Forgotten Wellesley Citizens: Clarence A. Bunker

The following article appeared in the Wellesley Townsman on April 13, 2015.

Clarence A. Bunker (1866 - 1961)  Source: Harvard College Class of 1889 Report (1914)

Clarence A. Bunker (1866 – 1961)
Source: Harvard College Class of 1889 Report (1914)

Any regular reader of this column may have noticed the disproportionate attention given to Wellesley during the first four decades of the 20th Century. This isn’t a coincidence. These were our golden years, an era when the town’s leaders did everything they could to turn Wellesley into one of Boston’s most desirable suburbs.

Much of their effort focused on the physical appearance of the town. They laid out winding, tree-lined roads, built homes rich in natural beauty and charm, hired the most skilled architects to design schoolhouses and other public buildings, and developed the village centers into fashionable shopping districts.

Without a doubt, the citizen most influential in shaping the town during these years was Isaac Sprague. It’s almost impossible to drive through Wellesley today without noticing something — a building, a bridge, a neighborhood — that he helped develop or construct. This is the reason he’s one of the most well-known citizens of Wellesley’s distant past.

But Sprague wasn’t alone in his efforts. In fact, there was a small group of Wellesley citizens — primarily highly educated merchants, bankers, and lawyers — who assisted him in most of his endeavors. And like Sprague, their primary motivation was not profit, as they already were quite wealthy. Rather it was to make Wellesley as beautiful (and thus desirable) as possible, therefore guaranteeing the town a prosperous future for decades to come.

One of these men was Clarence Alfred Bunker. Although not a native of the town, Bunker almost immediately sought to place his imprint on Wellesley after arriving here in 1897 at the age of 30. Maybe this had something to do with his marriage to Mary Hawthorne White, the daughter of a notable resident and whose lineage here went back to the days of the American Revolution. Her family’s deep connection to the town must have had an influence on him. Or perhaps he figured he would never move away and therefore had great interest in making Wellesley the town he so desired it to be. Indeed, Bunker never did leave. He spent the last 64 years of his life here, making his residence throughout that time at 46 Chestnut Street in the heart of the old Cliff Estates.

How exactly Bunker came to partner with Sprague is unclear. It isn’t much of a surprise, however, given their mutual passion for Wellesley and its future, as well as their professions — Bunker a real estate and probate attorney and Sprague a banker who had acquired significant land holdings.

Their earliest collaboration began in 1900, when they formed a real estate trust known as the Wellesley Associates with 18 other prominent citizens of the town, including (among others) John D. Hardy, Henry M. Putney, F. Howard Gilson, and even Superintendent of Schools Marshall L. Perrin, all of whom contributed $1000 each to purchase and develop a four-acre tract of land on the west side of Oakland Street between Washington and Worcester Streets into a small cluster of elegant and stately residences (laying out in the process the curved section of Woodlawn Avenue).

Three years later, in 1903, Bunker and Sprague split off from the group to form two other trusts with a few different associates. The first of these, the Waban Real Estate Trust, confined itself to the development of only two parcels of land, both on Weston Road near Wellesley Square. On these lots were constructed a pair of three-story, shingle-style edifices — Noanett dormitory and the Ridgeway apartment house — that were leased to Wellesley College for student and faculty housing. (Noanett, which was located at the current site of the parking lot at the northeast corner of Weston Road and Washington Street, was razed in 1964. Its twin, Ridgeway, still stands on Norfolk Terrace.)

The other trust established by Sprague and Bunker — the Maugus Real Estate Trust — was far more influential in the growth of Wellesley. Its initial development was the construction of the townhouses on Eaton Court in 1905-06. The trust’s most significant acquisition, however, came three years later, when it purchased the undeveloped land within the Belvedere Estates from the children of Josiah Gardner Abbott.

Over the next few decades, the Maugus Real Estate Trust carefully and judiciously sold off these lots, primarily to homeowners who then had their architect-designed residences constructed (although a small handful of houses were built by the trust). And just as the Abbott children had done, significant restrictions were placed on these properties in order to maintain generous setbacks and require the construction of high-quality homes.

It’s important to note, however, that Bunker was more than just Sprague’s crony. In fact, he was arguably one of the most important members of Town Government throughout the first half of the 20th Century — in particular through his service as Town Counsel from 1916 until 1939. The position of Town Counsel was established in 1906 in order to advise Town Government on legal matters that might arise (and then represent the Town at court proceedings if necessary). It has always been instrumental in helping the Town of Wellesley overcome hurdles associated with growth and development. This was no more true than during the 1920s and 1930s when the Town – guided by the sage advice of Clarence Bunker — was forced to deal with three of the biggest challenges in its history: the implementation of zoning, the construction of a state highway on Worcester Street, and the adoption of a representational form of Town Meeting.

So why care about Clarence Bunker today? Well, we’re in crisis mode right now. Residential development — specifically, speculative building — has been out of control for the last decade. And to make matters worse, few people seem to be giving any critical thought about the consequences — financial and otherwise — that the town will face if we can’t get it under control. (Read the February 5, 2015 issue of this column for an expanded discussion of this subject.)

If anything, the life of Clarence Bunker can teach us two important lessons. First and foremost, the Town of Wellesley can overcome obstacles. We’ve done it before and we have the ability to do it again. But perhaps just as crucial, Bunker and his fellow associates provide a model for sane and intelligent development.

Consider the aforementioned subdivision by the Wellesley Associates. In total, 12 houses were constructed on Washington Street, Oakland Street, Woodlawn Avenue, and Worcester Street between 1907 and 1916. Ten of them were built on speculation. That said, these associates didn’t make a killing off this enterprise. Rather, their primary motivation was to invest in the town by adding a cluster of attractive residences along a few of Wellesley’s most travelled roads, thereby strengthening the reputation of the town as Wellesley the Beautiful within the minds of those who passed through.

Now compare these residences to some of the spec houses built today. While the older homes — with their appropriate proportions, classical features, and high level of detail and craftsmanship — still hold up a century later, many new spec houses lose their desirability within five to ten years. But is this a surprise to anyone? A significant number of these spec houses, after all, were built using plans from online builder catalogs where anyone can obtain a full set of architectural plans for less than $1000 with nothing more than a credit card.

Of course, nobody is suggesting that we forbid speculative building. But what is taking place in neighborhoods throughout Wellesley right now is the antithesis of the principles that guided our forefathers in their development of Wellesley a century ago.

Surely, Clarence A. Bunker, Isaac Sprague, and their fellow citizens would have been able to determine a solution that puts Wellesley on a path that is both prosperous and sustainable. Can we do so as well?