Wellesley High School

(Note: This is a long post.) 

One of my biggest regrets in life — please don’t laugh — is that I didn’t get involved in the debate over the preservation of the 1938 High School. I was off at college and grad school and by the time I returned to Wellesley in 2010, the matter was settled. The Town had voted to tear down the old high school and construct a new one.

Had I been in Wellesley during this time, I would have tried to contribute what I felt was missing from the public debate: the story of Wellesley High School. Any fight to preserve a building must focus on the people affiliated with it and the impact that the structure has had on the community. If you concern yourself with just the bricks and mortar, then only the architecture wonks are going to care.

But to be quite honest, I don’t think this contribution would have changed the outcome. It was clear that a very, very long time had passed since the townspeople had really thought about the importance and symbolism of the 1938 High School. How else can you explain the mishmash of additions and the school’s poor upkeep over the years?

This post, therefore, is probably a few years — actually more like a few decades — too late. But I hope that it can provide a few lessons. First, if you build something that you’re proud of, don’t forget that feeling and bastardize it later on down the road. And second, if you don’t know the history of a particular building or house, that doesn’t mean that it’s unimportant. Although ignorance may expedite the decision-making process, you can end up looking quite foolish when everyone realizes what was lost.

So what exactly was lost when the 1938 High School was razed last year? Well, more than just seventy-four years of memories. When that building was constructed, it served as a symbol for the evolution of Wellesley High School from a single classroom with a few dozen students and only one teacher to one of the leading secondary institutions in the Commonwealth.

How the high school got to that point is a rather complex story. In fact, to fully understand it, I need to discuss the development of secondary education in Massachusetts, a subject that I realize may not be of great interest to very many people. So I’ve tried to keep it brief and narrowed two centuries of history into four bullet points (with a little bit of expanded commentary).

Chapter 1: The (Incomplete) History of Secondary Education in Massachusetts

  • In 1647, Massachusetts passed a law that required towns with more than 100 families to establish a central grammar school.

This wasn’t the kind of grammar school that you’re probably thinking about. It wasn’t a K-8 school, but rather a “Latin grammar school” that only taught Latin, Ancient Greek, and maybe some English. Its only objective was to prepare boys for college, specifically Harvard (whose sole requirement for admission up until 1807 was the ability to read and speak both Latin and Greek). If you didn’t have plans to go to Harvard, you probably didn’t attend grammar school.

But that doesn’t mean that you skipped school entirely. An additional requirement of this law was that “every township in this jurisdiction, after the Lord hath increased them to the number of fifty householders shall then forthwith appoint one within their town to teach all such children as shall resort to him to write and read…” In other words, boys and girls — even those lads who didn’t intend to go to grammar school — were at least given the opportunity to learn how to read and write.

  • Nearly a century and a half later, in 1789, it was mandated that all Massachusetts towns create school districts so that children living in rural areas far from town centers could receive an education.

This was the first real attempt to establish what became the modern public school system in terms of both inclusiveness and content. All children were now given the opportunity to receive at least a crude formal education: reading, writing, spelling, grammar, and arithmetic. But there wasn’t much in the way of secondary education. Once you matriculated through the district school, if you lived far from a Latin grammar school (or were a girl), then that was it.

  • Not too long after the 1789 law went into effect, private academies replaced Latin grammar schools as the primary option for secondary schooling. These academies — many of them coed — offered a comprehensive education not provided by the district or Latin grammar schools.

It seems that people finally realized that receiving a well-rounded education — not just English, Latin, and Greek, but also subjects like music, logic, and declamation — was beneficial even if you weren’t planning on attending college. The only problem was that many of these private academies accepted only boarding students. Any boy or girl who was needed at home couldn’t attend. So the completion of the district school curriculum still marked the end of formal education for most children.

  • In 1821, the first public high school was established: the English Classical School in Boston.

The increasing popularity of the private academies had made it clear to city and state leaders that the old form of public secondary education — Latin grammar schools — was antiquated. There was a clear benefit of and demand for a comprehensive secondary education. Therefore, in 1827, Massachusetts required that all towns of 500 families or more establish their own high schools. The rest is history.

So given this lesson in the development of the modern school system in Massachusetts, how does it all relate to the establishment of Wellesley High School?

Chapter 2: The (More Thorough But Still Incomplete) History of Secondary Education in Wellesley, Pre-1865

Prior to 1789 — when the creation of school districts became state law — education in Wellesley was pretty simple. A paid town citizen taught children how to read and write. That’s it. More often than not, these lessons were held in private homes, but there is record of a few very primitive schoolhouses around town at different times —  one on Church Street, another on Linden Street. There was even a “traveling school” that was literally moved — probably by animal — between the small clusters of people spread throughout Wellesley.

But as for secondary education, let’s face it. Wellesley was a poor and sparsely populated farming community. The children who lived here probably received no secondary education whatsoever. Although there was a Latin grammar school in Dedham — to which Wellesley belonged until 1711 — it’s unlikely that any children from what is now Wellesley attended. Unlike our town today, getting into Harvard wasn’t on anyone’s radar.

It probably goes without saying then that the 1789 law marked a significant change in our town’s public school system. Over the following few years, two schoolhouses were built in town: ‘West’ near Wellesley Square and ‘North’ on the site of Warren Elementary School near Lower Falls — both named so because they were in the western and northern sections of what was then Needham. A third school was added around 1854 in Wellesley Hills on the eastern corner of Washington and Forest Streets, and then a fourth — now the Fells Branch Library — was built in 1858.

But none of these district schools offered advanced education beyond the primary and grammar levels. (Now, I’m using ‘grammar’ in the conventional sense.) If you wanted to continue on in school, the only real option was to attend a private academy, of which most, if not all, were far from Wellesley. That changed, however, in 1854, when Nathaniel Topliff Allen established the West Newton English and Classical School, the first private high school in the area that accepted day students (including girls).

West Newton English and Classical School at 35 Webster Street

The West Newton English and Classical School at 35 Webster Street
(Posted with permission from the Newton Free Library)

Well, to be more precise, there was one other option for students — specifically girls — who desired advancing training that actually predates the founding of the West Newton English and Classical School. And that was the Normal School of Cyrus Peirce. Not technically a high school, the Normal School was where aspiring teachers of the primary and grammar levels learned their craft, practicing their instructional skills on classes of students at the affiliated Model School (which was basically a primary and grammar school that only had student-teachers).

Founded in 1839 in Lexington, Peirce’s Normal School — the first such school in the country — had moved in 1844 to the same house on Webster Street in West Newton where Nathaniel Allen would later establish his English and Classical School. The Normal School proved so successful that nine years later, in 1853, it moved once again, this time to Framingham. That freed up the space for Allen — who had been the head of the Model School — to open his own private school. (The Framingham Normal School has since evolved into Framingham State University.)

Chapter 3: The (Even More Thorough But Still Most Definitely Incomplete) History of Secondary Education in Wellesley, 1865-1938

In order to make this as simple as possible, I’ve broken down the history of Wellesley High School into four distinct periods:

  • Year One (1865)
  • The Early Years (1866 – 1885)
  • The Seldon Brown and Marshall Perrin Era (1886 – 1916)
  • The Evolution into a Modern High School (1917 – 1938)

Year One (1865):

The details regarding the founding of Wellesley High School — then known as ‘Needham High School, West Division’ or simply ‘West High School’ — are a tad bit unclear. It could have been that Needham reached the 500 family threshold that would have forced the town to establish its own high school. Or maybe it felt compelled to do so because several of the surrounding cities and towns — Newton, Natick, and Framingham to name a few — had recently opened their own high schools. Regardless, the members of the 1864 Annual Town Meeting voted to establish the Needham High School. Well…actually they voted to establish two high schools — one in the more populous eastern half of town (now Needham) and another in the western half (now Wellesley).

And so in April of 1865, just over 30 of Wellesley’s brightest students — hand-picked from the district schools — met in Wellesley Hills at Maugus Hall, a former storage shed that had been used during the 1834 construction of the Boston & Worcester Railroad before its conversion into a social hall. As you can imagine, this pseudo-schoolhouse was a far cry from what we have today. The only “teaching tools” were a platform that had been erected at the far end of the hall on which the principal (and only teacher), David Smith Farnham — a recent graduate of Amherst College — lectured, as well as a 12’x12’ recitation room in the cellar. Nevertheless, the first term seemed to go well. Farnham was quite a capable teacher and the students seemed to really like him.

Maugus Hall -- as shown when it was used by the Unitarian Church(Source: Early Days in Wellesley by Gamaliel Bradford [1928])

Maugus Hall — sometime between 1871 and 1887
when it was a church for the Unitarian Society
(Source: Early Days in Wellesley by Gamaliel Bradford [1928])

The second term also went smoothly. This time, however, the high school met on the second floor of Waban Hall (on the current site of the Waban Block at the southeast corner of Washington and Grove Streets in Wellesley Square), a move made as part of an arrangement where the high school would alternate locations (one term at a time) between Wellesley Hills and Wellesley Square so as not to favor one part of town over the other. The only drawback to this plan was that each term, the entire contents of the school — books, chairs, desks, etc. — had to be transported back and forth between these two locations. Not an easy task when all you had were horses and wagons.

The Early Years (1866 – 1885):

In the two decades between 1866 and 1885, Wellesley High School made huge strides forward, most obviously with regards to its schoolhouse and facilities. Neither Maugus Hall nor Waban Hall — which the High School alternated between through 1869 — were meant to be schools. They just provided the space needed to fit a few dozen students.

It wasn’t until 1870 that the high school held its first classes in a dedicated schoolhouse — the brand new Hunnewell School, located on the triangular lot bounded by Central Street, Weston Road, and Cross Street. But even then, the high school had to share the three-story building with the primary and grammar levels. This held true even after the high school moved yet again, in 1875, this time to the newly constructed Shaw School on the eastern corner of Washington and Forest Streets. It was, however, a markedly better facility than either Maugus Hall or Waban Hall.

Progress was less steady, however, when it came to the principals. Although Farnham was great, others were god-awful. And since the principals were the only teachers during those earliest years, the success of the school depended almost entirely on their capabilities.

Just check out this list of principals of the high school (up through 1941). What should really be striking is the inexperience of the principals in the top half of the list compared to those at the bottom.

