So if you feel inclined, please leave a comment below and fill me in on what I missed.
Finally, just for completeness’ sake, I need to point out that the only other house on the 1856 map above — that of Lucius Field and his wife, Mary — can be seen on the right side of the second photo in this post (at the east corner of Cross Street). This charming 1 ½ story dwelling, which was constructed during the 1840s, was torn down in 1956.
Let’s now turn our attention to the fourth and final building on the map — the grammar school — which had been constructed concurrently with the early residential development of Central Street.
This new schoolhouse — known simply as ‘West’ and serving as the only grammar school in all of what is now the western half of Wellesley — was constructed in 1840 on the triangular parcel of land bounded by Cross Street, Weston Road, and Central Street. Unfortunately, I can’t show you an image of it because it stood for only thirty years and (not surprisingly) no one seems to have bothered to photograph it.
I can, however, show you its two successors that were constructed in 1870 and 1892, respectively. In fact, I can do one better and direct you to the older of these two school buildings — it now sits just inside the gates of Wellesley College at the intersection of Central Street and Weston Road. Currently known as Fiske House, this three-story mansard-roofed structure was once the most modern schoolhouse in all of Wellesley — its construction was financed in large part by a generous donation of $10,000 from Horatio Hollis Hunnewell (who ended up getting his name put on the school).
The first Hunnewell School, however, stayed open for only twenty-two years. By the early 1890s, the residential area in and around Wellesley Square (including the College Heights neighborhood north of Linden Street) had grown large enough that they needed a school with even greater capacity. And thus the second Hunnewell School was constructed in 1892.
Here’s the part of the story that confuses me. Now that we’ve got some houses and a grammar school, who OK’d the construction of two large stables on Central Street during the 1870s and 1880s? Of course, the answer is no one. Given the absence of any zoning ordinances in Massachusetts until the early 1900s, you could build more or less whatever you wanted as long as there weren’t any deed restrictions on the property.
The larger of these barns was built by Patrick O’Connell in 1885 on the north side of Central Street (at what would become the west corner of Crest Road four years later when the bridge there was constructed).
In addition to housing the horses and carriages that made up Wellesley’s largest livery business, the stables were used to store all of the equipment for Wellesley’s first fire department — a volunteer force organized by O’Connell at around the time his stables were completed.
But this arrangement was only temporary. By 1890, the volunteer force had become so successful that the Town constructed its first fire station (on the north side of Church Street at the current site of the parking lot behind the former Filene’s building). The use of O’Connell’s stables to keep the horses that pulled the Fire Department’s hose wagons, however, was still required well into the 20th Century.
Okay, thus far in our story, we’ve got houses, schoolchildren, and horses. Sounds confusing. How about we look at another map to provide some visual clarity?
As you can see, this map shows Central Street during the early 1900s (with labels for the houses and buildings we’ve already talked about).
Here are three key observations:
1) The eastern end of Central Street is now densely packed with houses and stables. But don’t even bother trying to compare those buildings to what is there today. None of them remain.
2) There’s also the puzzling presence of ‘Waban Street Extension.’ And where is the continuation of Abbott Street by the cemetery? Well, this actually relates to the Filene’s department store, which is discussed below, but I’ll jump ahead and give you the answer now. To make a long story short, in 1947, Filene’s — which was constructed on the site of the Bigelow stables — wanted to expand its store. But there was no room. The owner, Alfred Fraser, therefore made a deal with the Town that would allow him to build out into Waban Street Extension — which had been laid out in the 1890s to provide a shorter route between the O’Connell stables and the Church Street fire station — only if Fraser covered the costs associated with extending Abbott Street from Church Street to Central Street.
3) The changes on the western half of Central Street are much more straightforward. In fact, there’s only one structure there that we haven’t discussed: the Y.M.C.A. building. Constructed in 1901 as a clubhouse for the young men and boys of Wellesley under the direction of officials from the Wellesley Congregational Church and at the expense of Pauline Durant (the widow of Wellesley College founder, Henry Durant), this shingle-style building was typical of most social clubs of the time, containing reading rooms, a set of bowling alleys, and a gymnasium (which was supposedly the best one in town for dancing).
But the Boys’ Club (as it was known) was a flop. It seems that the young men in town preferred to socialize elsewhere and exercise outdoors. That, however, didn’t stop the Y.M.C.A. from establishing a Wellesley branch there in 1908. Not surprising, even that failed.
The men of Wellesley, however, didn’t have as much of problem with the idea of joining a social club. Two of the more popular fraternal organizations soon set up their headquarters there: the Nehoiden Club in 1911 and the Wellesley Lodge of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows in 1919.
The early 1920s marks the beginning of the end of this story. Faced with an absence of available space to expand the commercial district within the main part of Wellesley Square near the intersection of Washington and Grove Streets, business developers quickly began tearing down any and all structures on Central Street to make way for modern store blocks.
One of the first buildings to bite the dust was the Flagg house (as shown above) in 1923. And within almost no time at all, the entire stretch of Central Street had become completely redeveloped into one of the premiere and most popular shopping districts within the region.
(Remember, this was a few decades before suburban shopping malls, such as Shoppers’ World in Framingham, began dotting the landscape. If you wanted to buy expensive clothes or luxury goods, you pretty much had to go into the city to the flagship department stores.)
