A Highway Almost Ran Through It: Wellesley Hills Square and the origins of Route 9

The following article appeared in the Wellesley Townsman on February 19, 2015.

Rejected proposal for configuration of Worcester Street highway through Wellesley Hills Square (Posted with permission from the Wellesley Townsman)

Rejected proposal for configuration of Worcester Street highway through Wellesley Hills Square
(Posted with permission from the Wellesley Townsman)

People often joke that Wellesley exists within a bubble, immune to whatever negative forces there are in the outside world. Sure, there’s some truth to that. But alas, we do occasionally have to deal with uninvited visitors and unwelcome development.

This isn’t a recent phenomenon. In the 1770s, we had to fight British soldiers in nearby Lexington. Then life was disrupted again in 1834 with the arrival of the Boston & Worcester Railroad. And only a decade after that, we were forced to suffer through the construction of the Cochituate Aqueduct. After each of those, however, daily life in Wellesley reverted back to normal fairly quickly.

The same could not be said a century later when Wellesley’s first full-fledged highway — Route 9 — was established. Much of the tranquility and charm that existed within this sleepy suburb just flat out disappeared. That said, it could have been a whole lot worse.

The saga began in 1929 when the Commonwealth announced plans to build a state highway along Worcester Street in response to the ever-increasing reliance on the automobile and the resulting need to connect Boston and Worcester with a direct transit roadway. Worcester Street, by and large, was ideal for this purpose; it was straight and mostly avoided village centers. The one major exception: Wellesley Hills Square, where the road literally ran right through it.

You can still see this today. Worcester Street entered the square along what is now the Route 9 eastbound on-ramp (that passes by Grantland and Wareland Roads), joined Washington Street for a few hundred feet, then exited along the stretch of road adjacent to the north side of Elm Park.

(Well, to be precise, that describes the original 19th Century configuration of Worcester Street and Wellesley Hills Square. In 1903, a slight modification was made to accommodate a widening of the road and the installation of the Boston & Worcester Street Railway trolley line. Just west of Oakland Street, the eastbound and westbound lanes that headed into the square diverged. The westbound lane and both sets of trolley tracks merged onto Washington Street slightly west of the current site of the Hills Branch Library and the eastbound lane remained on the aforementioned Route 9 eastbound on-ramp.)

It was therefore apparent to everyone that constructing a highway along Worcester Street would have required leveling whatever buildings and homes were in its path, essentially destroying the heart of Wellesley Hills Square.

The Town immediately began investigating alternatives to this proposal. Specifically, it charged the Planning Board with conducting a two-year-long comprehensive study of this problem. (There were also the less serious issues of how to handle the Worcester Street intersections with Weston Road, Oakland Street, and Cedar Street, all of which were grade crossings at the time.)

Of the various alternatives to the Worcester Street highway that were considered, one generated significant support: a bypass that split north from Worcester Street just west of Weston Road, ran through the undeveloped Hundreds Woods (what is largely now the Cliff and Abbott Estates) until it reached the Weston border near Glen Road in Wellesley Farms, and then traversed Lower Falls and the Cedar Street area until rejoining Worcester Street near the Newton line. This route — although circuitous and vehemently opposed by Wellesley Farms residents — avoided Wellesley Hills Square entirely.

The Planning Board concluded its study in late 1931, but unfortunately was split in its recommendation. Three of the five members supported the bypass route. The other two, however, preferred the Worcester Street proposal with a reconfiguration of the highway directly to the north of Wellesley Hills Square and the construction of an underpass at Washington Street.

A non-binding referendum, on the other hand, showed the townspeople agreed with this minority recommendation by a margin of 2 to 1.

At this point, the Board of Selectmen took charge and initiated discussions with the State Highway Department to determine a solution. Three months later, the plans were made official: the Route 9 highway would follow the Planning Board’s minority recommendation. In addition, there would be an overpass at Weston Road, a grade crossing at Oakland Street, an underpass at Cedar Street, as well as a connection between Washington Street and Cliff Road (which up to that time had terminated at Worcester Street). Furthermore — and perhaps most importantly — the Commonwealth would assume all costs associated with the construction and the land takings.

Of course, the Town didn’t settle for the least expensive and most utilitarian design. For example, Milford granite was used in the construction of the bridges and retaining walls at Wellesley Hills Square, Cliff Road, Weston Road, and along the section of roadway between Oakland Street and Longfellow Road. Additionally, decorative metal railings were placed along the highway throughout Wellesley Hills and a large grassy median was laid out and trees were planted east of Kingsbury Street to soften the appearance of the thoroughfare. Simply put, Wellesley officials insisted that Route 9 appear more like a parkway than a highway.

And so when the new roadway was opened to traffic in the summer of 1933, it was yet another example of why our town was known throughout the region as Wellesley The Beautiful. We may have been forced to accept a highway running through our town, but we made it as gosh darn attractive as possible.

It was proof that Wellesley rarely submitted to proposals from outside sources without retaining some ability to shape the outcome. Of course, one could argue that’s still true today. We were, after all, able to get the Commonwealth to restore the charming appearance of the Route 9 underpass at Washington Street during its reconstruction a decade ago.

So what about the future? The rest of Route 9 needs significant improvements, including the crumbling granite retaining walls and parapets, the rusty metal railings and guardrails, and the overgrown grassy median. The Commonwealth is ready to improve our parkway within the next few years. Perhaps we should make our voice heard now and look into what can be done to preserve and enhance what our Town leaders worked so hard to achieve in the early 1930s.

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