1865-1866: David Smith Farnham (born 1834 — Amherst ‘64)
1866-1867: Thomas Wright Hale Hussey (born 1836 — Bowdoin ‘63)
1867-1869: George Francis Robinson (born 1843 — Harvard ‘66)
1869: Amos Bancroft Putnam (born 1846 — Amherst ‘69)
1869-1871: Charles Abraham Cole (born 1847 — Bowdoin ‘69)
1871-1874: Joseph Hale Noyes (born 1825 — honorary degree from Bowdoin ‘71)
1874-1875*: Julia Frances Jennings (born 1849/50 — Mount Holyoke ‘70)
1874-1876*: Charlotte E. Cameron (born 1849/50 — Framingham Normal School ‘68)
1876-1879: Charles Everett Washburn (born 1850/51 — Cornell ‘76)
1879-1881: Louis Emil Denfeld (born 1854 — Amherst ‘78)
1881-1886: Frederick Orin Baston (born 1852 — Bowdoin ‘75)
1886-1916: Seldon Lester Brown (born 1856 — Wesleyan ‘79)
1916-1917: Joseph Albert Davis (born 1882 — Bowdoin ‘08)
1917-1919: Carl Bradlee Wetherell Jr. (born 1886 — Harvard ‘08)
1919-1930: George Holley Gilbert Jr. (born 1892 — Dartmouth ‘14)
1930-1941: Ralph Warner Proctor (born 1900 — Tufts ‘21)
*Believed to have been co-principals from 1874-75

Two principals on this list warrant a special mention due to their inept abilities: Hussey — known simply as “yellow-beard” to the students — and Putnam — with “his kid gloves, a tall hat, and his constant threat to punish somebody if he (or she) didn’t obey.” In fact, Putnam nearly derailed the entire high school experiment after his poor teaching and classroom management caused a number of students to drop out never to return.

It’s also worth noting the interesting choice to appoint Julia Jennings and Charlotte Cameron (the only Wellesley natives on this list) as principals. After all, unlike their predecessors, both had been grammar school teachers (in Wellesley) before moving up to the high school level. Their familiarity with the students, however, may have made up for their lack of a strong academic training. But their tenure as principals would only last a few years — when Charles Washburn was named head of the high school in 1876, Cameron returned to teaching at the grammar school and Jennings left to teach in Connecticut (but would later return to serve for over two decades as the first librarian of the Wellesley Free Library.

By 1885, the high school seemed to be well on its way to resembling what we know as Wellesley High School. It wasn’t just that there were now four teachers, each with his or her own special subject. Or that the school now had its own football team, which had already begun its now-infamous rivalry with Needham High School in 1882 (although Wellesley was down 1-3 through the first four Thanksgiving Day games). Rather, it was that the high school had become a dedicated part of the community, a valuable resource that the town’s leaders saw as a way to make Wellesley stand out.

But the situation was still far from perfect. Besides the fact that the high school had to share the Shaw School with the primary and grammar levels, many students in the Wellesley public schools were dropping out long before they reached high school. So there was still very much work left to be done.

The Seldon Brown & Marshall Perrin Era (1886 – 1916):

There are really only two men who deserve almost all of the credit for transforming Wellesley High School into a legitimate institution of secondary education: Seldon Lester Brown and Marshall Livingston Perrin.

Seldon L. Brown & Marshall L. Perrin (Source: Our Town of November 1903 & June 1902)

Seldon L. Brown & Marshall L. Perrin
(Source: Our Town of June 1902 & November 1903)

Seldon “Pa” Brown — as you may have noticed in the list above — served as principal (and teacher of Latin, civics, and, occasionally, mathematics) for thirty years, nearly three times as long as anyone else on that list. He was the original Mr. Wellesley High School and possessed all the characteristics that you’d want in a principal: a strong leader, a scholar, and a firm disciplinarian. He also was a fierce supporter of the school’s athletic teams, was engaged in all forms of town government, and was a longtime Trustee of the Wellesley Free Library. It was through his efforts and civic commitment — as well as his connection to nearly every citizen in town — that helped elevate Wellesley High School to the highest level of importance. By the end of his tenure in 1916, it was no longer viewed simply as a school that catered towards Wellesley’s academic elite.

The success that Brown had, however, wouldn’t have been possible were it not for the efforts of Marshall L. Perrin, the first Superintendent of the Wellesley Public Schools. Before Perrin arrived in 1893, running the entire public school system — everything from developing the curriculum to operating the budgets to hiring and firing the teachers — was left up to the three-member School Committee. I don’t know about you, but I sure as heck wouldn’t trust a bunch of non-educators to decide what’s the best way to teach our youth.

Fortunately, Perrin came in with a superb academic background as well as an unparalleled knowledge of the best pedagogical methods of the time. He had both an undergraduate degree from Harvard — that he got at the tender young age of 18 — and a Ph.D. in the Germanic Languages from the University of Göttingen in Prussia. And it was while overseas that Perrin became familiar with the revolutionary Prussian school system that forms the foundation for education in the United States today.

In addition, Perrin was intimately familiar with Wellesley long before he became Superintendent. He was, after all, born and raised in the town, even attending the very first classes of Wellesley High School in 1865 (as a rather overachieving nine-year-old!). Furthermore, he had briefly served on Wellesley’s first School Committee from 1881-83 before he began his journey abroad.

So it could be argued that no one was more qualified than Perrin to help Wellesley High School excel. Of all the many changes he made, two stand out: i) the implementation of system-wide grading and ii) the removal of the upper grades from the grammar school buildings.

  • The implementation of system-wide grading: Until 1893 — as had been the case since the first district schools opened in the 1790s — students weren’t segregated by grade. All you had were the primary and grammar levels and then the high school (which was graded as just Year 1 through Year 4). The problem with this was two-fold. First, the lack of cohesion between the grammar level and high school made it easier for students to leave after the completion of the grammar school. As silly as it sounds, the first year of high school sounds a lot more important to one’s education if it’s called ‘9th Grade’ rather than ‘Year 1.’ But more importantly, without grades, it was more difficult to hold students to the academic standards that were required for success at the high school. Children were just pushed through primary and grammar school as they aged, independent of their skills and academic abilities. It’s no wonder that many students who came into the high school were woefully unprepared and soon dropped out.
  • The removal of the upper grades from the grammar schools: Once grades one through twelve were established in 1893, the problem remained that the district schools still housed students from all of the lower eight grades. Today, such a grouping would seem insane. No one wants fourteen-year-olds hanging around first-graders. Besides asking for trouble, it surely didn’t help the older students mature, making that jump from grammar school to high school all the more difficult. So Perrin fought for and, in 1907, oversaw the separation of grades six through nine from the grammar schools.

Well, the actual story is a bit more complex than that. Perrin, in fact, formed two groups: an ‘Intermediate’ level with grades six and seven and a ‘Grammar’ level with grades eight and nine. And to make it even more confusing, from 1902 to 1915, there were actually thirteen grades (not including kindergarten) because there was also a different ninth grade at the high school. Of course, many of the advanced students who managed to make it all the way through high school often skipped grades, so it probably wasn’t the case that very many of them attended all thirteen grades.

Normalcy resumed in 1916 when the number of grades went back down to twelve after the ninth grade at the grammar level was incorporated into the eighth grade. And three years later, in 1919, the Junior High School, consisting of grades seven through nine, was formally adopted, sending the sixth grade back to the lower (elementary) schools and taking away the ninth grade from the high school. It wasn’t until 1983 that the ninth grade moved back into the high school when the current Middle School structure was established for grades six through eight.

Given all that confusion, I imagine it’s obvious then that during those years the entire public school system was undergoing a massive change. And since all that was done with the goal of trying to keep kids in school longer, it shouldn’t be surprising then that the high school continuously found itself ridiculously overcrowded.

This was true even after Wellesley High School finally got its very own schoolhouse in 1895.

(First) High School at 324 Washington Street  -- built in 1894 (Source: Our Town of July 1901)

(First) High School at 324 Washington Street — built in 1894 and opened in 1895
(Source: Our Town of July 1901)

So the high school moved twelve years later — in 1907 — to yet another building.

(First) High School at 324 Washington Street  -- built in 1894 (Source: Our Town of July 1901)

(Second) High School on Kingsbury Street — built in 1907 and razed in 1946
(Source: 1907 Wellesley Town Report)

Evolution into the Modern High School (1917-1938):

When Seldon Brown stepped down as principal of Wellesley High School in 1916 — seven years after Perrin retired from the position of Superintendent — the progress that the high school had undergone was truly remarkable. But I still wouldn’t put the school on par with the Wellesley High School of 1938. Although both had strong teachers and good facilities, student retention when Brown left — although vastly better than it had been only a decade or two earlier — was far from perfect.

Just take a look at the following graph that shows how the distribution of student enrollment (relative to the number of first-graders) changed from 1898 to 1938.


Distribution of enrollment across grades one through twelve
(Data collected from Wellesley Town Reports)

What should stand out are the steep drops in enrollment during the four earliest periods: 1898, 1908, 1918, and 1928. Students just weren’t making it to high school. Or, if they did make it, many left after one or two years. (Also note the steep drop in 1918 after 9th grade. That was, of course, because of World War I. Starting as early as 1915, students — mostly boys, but many girls as well — dropped out as the labor force grew in response to the conflict in Europe. This trend accelerated after the United States officially entered the war in 1917. After that, even more jobs were left vacant as men went off to battle.)

Now compare enrollment during those earlier years to that in 1938. Just as you see in the 2012 data, there was no drop in enrollment in 1938. (In fact, there was a small hump.)