So how come Wellesley became the retail capital of MetroWest Boston? Why not, say, Natick or Lexington? Two reasons. First, there’s just the simple matter of geography: Wellesley was extremely accessible to residents living within the surrounding communities in every direction. And second — this is really important — it was at this time that Wellesley was cementing its reputation as one of the, if not the most exclusive suburb of Boston. A high-end town needed high-end stores. Combine that with the fact that Wellesley College (with its affluent student body) was only a stone’s throw away from Central Street and it’s no wonder merchants were clamoring over each other to set up shop here.
Two of these new commercial blocks deserve special attention. One of these is Filene’s, which was built on the site of the Bigelow stables in 1924. Only the second branch of the Boston-based department store — the first opened in Northampton earlier that year — Filene’s Wellesley shop was the brainchild of florist-turned-developer, Alfred Fraser, who had managed to convince the company’s owners to open a store in the suburbs. (It wasn’t a total crapshoot because Filene’s had tested its merchandise — with great success — at display shows at the Wellesley Inn for several years before that.)
Needless to say, Filene’s was a hit with the townspeople. The department store would expand four separate times over the next several decades — most notably as mentioned above, in 1947, when it took over Waban Street Extension.
The other commercial block on Central Street worth mentioning is the Colonial Building, built three years after Filene’s opened, in 1927, on the site of the O’Connell stables.
One could think of this building as Wellesley’s first mini-mall. Just look at the list of its original tenants:
- Marie Inc. Millinery
- Isabel Stratton (gowns)
- I. Miller Shoe Company (women’s footwear and hosiery)
- Mademoiselle Brunette’s La Parisian Beauty Salon
- Milady’s Shoppe (lingerie, needlecraft, and hosiery)
- The Farrelly Frock Shop
- Enwright’s Lunch
- The Dainty Shop (ice cream parlor)
- Dr. F. Wilbur Mottley’s dental offices
- The American Express Company
- The real estate firm of Lewis T. Todd Jr.
- Le Blanc’s Taxi Service
- Wellesley Motors, Inc. (agents of Hudson and Essex automobiles)
The centerpiece of the Colonial Building, however, was the Colonial Garage, a 24-hour parking garage capable of holding 175 cars — this being one of the first parking lots in Wellesley Square — along with the Colonial Filling Station (now Peet’s Coffee & Tea).
Several additions to the Colonial Building in the ensuing years would significantly enlarge the structure — so much so that the entire Wellesley Townsman staff and its publishing arm, the Wellesley Press, Inc. (including the printing presses) — moved there in 1930. And yet there was still enough space to put in a bowling alley.
At this point, the only other notable structure on Central Street that we have yet to discuss is the fire station at the corner of Weston Road. There isn’t, however, much in the way of a story associated with it. Built in 1928-29 (and designed by the architectural firm of Wellesley resident, Frank A. Whittemore), the fire station was a necessary improvement over the 1890 structure on Church Street, which had long since fallen into disrepair.
But what makes the fire station special — as was the case with most of the buildings constructed by the Town during the 1920s and 1930s — is that significant care was taken to “add something to the beauty of the town.” I’d say they succeeded.
Our story ends in 1939. It was at that time — with the razing of the 1892 Hunnewell School and the construction of a long block of stores (and the parking lot to the rear) — that Central Street had more or less completed its transformation into the commercial district we’re all familiar with.
So what you see today is more or less how it looked during the 1940s and 1950s.
And who would have thought that such a short street would be so rich with history?
- An Act to Establish the Central Turnpike Corporation (1824)
- Map of Needham, Massachusetts by Henry Francis Walling (1856)
- Atlas of Norfolk County, Massachusetts by W.A. Sherman (1876)
- Annual Town Report of the Town of Wellesley: 1884; 1885; 1930
- Atlas of Norfolk County, Massachusetts by E. Robinson (1888)
- Atlas of Wellesley, Massachusetts by George W. Stadley & Co (1897)
- Our Town: November 1903
- Wellesley Townsman: 9 October 1908; 5 May 1911; 12 May 1911; 13 September 1913; 4 February 1916; 27 June 1919; 4 January 1924; 26 September 1924; 3 October 1924; 25 September 1925; 27 August 1926; 17 September 1926; 15 July 1927; 9 December 1927; 20 July 1928; 17 October 1930; 13 October 1939; 10 April 1941; 14 May 1942; 23 June 1944; 4 September 1947; 18 September 1947; 15 January 1948; 24 May 1956; 5 July 1956; 30 June 1960; 22 August 1968; 5 July 1979; 2 April 1981; 19 July 1984
- History of Needham, Massachusetts: 1711-1911 by George Kuhn Clarke (1912)
- History of the Town of Wellesley, Massachusetts by Joseph E. Fiske (1917)
- The Turnpikes of New England by Frederic J. Wood (1919)
- Wellesley College News: 13 October 1927
- Wellesley Semi-Centennial pamphlet (1931)
- The Wellesley Legenda: 1941; 1950
- Accepted/Unaccepted Streets in Wellesley, Massachusetts (in October 2012) by the Department of Public Works – Engineering Division of the Town of Wellesley
- Bing Maps
- Department of Public Works – Engineering Division of the Town of Wellesley
- Norfolk County Registry of Deeds
- Wellesley College Digital Archives