Bostonville: How a failed subdivision shaped Wellesley

The following article appeared in the Wellesley Townsman on October 1, 2015.

Plan of Bostonville (1853) Source: Boston Public Library

Plan of Bostonville (1853)
Source: Boston Public Library

You ever wonder who holds the keys to Wellesley’s future? Here’s a hint. It’s not our Town Government.

No, the correct answer is residential developers — builders if you will. But make no mistake. This isn’t some recent phenomenon. Rather, this reality was true a century ago and it’ll be true many years from now. Because Wellesley has always been predominantly a residential community comprised almost entirely of single-family dwellings, whoever controls the development (and redevelopment) of these properties controls the town.

This was obvious during the early 1900s when Wellesley transitioned from a small farming community into an affluent suburb. And it’s been unmistakably apparent over the past decade as mansionization has spread throughout our neighborhoods. These trends affect not just the physical appearance of Wellesley, but also its total population, demographics, school enrollment patterns, traffic, infrastructure usage — and therefore, the municipal budget.

For as long as Wellesley has existed, its government has only been able to react to these forces. Sure, it can help steer the ship by, say, implementing various zoning ordinances and working to protect our valuable natural, historical, and recreational assets. But let’s face it. These efforts are almost always just that: reactions.

This isn’t to say, however, that Wellesley’s leaders never had a hand in residential development. In fact, from the 1880s through the 1930s — when the town cemented its status as one of Boston’s most desirable suburbs — residential building was almost entirely controlled by a small handful of Wellesley’s most prominent citizens: Isaac Sprague, Joseph E. Fiske, Charles N. Taylor, and Albion R. Clapp, to name a few.

Why and how this came to be provides fascinating insights into Wellesley’s history. Simply put, there were several significant developments — residential as well as commercial and industrial — during the decades preceding this period that were incompatible with the vision the town’s leaders had for Wellesley. The only preventative measure these men could therefore take was to develop Wellesley themselves.

One of those unwelcome developments was Bostonville. The first large-scale residential subdivision in Wellesley — which was then still part of Needham — Bostonville was the brainchild of Daniel Ayer, a Canadian-born resident of Lowell who up until that point had no connection to Wellesley whatsoever.

At this time — the early 1850s — Wellesley was nothing more than a collection of three small villages: West Needham (Wellesley Square), Grantville (Wellesley Hills), and Lower Falls. Beyond these villages were only forests, meadows, and scattered farms.

Bostonville was supposed to be the fourth village — a city within the town to be precise. The core part of Bostonville encompassed a region bounded (more or less) by Washington Street to the north, Forest Street to the east, Fuller Brook to the west, and Wellesley Avenue to the south.

On this 150-acre tract of land, Ayer laid out more than a dozen gridded streets and carved up the remaining land into over 300 lots ranging in size from 7500 square feet to more than an acre. The following is a complete list of Bostonville’s roadways: State, Smith, Clifford, Twitchell, Wilson, Hopkinson (now primarily Cottonwood), Rice, Paine, Peck, Seaver, and Park, as well as two paper streets (Holman and Greer) that were later incorporated into the Whiting-Allen-Sumner Road subdivision in the 1920s.

But the Bostonville subdivision was more than just streets and residential lots; it was a planned community. Ayer had dedicated three lots on the east side of Park Avenue near Forest Street for a seminary, meetinghouse, and a square separating them. An acre-sized park — officially known as Bostonville Common — was located at the other end of the subdivision on the east side of Clifford Street bounded by Twitchell and Cottonwood. In addition, Ayer encouraged the construction of shoe factories by offering a free lot to the first person who built a two-story, 40 foot by 60 foot structure that could be used for such manufacturing purposes.

Before any of these lots were sold, however, the boundaries of Bostonville suddenly expanded with Ayer’s purchase of another large property — the old Kingsbury farm — to the north of Washington Street. This additional 50-acre tract of land was similarly divided up into small residential lots accompanied by the laying out of a grid of streets, including Kingsbury, Donizetti, Wall, Ayer, and Washburn (now Calvin).