Besides the implementation of grading and the establishment of the Junior High School, what else can explain this increase in student retention? Here are three more reasons:

  • The increase in wealth during the 1920s and 1930s: Wellesley really didn’t become the town that it is today in terms of its affluence until the beginning of the 1920s with the rise of the automobile. Only twelve miles from Boston, the town became one of the most desirable and wealthiest communities outside of the city. That meant, of course, more funding to invest into the town’s schools. But it also changed the demographics of the town, as a disproportionate number of these newcomers came with high school and college educations. So it was far more likely that the children of these new residents would matriculate through Wellesley High School (and then go on to college).
  • Decreased frequency at which students were held back: Unlike today, when very few students are forced to repeat a grade, the public schools during the first three decades of the 20th Century were holding kids back left and right. Although the intentions of this practice were noble — the teachers and administrators really wanted to make sure that the students picked up enough of the content and skills taught at each grade to succeed at the next level — the unfortunate reality was that it caused students who struggled to drop out long before graduating from high school. (For example, in 1927, there was a fifteen-year-old and three fourteen-year-olds enrolled in the fifth grade. What do you think the odds were that they completed 12th grade?) But starting in the 1930s, specialized attention was given to those students who were thought to be at risk of being held back. It was like a very primitive form of the Special Education programs that exist in all of our schools today.
  • The development of electives, clubs, and athletics: Let’s face it. Not all students care about academics. Unfortunately, the high school for many, many years was only about academics. You went to school, you sat in class, and then you went home. But starting in the 1920s, more attention was given to electives such as woodworking, sewing, and cooking. Maybe if you give students some fun classes in between the boring ones, then they’ll be less likely to drop out. Or give them something to look forward to after school like special interest clubs (e.g., dramatics and the student newspaper) and athletics.

And so, by 1938, this increase in retention — compounded with the explosion in Wellesley’s overall population — resulted in yet another jam-packed high school. It was time to build yet another high school. Well, actually, efforts to construct a new schoolhouse began as early as 1930, but there was this little thing called the Great Depression that the townspeople had to work around. Although Wellesley was relatively insulated from the Depression compared to most other communities, a large group of fiscally conservative citizens — formed mostly in response to the dismal economic conditions at the time — stalled all attempts to appropriate funds to build a new high school. It was only after they agreed to support a plan contingent on the successful application of a Federal subsidy that construction of a new high school finally got the green light.

But then there was the question of where to put the new high school. The old spot on Kingsbury Street just didn’t provide much in the way of playing fields or any room for expansion. So a long battle ensued over two other sites: undeveloped parkland near the Hunnewell playing fields south of Washington Street or off Linden Street at the current location of Upwey Road and Kirkland Circle. Well, to make a long story short, the first site won and the new high school was built, opening its doors to students in the fall of 1938.

(Third) High School on Rice Street -- built in 1938 and razed in 2012 (Source: Contemporary American Architecture: Schools by R.W. Sexton [1939])

(Third) High School on Rice Street — built in 1938 and razed in 2012
(Source: Contemporary American Architecture: Schools by R.W. Sexton [1939])

I don’t think it’s very hard to see how this building was the perfect symbol for the progress made between 1865 and 1938 in regards to the high school. Not so much the architecture — although one could make a decent argument that its soaring tower that was visible all the way from Washington Street represented a beacon that called to our youth. But rather, it was the completion of the building that marked the end of a journey that began with no high school and ended with one of the leading secondary institutions in the Commonwealth, a high school not so different from our current one.

Am I all that surprised that the Town voted in 2008 to raze the 1938 High School rather than go with the renovation plan? Not really. It was the less complicated proposal and was of lower cost to the Town. But this is what we got out of it:

(Fourth) High School at 50 Rice Street -- built in 2012 (Photo taken by Joshua Dorin in August 2013)

(Fourth) High School at 50 Rice Street — built in 2012
(Photo taken by Joshua Dorin in August 2013)

The best thing that I can say about the new high school is that it’s bright, clean, and provides students with the very latest in modern technology. But it’s sooooo generic and nondescript. It could be located in any town in Massachusetts (or in Kansas, for that matter). There’s nothing about it that says ‘Wellesley.’

And so, in 2050, when the current high school is falling apart and outdated, what are we going to do? Just build another one, of course, because no one is going to be arguing to save it. Maybe then we can right a wrong and just rebuild the 1938 High School on its original location.


  • Needham Town Reports: 1865 – 1881
  • Wellesley Town Reports: 1881 – 1938
  • Biographical Record of the Alumni of Amherst College edited by W.L. Montague (1883)
  • Boston Daily Globe: 7 January 1895
  • Biographical Review Containing Life Sketches of Leading Citizens of Norfolk County, Massachusetts (1898)
  • State Normal School, Framingham, Mass.: Catalogue of Teachers and Alumnae, 1839-1900 (1900)
  • Biographical Record of the Alumni and Non-Graduates of Amherst College, 1871-1896 (1901)
  • Our Town: July 1901; June 1902; November 1903
  • Nathaniel T. Allen: Teacher, Reformer, Philanthropist by Mary A. Greene (1906)
  • Wellesley Townsman: 7 September 1906; 15 June 1917; 6 July 1917; 30 May 1919; 20 June 1919; 6 May 1921; 24 May 1929; 11 October 1929; 18 October 1929; 10 January 1930; 28 February 1930; 25 March 1932; 4 May 1934; 14 December 1934; 5 December 1935; 28 February 1936; 19 June 1936; 9 October 1936; 26 August 1938; 10 April 1941; 15 May 1941; 18 February 1943; 14 November 1946; 11 February 1965; 1 September 1983; 20 November 1986
  • Cornell Alumni News: August 1909
  • United States Federal Census: 1910, 1920
  • General Catalogue of Officers & Students by Mount Holyoke College (1911)
  • The Rise of the High School in Massachusetts by Alexander James Inglis (1911)
  • Obituary Record of the Graduates of Bowdoin College and the Medical School of Maine (1911)
  • General Catalogue of Bowdoin College, 1794-1916 (1912)
  • History of Needham, Massachusetts, 1711-1911 by George Kuhn Clarke (1912)
  • The Harvard Graduates’ Magazine: September 1914
  • Obituary Record of the Graduates of Bowdoin College and the Medical School of Maine (1914)
  • Obituary Record of Graduates and Non-Graduates of Amherst College (1919)
  • Secretary’s Third Report, Class of 1908 by Harvard College (1920)
  • Tufts College Bulletin: December 1920
  • Alumni Record of Wesleyan University by Frank W. Nicolson (1921)
  • Early Days in Wellesley by Gamaliel Bradford (1928)
  • Contemporary American Architecture: Schools by R.W. Sexton (1939)
  • Findagrave.com [George Holley Gilbert; accessed in August 2013]
  • House of Proctor [accessed in August 2013; used only for DOB of Ralph Proctor]
  • Old Deluder Satan Law of 1647 from the Massachusetts Trial Court Law Libraries website [accessed in August 2013]

The Wellesley Tea Room (a.k.a. The Wellesley Inn)

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.


Four of the Wellesley College dormitories that lined Washington Street
Clockwise from top left: Washington House at 600 Washington Street (from 1941 Legenda); The Elms at 637 Washington Street (from 1935 Legenda); Eliot House at the east corner of Cottage Street & Washington Street — razed in 1953 (from 1907 Legenda); Noanett at the east corner of Weston Road & Washington Street — razed in 1964 (from 1907 Legenda)

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.


Wellesley College students out and about town
Clockwise from top: Riding on campus just inside the south gate on Washington Street (from 1941 Legenda); Standing in line to buy textbooks at the Hathaway House Bookshop (from 1948 Legenda); Waiting to catch the train at the Wellesley Railroad Station (from 1931 Legenda)

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.


Mary Esther Chase
(Source: 1895 Legenda)

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.


Source: Boston Daily Globe – October 6th, 1901

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:


Source: 1900 Legenda

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.)


The second location of the Wellesley Tea Room.
This house would become the core of the Wellesley Inn building.
The dwelling to the right (the Hatch Estate) was later known as the Inn Annex.
Source: Benner (1904)

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.


The student dining room
(Source: 1905 Legenda)

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: 

WellesleyFudgeCake_LifeMagazine_Oct6_1941_croppedrecipeMary 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.


The Wellesley Inn in 1999
(Posted with permission from Entropy1024)

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.


The former site of the Wellesley Inn
(Source: Bing Maps)

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: 189519001905190719201931193519411948
  • 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)

College Hall (Wellesley College)

The subject of this post — College Hall at Wellesley College — is difficult for me to write about. In fact, every time I think about the building, my mind goes blank and I’m left speechless. Take a look at the following image of College Hall and you’ll see what I’m talking about.


College Hall
(Photo taken by Seaver and accessed from the Wellesley College Digital Archives)

See? How do you find the words to describe that? And what’s equally remarkable is that many of you have probably never even heard of College Hall. How does a building that big and grandiose — even if it burned down nearly a century ago — evade anyone’s recognition?

In telling the story of College Hall, I need to begin by delving into the origins of Wellesley College. After all, College Hall was Wellesley College for 39 years. So let’s go all the way back to 1855 — two decades before the school opened its doors — when Henry Fowle Durant, a highly successful lawyer from Boston, bought a summer residence in Wellesley following his marriage to Pauline Adeline Fowle. It’s unknown exactly why they chose to move to the small farming community of Wellesley (known as West Needham at the time), but it may have had to do with the fact that they were both related to Horatio Hollis Hunnewell and his wife, Isabella Pratt Welles, who had already begun building their sprawling estate in the southwest corner of town. (Henry and Pauline Durant — first cousins themselves — were first cousins once removed with Horatio Hunnewell as he was their great-aunt’s son. And Isabella Welles was their aunt’s husband’s niece…whatever that’s called.)

The Durants’ summer cottage was located on Washington Street down the road from the Hunnewell Estate (at the current entrance to Wellesley College across from the Nehoiden golf course). This house, which still stands at its original location, was at the southern edge of their 300-acre estate that bordered Lake Waban. Originally, Durant wanted to build a much more elegant home just as the Hunnewell family had done, but those plans were halted after the death of his eight-year-old son, Harry, in 1863. (His only other child, Pauline, had died six years earlier.)

It was at this time that Henry Durant began a journey that would culminate in the establishment of Wellesley College. The initial step was taken when Durant — who had embraced Evangelicalism in the wake of Harry’s death — stepped away from his legal practice after determining that the law and Christianity were irreconcilable. He then started to question how he could use his large estate and vast wealth to do God’s work. After considering a number of options — including building an orphan asylum and establishing a private school for boys — he settled on creating an institution for the education of young women. This was certainly a pressing need as there were only a few female colleges and seminaries throughout the entire United States. (Durant chose to name the school, ‘Wellesley Female Seminary,’ after the Hunnewell estate, ‘Wellesley.’ The school changed its name to ‘Wellesley College’ before it opened in 1875.)

The inspiration to build College Hall most likely came from studying two of the most well-known and highly regarded women’s colleges at the time: Mount Holyoke Seminary and Vassar College, where each of their campuses was dominated by one large building containing nearly all of the classrooms, dormitories, and administrative offices.

The construction of College Hall commenced in 1871 and would last four years. And when the first students arrived in the fall of 1875 — even as the finishing touches on the building were still being completed — they saw one of the largest and most impressive structures built up to that point in time. Sitting high on a hill overlooking Lake Waban, College Hall resembled an abbey or monastery more than a school. Given Durant’s religious devotion, this resemblance wasn’t unintentional. In fact, its floorplan was even in the shape of a papal cross — a 480-foot-long main axis intersected by three shorter wings. And spires capped with crosses decorated the roof.


College Hall overlooking Lake Waban
(Photo taken by Seaver and accessed from the Wellesley College Digital Archives)

In addition to classrooms, dormitories, and administrative offices, College Hall also housed the library, chapel, dining hall, gymnasium, and even a large art gallery. And at its center was a five-story glass-roofed atrium (appropriately known as ‘Center’) that overlooked a marble basin filled with palms and other exotic flora.

Below are several images showing just some of the vast interior of College Hall. (All photographs in this article, unless otherwise noted, are posted with permission from the Wellesley College Digital Archives, a fantastic resource that I strongly encourage everyone to visit.)


The five-story atrium (known as ‘Center’)


The base of the atrium with its marble basin filled with palms and exotic flora
(Photo taken by Seaver)


The main library


A physics laboratory


The chapel
(Photo taken by Thomas Lewis)


The gymnasium (in 1893)


The art gallery on the fifth floor


Students in their dorm room (in 1877-78)

I can barely grasp the intensity of the fire that destroyed College Hall on March 17, 1914. In only four hours, almost the entire building was reduced to rubble. (The only part that survived the inferno was a small two-story wing on the west end of the building that housed the kitchen. It was separated from the rest of College Hall by a fire-door, which was installed to prevent fires from spreading beyond the kitchen. How ironic.) Although the cause of the fire was never determined, it has been hypothesized that faulty electrical wiring or the spontaneous combustion of chemicals was to blame.

And it’s amazing that nobody was killed or injured, especially given the fact that the fire started around four-thirty in the morning as hundreds of students and staff members were asleep in College Hall. Their survival can be credited almost entirely to a frequently rehearsed evacuation plan that broke them up into small squadrons, each led by a student who was required to make sure that all the others in her group were accounted for. And so, from the moment two students on the fourth floor discovered the fire after awaking to the sounds of crackling until ten minutes later when everyone safely exited the building after gathering at Center, all was relatively calm. The students — clad in their robes and slippers — were even able to save many books, paintings, busts, and furniture from the lower floor, passing them down the hill and into the basement of the library.


College Hall on fire — March 17, 1914


The ruins of College Hall
(Photo taken by N.L. Stebbins)

Given the destruction caused by the fire, it’s remarkable that the college was able to finish out the school year — albeit with a three-week break. Hours after the fire, as the ruins of College Hall lay smoldering, the school closed and the students were sent home, nearly 500 of them taking the 6:04 Boston Express to Grand Central Station in New York City. When they returned three weeks later, a temporary wooden building (known as the ‘Hen-Coop’ because of its appearance) had been constructed at the base of the hill which College Hall had sat upon. Although the Hen-Coop provided space for classes and administrative offices, finding rooms for the students to live in was a more difficult matter. Fortunately, many girls who lived in the other dormitories were more than willing to share their rooms with their displaced classmates.

And almost immediately, the institution began an ambitious fundraising campaign in order to rebuild its campus. In total, it raised over two million dollars ($750,000 of which came from a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation). By the fall of 1915, only a year and a half after the fire, the first new building — Tower Court — had been built on the site of College Hall. Others would soon follow, spread all throughout the campus in large part to minimize the possibility of another thoroughly devastating fire.


Architectural sketch of Tower Court
(Source: New England Magazine of October 1914)

Today, five pillars are all that remain of College Hall. Lining the edge of a stone landing at the base of the stairs that lead down from Tower Court, these columns are mere feet from their original location. There’s even a plaque given by the Class of 1917, “the last class to know the original Wellesley College.”

I recently visited this memorial and I have to confess that — just as the photographs of College Hall leave me speechless — I can’t quite put into words how standing next to these pillars made me feel. On one hand, the simplicity of the memorial forces you to appreciate the rich architectural details on the pillars. But there’s also an element of eerieness — you’re confronted with the reality of College Hall even though it feels mythical at times. But more than anything, it makes me sad — as any memorial should — because College Hall no longer stands, having met its demise that March morning nearly one hundred years ago.


Pillars from College Hall
(Photo taken by Joshua Dorin in May 2013)


  • Wellesley College Digital Archives
  • Wellesley Historical Commission files: Durant Cottage Homestead; 845 Washington Street
  • Reminiscences of the Family of Captain John Fowle of Watertown, Massachusetts (1891)
  • New York Times: 18 March 1914; 9 April 1914
  • Wellesley Townsman: 19 June 1914
  • Wellesley College, 1875-1975: A Century of Women edited by Jean Glasscock (1975)


Below is a map showing the Wellesley College campus in 1897. Additionally, I’ve included a satellite photo of the current campus.


Map of the Wellesley College campus in 1897
(Source: 1897 Atlas of Wellesley)


Satellite view of the Wellesley College campus
(Source: Bing Maps)

The National Register of Historic Places

If you followed the 2013 Annual Town Meeting, you probably remember Article 20 that asked for funds to restore the chimney and northeastern wall of the Wellesley Hills Branch Library. Although the Article passed, there had been some heated debate in the weeks leading up to Town Meeting. In particular, people wanted to know whether it was necessary to spend $250,000 to fix the structure. Why not find a cheaper restoration option or even remove the chimney altogether?

Well, the simple answer to that question is that the Branch Library is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, which means that it is deemed historically significant by the United States Department of the Interior — one of only seven such historic sites in Wellesley. If the Town voted to reconstruct the chimney/wall in any way other than to its original appearance and/or use construction methods that were not sensitive to the historic nature of the building, it could result in the delisting of the Branch Library from the National Register. Fortunately, enough Town Meeting members understood this and voted in support of the Article. But it wasn’t close to unanimous.

I would like, therefore, to spend this post educating those who didn’t support the Article about what it means if a building or structure is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, as well as familiarizing everyone with the sites in Wellesley that are on the list.

Simply put, the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) is the official list of buildings, structures, sites, districts, and objects deemed worthy of preservation by the Federal Government (in conjunction with state and local governments), as authorized by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. It is administered by the National Park Service, which operates under the umbrella of the Department of the Interior.

So why was this government program created? I think the following excerpt from a brochure produced by — not surprisingly — the National Park Service best answers this question:

“America’s historic places embody our unique spirit, character and identity. Representing important historical trends and events, reflecting the lives of significant persons, illustrating distinctive architectural, engineering, and artistic design achievement, and imparting information about America’s past, historic places tell compelling stories of the Nation, and of the States and communities throughout the country. The National Register helps preserve these significant historic places by recognizing this irreplaceable heritage. Its primary goals are to foster a national preservation ethic; promote a greater appreciation of America’s heritage; and increase and broaden the public’s understanding and appreciation of historic places.”

And now, without further ado, here are the seven NRHP listings in Wellesley (all photographs taken by Joshua Dorin in May 2013):


Eaton-Moulton Mill — built circa 1853


Wellesley Farms Railroad Station — built in 1893


Wellesley Hills Branch Library — built in 1927


Isaac Sprague Memorial Clock Tower — built in 1928


Old Wellesley High School / Intermediate Building (now Phillips Park) — built in 1894


Wellesley Town Hall — built in 1881-85

The seventh listing is actually a district — the Hunnewell Estates Historic District — that includes a large number of mansions and other buildings. Below are just two of them:


‘Wellesley’ (Estate of Horatio H. Hunnewell) — built in 1851


‘The Pines’ (Estate of Isabella Pratt Hunnewell) — originally built in 1891 but burned down and rebuilt in 1894

There are actually two more listings — the Sudbury and Cochituate Aqueducts — but I didn’t include those above because they are part of multi-town historic districts. 


Waban Arches (Sudbury Aqueduct) — built in 1873-75


Rosemary Brook Siphon Chamber Building (Sudbury Aqueduct) — built circa 1877

Waste Weir for the Cochituate Aqueduct (built 1846-48)

Waste Weir for the Cochituate Aqueduct (built 1846-48)

Now tell me. If you had to guess these seven (well…nine) listings, how many would you have gotten? Three? Four? Maybe if you’re a real Wellesley history junkie, you got more than that. But if you’re like the average Wellesley resident, you probably didn’t name that many. And that pretty much explains why there was a debate over the restoration of the Hills Branch Library. Many Wellesley residents are apathetic towards or unaware of the history of their town.

Why is that? Just look at the following list of cities and towns, ranked in order by the number of NRHP listings:

Boston: 314
Cambridge: 228
Newton: 190
Waltham: 113
Brookline: 100
Arlington: 63
Bedford: 56
Concord: 31
Milton: 27
Sherborn: 24
Lexington: 18
Marlborough: 18
Framingham: 15
Weston: 14
Needham: 12
Lincoln: 11
Natick: 10
Acton: 8
Watertown: 8
Dedham: 7
Medfield: 7
Wellesley: 7
Belmont: 6
Sudbury: 6
Holliston: 5
Burlington: 4
Millis: 4
Ashland: 3
Wayland: 3
Carlisle: 2
Dover: 2
Hopkinton: 2
Westwood: 2

As you can see, Wellesley is in the lower half of the list. Although it’s not surprising that our town is far below the likes of Boston, Newton, and Concord — cities and towns with extremely rich histories — I find it ridiculous that we have fewer NRHP listings than Needham and Weston, two neighboring towns that have similar histories.

Part of the reason that Wellesley ranks so low is that there have been a few buildings that should have been listed on the National Register but were razed in recent years: the 1938 High School, the Wellesley Inn, and the clubhouse of the Wellesley Country Club (the former Needham Town Hall). There is also the Wellesley Hills Railroad Station, built in 1885 by Henry Hobson Richardson (architect of Trinity Church in Copley Square) with the assistance of landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted (designer of Boston’s Emerald Necklace and New York City’s Central Park). Unfortunately, the station was converted to retail stores a half century ago and the landscaping was removed in order to create the parking lot that stretches almost all the way to the Rockland Street bridge. The Wellesley Square Railroad Station would have also qualified had it not been razed in 1962 and replaced with the Wellesley Post Office.