How Ayer went about selling 200-plus acres of land is a lesson in ambition and marketing. Rather than simply crossing his fingers and hoping that offers would come in, Ayer held a series of public auctions that had been noticed in all of Boston’s most widely read newspapers. Advertising Bostonville as a “city in embryo,” he literally brought the people to the land by giving out free tickets for trains leaving from Boston. Further enticements included the promise that if 150 houses were built there within a year, each homeowner would receive the right of first refusal for an adjacent lot to his or her property.

(This was an arguably far superior marketing strategy compared to the free ox roast he held at an auction within what would become the Ayers City district of Lowell in 1847. Someone roasted the ox too long and the smell of burnt meat turned everyone away.)

So how successful was Bostonville? Well, if it was any indication of the subdivision’s fate, on the day of the first auction — September 23, 1853 — a 70-year-old man died as he made his way to Bostonville after the train on which he was riding jerked suddenly, throwing the elderly Boston resident onto the tracks and severing both his legs at the thighs.

To be fair, however, it wasn’t a total disaster. Ayer actually made out fairly well, as most of the lots had sold by the end of 1854. And someone even built a shoe factory on Wellesley Avenue just east of Seaver Street.

But few buyers built houses within a year or two, and the resulting lack of immediate development only further discouraged other new landowners from building on their lots. Bostonville was thus quickly declared a failure. (Surviving remnants of Bostonville include 35 Forest Street, 9 Wilson Street, and 98 Kingsbury Street.)

Over the next several decades, the vast majority of the undeveloped parcels were acquired by a small handful of local residents — in particular, L. Allen Kingsbury — who rightly believed one could never own enough land. And then sporadically, some of these lots were once again sold off and built on. Yet well into the 20th Century, development within what was once Bostonville was still quite spotty. It really wasn’t until the post-World War II building boom when almost all of the remaining lots were developed. The consequence was that most areas of Bostonville lacked uniformity of character. Farmhouses were juxtaposed with mid-century capes and split-levels.

Another consequence that manifested itself much earlier was the recognition by Wellesley’s leaders that this wasn’t the way they wanted their town developed. They didn’t desire outsiders coming in, carving up the land into an unimaginative grid of streets, and fostering development that maximized profit for the builders.

So they came up with an alternative. Acquire large parcels of land before speculative builders could, lay out winding roads themselves, carve out generously sized lots, and require the construction of houses that would establish an exclusive character for these neighborhoods and guarantee a prosperous future for Wellesley. Personal profit wasn’t even much of a concern. Such was the case with the development of, most notably, the Cliff Estates, Wellesley Farms, and the Country Club area.

The lessons of Bostonville, however, only lasted so long. By the post-war era, speculative building by outsiders had seeped into Wellesley once again, and there was a noticeable shift in the characteristics of many of the subdivisions — that is, the lots and houses were designed in a way that made the developers a larger, faster profit.

And this trend has only increased ever since. For example, in 2012 and 2013, non-Wellesley builders were responsible for 73% and 76%, respectively, of all speculative teardown and new construction in the town. (That’s 37 of 51 houses in 2012 and 41 of 54 houses in 2013.)

This isn’t to say that all of these out-of-town builders construct houses that aren’t in keeping with the principles that guided residential development during Wellesley’s golden age a century ago (and conversely that all local builders construct homes that Isaac Sprague would appreciate).

But the appearance of many of these new houses — their height, massing, lot coverage, and use (or non-use) of architectural detailing — as well as the sheer number being built lead some residents to question whether the drive to maximize a quick profit — like Daniel Ayer in the 1850s — is sacrificing the character and long-term stability of Wellesley.

Perhaps then town leaders should closely examine this issue further and consider whether any steps can or should be taken to reverse this trend, or at least determine how to instill into residential development similar ideals that our forefathers set forth when developing Wellesley more than a hundred years ago. Otherwise our town might just end up becoming one giant subdivision, just another Bostonville.