We also were unlucky when College Hall at Wellesley College and the third edifice of the Wellesley Village Congregational Church burned down in 1914 and 1916, respectively. (College Hall would most certainly have qualified for National Historic Landmark status, an especially selective designation for sites that “possess exceptional values or qualities in illustrating or interpreting the heritage of the United States.” There are only 186 National Historic Landmarks in all of Massachusetts, 57 of them in Boston. Wellesley has none.)

If you’re counting, had those buildings and structures not been razed or bastardized beyond recognition, Wellesley could have had 14 listings on the National Register. There are also several other houses and buildings currently standing in Wellesley that should be on the list but for some reason are not. It could be that the owner doesn’t want it listed. Or that no one has bothered to do the necessary work to secure a nomination (which I’ll admit is not a simple process and takes several years to complete).

Furthermore, I think there is a perception among property owners that having one’s house or building listed on the NRHP will diminish its marketability. Perhaps potential buyers would be turned off by restrictions placed on the property. But what restrictions are they worried about? Owners of private properties that have a NRHP designation can do whatever they want to them. They can even raze them if they so desire. The only restrictions arise when Federal funding is involved — most often in the form of tax credits and preservation grants. In those cases, any renovation or restoration must follow certain standards that are set by the Department of the Interior.

So, I’d therefore like to encourage owners of historic properties in Wellesley to consider a National Register designation. Although not every old house or building qualifies for NRHP status, I know of at least a handful that certainly deserve such a recognition. Isn’t it about time that Wellesley’s rich history gets the spotlight it truly deserves?


  • Wellesley Historical Commission files: Elm Park and Sprague Memorial Clock Tower; Intermediate Building; Rosemary Brook Siphon Chamber Building; Waban Bridge; Wellesley Farms Railroad Station; Wellesley Hills Branch Library; Wellesley Hills Railroad Station; Wellesley Town Hall; 35 Walnut Street; 828 Washington Street; 845 Washington Street;
  • The National Register of Historic Places Brochure
  • The National Register of Historic Places Database
  • Report of the Cochituate Water Board to the City Council of Boston (1852)
  • Wellesley Townsman: 20 March 1914; 5 January 1917; 21 August 1958; 28 June 1962
  • Wikipedia.org [National Historic Landmark]

William Morton and Etherization (Part 2)

(Apologies for not posting recently. Life intervened.)

After reading the first part of my profile on Dr. William T.G. Morton (click here if you haven’t read it), you may be wondering what more I could write about. After all, I’ve already discussed the pinnacle of his professional career — his public demonstration of etherization. But there’s actually a second chapter to this story involving the acceptance of ether as a general anesthetic and Morton’s quest for fame and fortune. I know that might not sound very exciting, but it brings up the development of ‘Etherton,’ Morton’s estate that occupied the current site of Town Hall near Wellesley Square. And isn’t that all anyone reading this blog really cares about?

So let’s begin in the days and weeks following Morton’s successful demonstration at Massachusetts General Hospital on October 16th of 1846. As one can imagine, there was a large response from the medical community. Much of it, however, wasn’t positive. Most doctors and surgeons unaffiliated with MGH doubted Morton’s success. Others denounced the use of ether as a general anesthetic, claiming it was dangerous and that the current methods to alleviate pain worked just fine. But these sentiments would fade quickly as etherization took root in hospitals throughout the United States and Europe. Even the US Army began using ether to treat wounded soldiers during the Mexican-American War of 1846-48.

Morton knew then that he had revolutionized modern medicine and therefore felt that he should be rewarded handsomely for his discovery. But the prizes that arrived disappointed him. Although Great Britain recognized his success — it gave him two separate awards totaling £25,000 (the equivalent of more than $3,000,000 in 2013 dollars) — others were not as generous. The only additional prizes Morton received were a bunch of medals from France, Norway, Sweden, and the Russian Empire. Much to his dismay, the United States government would not award him a dime despite four petitions to Congress.

Part of the reason that these attempts for a monetary award were fruitless was that several prominent doctors and surgeons also claimed credit for the discovery of etherization. One of those included his colleague, Dr. Charles T. Jackson, who had unknowingly inspired Morton to consider the use of ether as well as provided him supplies for his experiments. Now Jackson wanted some of the credit. To complicate matters even further, it turned out that Morton wasn’t even the first person to use ether as a general anesthetic. That distinction would go to Crawford Long, a surgeon in Georgia whose discovery of etherization predated that of Morton by four years but was unknown to the medical community until 1849. (Nevertheless, Morton is still credited with the discovery of ether as a general anesthetic.)

Why Morton fought so hard for an award is a crucial part of this story. Quite simply, he had been extremely financially irresponsible over the years (even after receiving £25,000 from the British government) and needed money to pay off his creditors. Initiated when Morton quit his job in 1845 in order to devote all of his time to experimenting with ether, these financial problems were made worse when, that same year, he bought property on the current site of Town Hall in Wellesley. And then, the following year — perhaps in anticipation of the success he would have with ether — Morton began spending even more money that he didn’t have to develop this property into one of the finest estates in all of Wellesley.


Source: Godey’s Lady’s Book, Volume 46 (1853)

The following passage from Hale (1853) provides a brief description of his estate — which he dubbed ‘Etherton’ — along with the area around Wellesley Square:

“The grounds embrace about six acres, in a natural basin surrounded by an amphitheatre of forest-clad hills, dotted with residences. From the centre of this hollow rises a knoll, and on it stands the cottage — a picturesque building of the English style of rural architecture. The prospect from its every window is, of course, superb. In the foregrounds are the serpentine walks, rustic summer-houses, flower-beds, young trees, sparkling streams, and other appurtenances of the mansion itself. Beyond, we see the village church, the farm-houses of the industrious yeomanry, and the other quiet beauties of a country landscape, while an occasional train sweeps along the adjacent railway like a fiery dragon, a type of the nervous, go-ahead spirit of this utilitarian age.”


Source: McClure’s Magazine, Volume 7 (1896)

What’s missing from that description is any mention of the farm that covered much of the estate, which is a bit surprising given how important farming was to Morton. After years and years of fighting for fame and fortune, he was drained physically and emotionally. Farming was one of the few activities in life that provided Morton happiness. This was no doubt a result of the successes he had in crop cultivation and animal husbandry (receiving prizes for his horses, cattle, pigs, turkeys, and chickens), applying the same creative genius to farming that he used while experimenting with ether.

In addition to these more standard farm animals, Morton also raised a number of different breeds of waterfowl, as described in this wonderfully entertaining passage from Rice (1859):

“We stood in the main floor, near the southern or back door of the barn, which overlooked the green field; the little gate opened, and such a screaming, crowing, gabbling ensued, and such a flutter of wings, that for a few minutes it was nearly deafening. A pair of Chinese geese led the way of this feathered community. These geese, a present from the late statesman, Daniel Webster, to Dr. Morton, who prized them accordingly, were entirely brown, of large size, carrying their heads very high, and walking nearly upright; they sent forth shouts that made the air ring. They seemed to consider themselves the Celestials, and all beside inferiors. Next, came a pair of wild geese; one wing cut, and thus obliged to remain in the yard, they had become quite tame; but still, their trumpet call seemed to tell their love of freedom. These, too, were brown, with black heads, and long lithe necks, that undulated like the motions of a snake, with every movement. Very unlike these were the next pair of snow-white Bremen geese, stout, fat, contented-looking creatures, only making the usual gabbling of geese which are well to do in the world. Among the varieties of the duck genus were several of the Poland species; snowy white, except the vermilion-colored spots on the head, that look like red sealing-wax plasters round the eyes. These ducks made a terrible quackery. But the domestic fowl was the multitude; there appeared to be all kinds of species, from the tall Shanghais, that seemed to stalk on stilts, to the little boat-like creepers that move as if on castors. It was a queer sight, such an army of hens and chickens, rushing hither and thither, to pick up the gain scattered for their supper. And then the pride of the old peacock; he just entered with the rest, then spread his heavy wings and flew up to the ridgepole of the barn, where he sat alone in his glory. It was, altogether, a pleasant sight.”

This shouldn’t, however, give you the impression that Morton was no longer actively involved in dentistry. In fact, he made quite a name for himself manufacturing artificial teeth in the years following his discovery of etherization. He even built an enormous ‘tooth factory’ on Etherton, located conveniently near the railroad yard where quartz and feldspar — the primary materials of the fake teeth — were delivered from New Jersey. And ‘factory’ really is an appropriate description of the building. On its first floor, burly workmen operated large machines that crushed these rocks into a fine powder that was then incorporated into a liquid paste. And upstairs, fourteen young women sat in a single room manufacturing the teeth, first pouring the paste into teeth molds, then placing them in a large furnace, and finally scraping away any imperfections. This operation was so successful that Morton was able to sell these artificial teeth to dentists throughout the world.

But despite the income generated from the ‘tooth mill’ and his award from Great Britain, Morton would still struggle financially. He certainly didn’t improve the situation when he bought another large piece of property in Wellesley — on Grove Street on the site of the current Dana Hall campus — and built a mansion that rivaled Etherton Cottage in its extravagance. (He wouldn’t, however, move into the house, which would later become the longtime home of Charles B. Dana, the namesake of Dana Hall.)

Things got so bad for Morton that around 1860, he was hanged in effigy on a mammoth Buttonwood tree that stood in Wellesley Square. Although it has been reported over the years that this act was carried about by local citizens upset by Morton’s unsettled debts, in reality, it was probably instigated by Morton’s creditors from Boston. Nevertheless, Wellesley citizens let the effigy hang for an entire week before it was (supposedly) burned at the stake. (The Buttonwood tree was removed in 1904 for the construction of the Taylor Block, the large brick building on the south side of Washington Street where White Mountain Creamery is currently located.)


Note that the map does not show the location of the Etherton farm buildings or Morton’s artificial tooth factory.

Unfortunately, there’s no happy ending to this story. After spending the years during the Civil War administering ether to wounded soldiers, Morton found himself living in poverty. He was even forced to pawn the medals he had won for his discovery two decades earlier. In 1868, Morton died of rheumatism while in New York City where he was responding publicly to an article supporting Dr. Jackson’s claim to the discovery of etherization.

It was soon thereafter that the Etherton estate fell into disrepair. In 1878, Horatio H. Hunnewell — the town’s greatest benefactor — bought the entire property and, three years later, began construction on the Town Hall building that currently occupies the former site of Etherton Cottage, which was moved to the eastern edge of the property on the site of Morton Field adjacent to the police station (almost opposite Morton Street). Another structure — a small dwelling lived in by Morton’s parents and located near the current driveway of Town Hall on Washington Street (adjacent to the duck pond) — was moved to 33 Cottage Street. The rest of the buildings on the Etherton estate were razed, leaving little, if any, evidence that Morton lived there at all. In 1919, Etherton Cottage was torn down.


The house of Morton’s parents
Built in 1853 and moved to 33 Cottage Street in 1880
(Photo taken by Joshua Dorin in April 2013)

So why do I feel like Wellesley doesn’t appreciate Dr. William T.G. Morton enough? Although the town already has a few reminders of Morton’s presence in Wellesley — Morton Field, Morton Street/Circle, and a stone plaque at Town Hall — I think it can do more. Perhaps we could declare a ‘William Morton Day’ just as the Commonwealth did for Katharine Lee Bates — another famous Wellesley resident — on August 12, 1976. We’ve got six years until Morton’s 200th birthday. Let’s make it happen.


  •  Wellesley Historical Commission files: 33 Cottage Street; Wellesley Town Hall
  • “An Artificial Tooth Factory” in The Family Economist, Volume 4 (1851)
  • “Etherton Cottage, and the Discoverer of Etherization” by Sarah Josepha Hale in Godey’s Lady’s Book (1853)
  • “Morton’s Piggery, Etherton Farm, West Needham, Mass.” in The Pennsylvania Farm Journal Devoted to Agriculture, Volume 3-4 (1853)
  • Trials of a Public Benefactor by Nathan Rice (1859)
  • “Dr. Morton’s Discovery of Anesthesia” by E.L. Snell in Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, Volume 48 (1894)
  • “The Discovery of Anaesthesia” by Elizabeth Whitman Morton in McClure’s Magazine, Volume 7 (1896)
  • Wellesley Townsman: 21 March 1919; 26 December 1919; 3 May 1929; 24 May 1929; 17 October 1946; 12 August 1976; 19 November 1981

William Morton and Etherization (Part 1)

According to a survey conducted by the American Association of Endodontists, more than 80% of adults fear going to the dentist. I don’t blame them. No one enjoys having his or her teeth and gums scraped at with razor-sharp instruments. And God forbid, if you need a root canal or a tooth extracted. But at least we have novocain and nitrous oxide. For thousands of years, people had to suffer through medical procedures without any anesthesia at all. So you can imagine the relief when the first anesthetic that safely rendered patients unconscious before surgery was discovered in the mid-19th Century. Pain had finally been conquered.

So what does any of this have to do with Wellesley? A lot, in fact. The first person to demonstrate publicly the use of a general anesthetic — specifically, ether — was Dr. William T.G. Morton, a dentist who lived in Wellesley at the time of this discovery. The following post, however, mentions Wellesley only briefly and instead focuses almost exclusively on his discovery of ether as a general anesthetic. My next post will detail Morton’s subsequent pursuit of fame and recognition, of which an important theme is the development of his large Wellesley estate known as ‘Etherton’ on the current site of Town Hall.


Dr. William T.G. Morton
Source: Bolton (1885)

But before we delve into the story about William Morton, let’s take a closer look at surgery before the existence of general anesthesia. Although various methods to alleviate pain existed — copious amounts of alcohol, large doses of laudanum (alcohol mixed with opium), a fist or blunt object to the head, and even hypnosis — many patients simply bit a stick or were held down by a group of men during operations, amputations, and dental work. Needless to say, each of these methods had either limited success or terrible side effects (or both).

Below is a passage that gives a good picture of what a typical surgery was like before the discovery of etherization [from Rice (1859)]:

“With a meek, imploring look, and the startled air of a fawn, as her modest gaze meets the bold eyes fixed upon her, she is brought into the amphitheatre crowded with men anxious to see the shedding of her blood, and laid upon the table. With a knowledge and merciful regard to the intensity of the agony which she is to suffer, opiates and stimulants have been freely given her, which, perhaps, at this last stage, are again repeated. She is cheered by kind words, and the information that it will soon be over, and she freed forever from what now afflicts her; she is enjoined to be calm, and to keep quiet and still, and with assistance at hand to hold her struggling form, the operation is commenced.

But of what avail are all her attempts at fortitude. At the first clear crisp cut of the scalpel, agonizing screams burst from her and with convulsive struggles, she endeavors to leap from the table. But the force is nigh. Strong men throw themselves upon her, and pinion her limbs. Shrieks upon shrieks make their horrible way into the stillness of the room, until the heart of the boldest sinks in his bosom like a lump of lead.

At length it is finished, and, prostrated with pain, weak from her exertions, and bruised by the violence used, she is borne from the amphitheatre to her bed in the wards, to recover from the shock by slow degrees.”

It’s no wonder there was great interest in finding a safe anesthetic that would result in the loss of consciousness. But centuries of experimentation had yielded no such substance — everything from hemlock to marijuana to chloroform failed. It wasn’t until William Morton arrived on the scene in the 1840s that the focus shifted to ether.

How Morton came up with the idea to use ether is a critical part of this story (and will be revisited in my next post). To make a long story short, Morton heard from a colleague — Dr. Charles T. Jackson — that liquid ether could be used as a local anesthetic by applying it topically to the teeth and gums. Jackson also mentioned that Harvard students had been inhaling ether-soaked handkerchiefs to get lightheaded. Putting two and two together, Morton then hypothesized that ether could be inhaled in large enough quantities to cause unconsciousness. (Why Jackson didn’t draw the same conclusion is puzzling. One can only assume that, unlike Morton, he wasn’t thinking about general anesthesia.)

For the next two years, Morton devoted his life to proving this hypothesis true. He even sold his dental practice in Boston so that he could experiment with ether full-time at his Wellesley workshop. At first, Morton conducted his tests solely on small animals — green worms, goldfish, and chickens, to name a few — but in most of these trials the subjects died. His first great success came when he experimented on his dog, but that was accompanied by a brief moment of terror. After inserting his water spaniel’s head into a jar filled with ether, the poor dog went limp, causing Morton to think he had killed his four-legged friend. For three minutes, Morton was overcome with grief. But then, the dog suddenly regained consciousness (but understandably would balk at all future experiments).

With this encouraging result, Morton then took a rather extreme next step — he began experimenting on himself. His first experiments, however, only resulted in drowsiness and terrible headaches. Morton guessed that the weak effect was probably because he had been using sulfuric ether. Perhaps pure ether would produce a stronger effect. He was right. After laying a handkerchief saturated with pure ether over his face and inhaling deeply for a few minutes, Morton lost consciousness. When he awoke several minutes later, despite having a mild paralysis that took some time to wear off, Morton appeared to be okay.

Now all he needed was a willing patient on which to try out this new anesthetic. Quite serendipitously, a young man named Eben H. Frost soon arrived at Morton’s office complaining of a toothache. Unable to handle the pain associated with the necessary tooth extraction, Frost consented to Morton’s suggestion to try ether. Just as he did to himself, Morton held a saturated handkerchief over the patient’s mouth and nose and waited for him to lose consciousness. Once Frost appeared to be asleep, Morton took his forceps, grabbed hold of the deeply-rooted bicuspid, applied some force and torque, and yanked the tooth out of its socket. The patient didn’t move or make a sound throughout the procedure. But he also didn’t awaken immediately once it was complete. Thinking that he may have killed a man, Morton splashed a glass of water onto Frost’s face. The patient then awoke, completely unable to recall the tooth extraction.


Morton anesthetizing Eben H. Frost
Source: Wellcome Images

The final step was to show off this discovery to the world. Two weeks later, on October 16, 1846, Morton assisted with a surgery in an amphitheater (later renamed Ether Dome) at Massachusetts General Hospital as dozens of prominent doctors and surgeons observed. The surgery — the removal of a tumor on the patient’s jaw — was a success. At the young age of 27 years, Morton had become the first person to demonstrate the successful use of ether as a general anesthetic.


The first public demonstration of ether as a general anesthetic
Source: McCrillis (1908)

This concludes the first post on Dr. William T.G. Morton. In the second post, I will discuss the aftermath of his discovery of etherization and his estate, Etherton. 


  • “Etherton Cottage, and the Discoverer of Etherization” by Sarah Josepha Hale in Godey’s Lady’s Book (1853)
  • Trials of a Public Benefactor by Nathan Rice (1859)
  • A Catalogue of Artificial Teeth, Dental Materials, Instruments, Tools, Furntiure, etc. by Claudius Ash & Sons (1880)
  • How Success is Won by Sarah Knowles Bolton (1885)
  • ‘The Discovery of Anaesthesia’ by Elizabeth Whitman Morton in McClure’s Magazine, Volume 7 (1896)
  • The Conquest of Pain by Herbert O. McCrillis (1908)
  • Wellesley Townsman: 17 October 1946
  • American Association of Endodontists Website — Root Canal Awareness Week 2009 Press Release [accessed March 2013]

Ruins of the Waterway

The Parthenon. Machu Picchu. The Pyramids of Giza. There’s a reason why these sites are among the most popular tourist attractions in the world. People love ruins, perhaps more so than well-preserved buildings and structures. There’s more mystique and ambiguity. We don’t see their original appearance so our imaginations must take over. And it’s this creative process that emotionally binds us to the past.

So what could be more fun than discussing ruins in Wellesley? If you didn’t know, there are actually a number of such sites in town. In this post, I’d like to focus on just one: the Waterway, a derelict canal and overgrown parkland that once made up the heart of Indian Springs Park, an ambitious — but unsuccessful — subdivision in Wellesley Farms at the turn of the 20th Century.

But before I discuss the history of Indian Springs Park, let me start by showing some photographs of the ruins of the Waterway (all taken by Joshua Dorin in March 2013).







Note the abandoned road (now a wooded path) on the left



I also made a movie of the ruins. Just a warning…I’ve heard from a few people that this video can be a bit dizzying. Unfortunately, I can’t alter the movie without compromising its quality.)

So what are the origins of the Waterway and why did it fall into ruins? As I mentioned, the Waterway was the centerpiece of the Indian Springs Park subdivision. It was the creation of Harry J. Jaquith, who in 1894-95 began to develop his 80-acre property that stretched from Washington Street to the Wellesley Farms railroad station between the Cochituate Aqueduct and Glen Road. (His large estate house, built in 1875 out of hollow concrete blocks and known as Heckle’s Castle after its original owner, William C. Heckle, was located on Washington Street to the northeast of where Hillside Road is today. It burned down in 1909.)


Eastern half of Indian Spring Park
(Source: Norfolk County Registry of Deeds)


Western half of Indian Springs Park
(Source: Norfolk County Registry of Deeds)

As you can see in the subdivision plans, the property was broken up into 73 lots and the following streets were laid out:

  • Hillside Road
  • Orchard Street
  • Sylvan Road (originally known as Montvale Road)
  • Springdale Avenue
  • Indian Springs Way (originally part of Hillside Road)
  • Glen Cross Road (originally part of Croton Street)
  • The Waterway

It’s this last street — the Waterway — that led from Glen Road to the canal and a basin that funneled water from Indian Springs Brook. The canal was a brick-lined channel that divided the road for about 300 feet. On the other side of Hillside Road, there was the basin — a more elaborate brick structure designed to direct the flow of the water. Steps led down from Hillside Road to a semi-circular walkway around the basin and there seems to have been a footbridge over the brook. Adjacent to this structure was a large grassy park that backed up to the aqueduct. In addition, there was a lake between the canal and Glen Road that collected the water flowing from the canal. Not much is known about either the construction or the use of the Waterway. Local lore suggests that residents may have taken Sunday strolls around the canal in their horse-drawn carriages.


The Waterway
(Source: Wellesley Atlas of 1897)

Unfortunately, the Waterway fell into poor condition soon after its construction, as it was reportedly in ruins by 1906. This was no doubt a result of the failure of Indian Springs Park — only a small handful of lots were sold within the first decade.

Today, the Waterway is in complete ruins. The brick-lined canal is falling apart. Much of the basin is either missing or buried under layers of leaves and dirt. And the entire area is overgrown with trees and weeds. In fact, the road on one side of the canal is now a wooded path. This post, therefore, serves an additional purpose beyond discussing Wellesley’s history. I propose calling for the restoration (or at least the stabilization) of the Waterway. It’s a unique piece of history.

I’d also like to inquire about other abandoned or ruined historical structures in Wellesley. Here are a few that come to my mind:

  • The Wellesley Farms railroad station
  • The railroad bridge that crosses the Charles River behind Waterstone (the former Grossman’s site) in Lower Falls — although it was recently paved over to serve as a walkway across the river.
  • Remnants of the mill/dam and the ice house at the north end of Longfellow Pond. I also believe that part of the foundation of the Hastings farmhouse that stood to the east of the pond may still exist, but I’m not 100% sure.
  • The Sudbury and Cochituate Aqueducts and their associated structures: the Rosemary Brook siphon chamber building on Wellesley Avenue, the Waban Arches, and two waste weirs and gatehouses located just north of Morses Pond and on the Crosstown Trail near Woodlawn Avenue.
  • The Ellis stone barn just south of Route 9 adjacent to the Charles River near the Newton line.
  • There may be a few relicts left from Ridge Hill Farms on the former Baker Estate on Grove Street near the Needham line. I’m pretty sure any ruins that still exist are on the eastern side of Sabrina Lake on private property.

If you know of any others, please leave a comment. I promise not to go snooping, but it would be of huge historical value to have an inventory of the ruins in Wellesley.


  • Norfolk County Registry of Deeds
  • 1897 Atlas of Wellesley
  • Wellesley Townsman: 15 June 1906; 10 December 1909; 24 May 1956

Rock Ridge Hall

The development of the Cliff Estates is a subject that’s been written about many times over the years. And in each of these narratives, there’s only a brief mention, if any, of Rock Ridge Hall, a private school located on Cliff Road during the early 1900s. That, of course, made me curious. Were details about the school lost to history? Or was it too insignificant to write about? Turns out, much of the school’s history wasn’t lost. It was just scattered and difficult to piece together. But that doesn’t mean that the school wasn’t an important part of the story.

Before I try to reconstruct the history of Rock Ridge Hall, I need to give a brief overview of the earliest development of the Cliff Estates so that you have a good understanding of the geography of the area at the time that the school opened. So let’s start with Albion Robert Clapp — the “Father of the Cliff Estates.” When Clapp bought the 15-acre Ayling farm (now known as 11 Cliff Road) in 1867, the street extended only as far as the current location of Garden Road. All the land north to the Weston town line and west to Weston Road was part of the Hundreds Woods. Over the next decade, Clapp began acquiring some of this land, but it wasn’t until the late 1870s that he began developing part of it. The first houses built were on the east side of Chestnut Street (which was the original name of the lower stretch of Cliff Road). This was in part to avoid building on the steep hill that gives Cliff Road its name. Clapp soon, however, carved into that hill and extended Cliff Road further north. By 1897, he had built nearly twenty houses in the vicinity of Cliff Road:

It was at the northern edge of this development that George Rantoul White established Rock Ridge Hall. An 1886 Harvard graduate and former chemistry teacher at Phillips Exeter, White had long dreamed of running his own school. But the opportunity didn’t present itself until 1899 when he married Albion Clapp’s daughter, Irma May Clapp, and was given five acres of land on Cliff Road on the day of their wedding. Although the details regarding the construction of the school’s campus are a bit unclear, it seems most likely that the main building (known as Rock Ridge Hall) was built that fall or the following spring. During that time, White actually was on an extended honeymoon in Europe where he was able to study several prominent English preparatory schools as he laid the groundwork for Rock Ridge.


Rock Ridge Hall
(With permission from cardcow.com)

The year 1899 was also when White’s father died and that may have given him another reason to start his own school in Wellesley. At the time, his parents were in the process of constructing their own house at 41 Chestnut Street across from the home of their daughter and George’s sister, Mary Hawthorne (White) Bunker, at 46 Chestnut Street. It seems probable then that White would have relocated there as well to care for his mother and younger brother, Edward, who was still a student and who would later prepare for Harvard at Rock Ridge under his older brother’s tutelage.

Rock Ridge Hall opened in October of 1900. Although the first class had only eight students, the school’s enrollment quickly grew to seven-five by 1906. This increase was no doubt a testament to White’s strong abilities as headmaster. He had created an elite private school that was extremely successful preparing students for college — in particular, Harvard — but also provided the education needed to enter a scientific school or business career. It’s no surprise then that Rock Ridge attracted students from throughout the United States as well as foreign countries such as China and Japan. Even Booker T. Washington, a leading proponent of education, sent his own son there. (Booker Jr., however, was quite a troublemaker and not interested in academics, and soon transferred to the Wellesley School for Boys on Linden Street.)

In addition to the high school, a small preparatory program for boys of grammar school age, known as the Hawthorne School, was added in 1904. These younger students were housed across the street from Rock Ridge Hall in a large dormitory known as Hawthorne House. Collectively, the two schools were known as the Rock Ridge School.

The Rock Ridge campus also included an industrial arts shop, a large gymnasium, a swimming pool, bowling alleys, tennis courts, a baseball field and, of course, Rockridge Pond. An additional dormitory, Gray House, was added around 1912. The following map shows the extent of the Rock Ridge campus in relation to the modern geography. Note that Hawthorne House and Gray House still stand at 54 Cliff Road and 25 Hawthorne Road, respectively.


Map of the Rock Ridge Campus

Unfortunately, this map doesn’t give you an appreciation for the imposing presence of Rock Ridge Hall. As its name suggests, the main building sat on top of a rocky precipice. This, of course, was the perfect location for the centerpiece of the campus. However, this site would be problematic when a fire (caused by a defective flue) broke out on the top floor of the main building in 1911. Initially, Wellesley’s firefighters were unable to fight the flames because the water pressure was too low at the top of the hill. It wasn’t until the arrival of the Newton Fire Department — which was far better equipped — that the fire was extinguished and Rock Ridge Hall was saved from total destruction. Fortunately, nobody was injured. But the students, whose living quarters were on the upper floors, lost most of their personal possessions. The damaged portion of Rock Ridge Hall was quickly rebuilt and the school soon reopened.

Despite the rebuilding of Rock Ridge Hall, the school did not stay open very much longer. In 1915, White retired and sold the entire campus to Mary S. Nichols, who used the former school as a seasonal resort and boarding house. Unfortunately, it must not have been profitable because she was foreclosed upon in 1925. The property was then broken up and sold the following year. Although Hawthorne House and Gray House were converted into single family residences, the rest of the school’s buildings, including Rock Ridge Hall, were torn down. Over a dozen large dwellings were built in their place, which included the Rockridge Road development.


Left: The former Hawthorne House at 54 Cliff Road
Right: The former Gray House at 25 Hawthorne Road
(Photos taken by Joshua Dorin in March of 2013)

So even though there are very few visual reminders of the Rock Ridge School, its brief history is an important part of the story about the development of the Cliff Estates. It is also another example of the high value that Wellesley places on education. Schools like Rock Ridge, Dana Hall, Wellesley College, the Babson Institute, and even the early public schools made Wellesley into the desirable community that still exists today. Why Rock Ridge School was forgotten about for so long is beyond me.


  • Norfolk County Registry of Deeds
  • Wellesley Historical Commission files: #15-17 Chestnut Street; #21 Chestnut Street; #41 Chestnut Street; #46 Chestnut Street; #5 Cliff Road; #11 Cliff Road; #34 Cliff Road
  • Needham Map of 1876
  • Wellesley Atlas of 1897
  • Wellesley Townsman: 11 May 1906; 5 October 1906; 31 March 1911; 26 November 1915; 30 April 1926; 14 May 1926; 11 June 1926; 22 July 1948; 19 August 1954; 24 May 1956; 4 June 1981
  • Boston Evening Transcript: 15 September 1906
  • Secretary’s Report by Harvard College, Class of 1886 (1907)
  • The Harvard Graduates’ Magazine, Volume 16 (1908)
  • Munsey’s Magazine, Volume 39 (1908)
  • Who’s Who in New England, Volume 1 by Albert Nelson Marquis (1909)
  • New York Times: 26 March 1911
  • Cosmopolitan, Volume 53 by Schlicht & Field (1912)
  • Secretary’s Third Report by Harvard College, Class of 1908 (1920)
  • My Valuable Time: The Story of Paul Bridgman Boyd by Amy Sherman Bridgman (1938)
  • Booker T. Washington: The Wizard of Tuskegee, 1901-1915 by Louis R. Harlan (1983):
  • Find a Grave: George Rantoul White

Additional images which might be of interest — from The Country Calendar, Volume 1 (1905):



Brown Elementary School

(Apologies for not posting recently. I was working on five different posts, none of which came together easily. If you’d like to be notified by email when I write a new post, enter your email address into the widget to the right.)

Just a few weeks ago, the School Committee approved a plan proposed by the new Wellesley Superintendent of Schools to suspend K-3 enrollment at Hardy Elementary School through the end of the school year. Overcrowding at Hardy had become too much of a problem. And now, as the School Committee tries to figure out a solution — most likely, redistricting — I’m sure that the Town is regretting closing and selling several elementary school buildings during the 1970s and 1980s. At its peak, there were twelve elementary schools in Wellesley: Bates, Fiske, Hardy, Hunnewell, Schofield, Sprague, Upham, Brown, Kingsbury, Perrin, Phillips, and Warren. The first seven are the only schools still open. Perrin and Phillips no longer stand, Brown and Kingsbury are condos, and Warren is occupied by the Recreation and Health Departments.

So what better time to bring the history of one of these closed schools back into the limelight? Remind the Town exactly what it lost over three decades ago. Let’s start with the Seldon L. Brown Elementary School, a charming little schoolhouse on Garden Road that opened in 1924.


The former Brown Elementary School – built 1924
(Photo taken by Joshua Dorin in March 2013)

Brown School was one of four elementary schools that opened in a span of only fourteen months between September 1923 and October 1924. At the time, Wellesley was in the midst of the largest population boom in the town’s history — from 1920 to 1930, Wellesley’s population grew from 6,000 to 11,000, a near doubling in only one decade. The five existing elementary schools (Hunnewell, Phillips, North, Fiske, and the Fells School) were bursting at their seams. Forty students in each class was not uncommon. In a remarkable feat of efficiency, the Town was able to develop and approve plans for the four new school buildings within months of taking up the issue. Construction began immediately. The first school to open was Hardy in September 1923, followed by Kingsbury in January 1924, Sprague in September 1924, and Brown in October 1924.

For the first six weeks of the 1924-25 school year, before construction of the Brown schoolhouse was complete, ninety students attended class in the gymnasium of Rock Ridge Hall, a former private school on the site of Rockridge Road. These students had been kicked out of their old classrooms at Phillips School in order to accommodate the growing junior high school population (who shared the same building). Although the temporary facilities were adequate at first, the old gym failed to keep the children warm as the temperature dropped. Even the installation of a new electric heating system didn’t help. Finally, when Brown School was completed in late October, the students and their teachers left their makeshift classrooms with their books and personal belongings and marched along a wooded path (that would become Lanark Road) to their new school.

The new schoolhouse must have been a sight for sore eyes. And what a sight, indeed. Brown more closely resembled a mansion than an elementary school, its design inspired by English manors constructed during the late Elizabethan and early Jacobean periods. This unique schoolhouse — with its multi-gabled roof, decorative finials, stone mullion windows, and tall chimneys — was designed by noted architect and Wellesley resident, William Hungerford Brainerd, who (unlike most builders in Wellesley today) appreciated the value that a beautiful building adds to a neighborhood and community.


Source: Our Town of November 1903

So who was Seldon L. Brown? Better known as “Pa” Brown by the entire Wellesley community, Seldon Lester Brown was the principal of Wellesley High School from 1886 to 1916, as well as the Latin teacher (and occasionally math and civics teacher). A gifted and passionate instructor, Brown had a habit of flipping the switch that controlled the school’s clocks in order to prolong the school day a few extra minutes. He was also deeply invested in the success of the high school’s athletic teams and was one of their greatest supporters. Outside of school, Brown was active in town government, served as president of the Wellesley Club, and was a trustee of the Wellesley Free Library for twenty years. It is, therefore, no surprise that the new elementary school was named for Brown. Attaching his name to the Garden Road schoolhouse was also fitting because Brown resided nearby at 22 Colburn Road and even owned land that became part of the school grounds.


The Seldon L. Brown House at 22 Colburn Road — built 1914
(Photo taken by Joshua Dorin in March 2013)

Brown School was K-6 until 1975 when it became one of three grade 5-6 schools. In 1981, fifty-seven years after first opening its doors, Brown closed as a result of declining enrollment and Proposition 2 ½. The schoolhouse was sold by the Town two years later to a developer (for only $350,000!) and converted into the Garden Close condominiums.

Now, in 2013, as Wellesley struggles with overcrowded elementary schools, I’m sure the School Committee wishes it had more vacant schools to help alleviate the problem. Perhaps the Town should have realized thirty years ago that some cost-cutting decisions can’t be undone.


  • Norfolk County Registry of Deeds
  • Our Town: November 1903
  • Who’s Who in Pennsylvania: A Biographical Dictionary of Contemporaries, Volume 1 (1909)
  • Town Annual Report: 1913, 1914
  • Wellesley Townsman: 21 July 1922; 23 March 1923; 15 June 1923; 7 September 1923; 23 November 1923; 25 January 1924; 20 June 1924; 12 September 1924; 3 October 1924; 10 October 1924; 24 October 1924; 31 October 1924; 4 May 1934; 18 February 1943; 17 November 1949; 28 August 1975; 29 January 1981; 3 September 1981; 14 April 1983; 21 February 2013

Booker T. Washington

I’m not just a Wellesley history junkie. I also love pretty much anything having to do with American history. So it’s especially fascinating to me when both subjects come together, as is the case in this post. It concerns Booker T. Washington, one of the foremost leaders of the African-American community during the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Well, to be specific, this post actually focuses on two of his children who attended school in Wellesley. But it still sheds light on Washington, not just as a parent, but also as a proponent of education. He was, after all, one of the founders of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. So it shouldn’t be surprising that he took every effort to make sure that his children received the best possible education.


Booker T. Washington with his wife and three children
Portia and Booker Jr. are on the right
(With permission from the Tuskegee University Archives)

The first of his children to attend school in Wellesley was his daughter, Portia, who enrolled at Wellesley College in the fall of 1901. She had been attending the Tuskegee Institute, but felt unchallenged by its curriculum. So her father arranged for her to take three classes at Wellesley: music theory, piano, and German. Unfortunately, Portia struggled in these courses and also suffered from severe loneliness. As a special student, she wasn’t allowed to live on campus and roomed instead in a house on Howe Street and ate her meals with several college professors, including Katharine Lee Bates, Katharine Coman, and Emily Greene Balch. And although race was not the reason that Portia lived off campus — at the time, there were a few black students who lived in the dormitories — it is believed that she may have been subject to racism by some of the many southern white students at the school. Portia, therefore, found it difficult to make friends with her classmates. There is no doubt that this social discomfort was detrimental to her academic performance and resulted in the failure of one of her music classes, a subject at which she normally excelled.

The ordeal was only made worse for Portia when newspapers across the country reported that the college did not allow her to return the following year because of her failing grades. In addition, the media spread rumors that the faculty pressed for Portia’s dismissal in order to end the “race war” between the students. These reports, however, were untrue. In actuality, she had planned to spend only one year at Wellesley. Portia enrolled the following fall at Bradford Academy in Haverhill, where she would graduate three years later and go on to become a successful concert pianist and music teacher.

The second part of this post involves Portia’s brother, Booker Jr., who arrived in Wellesley in early 1902. Unlike his sister, Booker Jr. was a bit of a troublemaker and not at all interested in academics. So perhaps Washington sent his son to Wellesley not just to help alleviate Portia’s homesickness, but also to provide a change of scenery for Booker Jr. After briefly attending Rock Ridge Hall, a private school located on the current site of Rockridge Road in the Cliff Estates, Booker Jr. transferred to the Wellesley School for Boys at 24 Linden Street (the former parsonage of the Village Congregational Church). It was a small school run by Rev. Edward A. Benner and could provide the attention needed to help Booker Jr. succeed. Unfortunately, Benner was unsuccessful at first. Booker Jr. continued to neglect his studies, and was also caught smoking in his room, sneaking out after dark, and even ditching class to visit his sister. It was only after some stern parenting from his father that Booker Jr. improved both his behavior and his grades. He stayed at the school for two more years and then returned to Tuskegee to finish his education.


The Wellesley School for Boys at 24 Linden Street
Left photograph taken from Benner (1904)
Right photograph taken by Joshua Dorin in March 2013

On a separate note, it was during the time that Booker Jr. was in Wellesley that his father gave a lecture in town. Speaking at the Maugus Club on Abbott Road in November 1903, Washington described the struggles that the black population faced nearly forty years after the end of slavery. One might wonder why he would give such a lecture to an almost exclusively white audience. But these speeches were an important component of the early Civil Rights movement: the speakers served as examples of the educational progress made by the African-American community. Washington, in particular, was a powerful orator, able to inspire and rally citizens behind his cause. The following excerpt from his Wellesley lecture, describing what African-Americans have already accomplished, shows this ability: “…they came to this country with chain on wrist and ankle — were freed with hoe and spade in hand: — they came pagans — were freed Christians with Bible and spelling book at command: — they came without a language — were freed speaking the proud Anglo-Saxon tongue.” Few speeches in the history of this town were as significant or eloquent.

Let me conclude by adding that even though this post is about Booker T. Washington and his family, I think it also says a lot about the town of Wellesley. Just as Washington believed that education was the gateway to success, the town has invested much of its resources into developing and maintaining a strong public school system. In addition, there has been a countless number of private schools in Wellesley over the last century and a half. It is no wonder that Booker T. Washington sent his children to school in a town that places such a heavy emphasis on education.


  • Wellesley Historical Commission files – #24 Linden Street
  • Tuskegee University Archives Online Repository
  • New York Times: 2 November 1902; 15 November 1902
  • Our Town: December 1903
  • Glimpses of Wellesley by E.H. Benner (1904)
  • The Booker T. Washington Papers, Volume 6: 1901-2 by Louis R. Harlan (1977)
  • The Afro American: 11 March 1978
  • Booker T. Washington: The Wizard of Tuskegee, 1901-1915 by Louis R. Harlan (1983)
  • Guest of Honor by Deborah Davis (2013)