Failed grand plan for Hunnewell Field

The following article appeared in the Wellesley Townsman on March 17, 2016.

Proposed fieldhouse for Hunnewell Field in late-1920s (Source: Town Clerk archives)

Proposed fieldhouse for Hunnewell Field in late-1920s
(Source: Town Clerk archives)

If all goes according to plan, the rather unassuming fieldhouse located in the middle of Hunnewell Field just south of the crosstown trail will soon meet the proverbial wrecking ball, to be replaced by a new building containing modern restroom and maintenance facilities.

This may not be news given the relative insignificance of the project. Indeed, many readers may not even know what building we’re talking about. But it does give us the perfect excuse to discuss a failed campaign nearly 90 years ago to build a much more substantial fieldhouse on Hunnewell Field, a structure that would have been on par with other architectural jewels constructed by the Town in the 1920s, such as Hardy Elementary School or the Hills Branch Library.

The campaign to build the fieldhouse began in 1927 when a committee of five residents was formed by a vote at Town Meeting to “investigate the advisability of erecting on Hunnewell Field a field house, with suitable toilet arrangements, lockers, etc. to be used as a part of the recreational facilities of the town…”

Why a fieldhouse? The answer to that question requires a broader understanding of our athletic and recreational facilities at the time. Although it may be true that there was lots of undeveloped land in Wellesley where children and adults could play a game of pickup baseball or hold a track meet, there were few public spaces devoted to recreation. Hunnewell Field and the Cedar Street playground (now the site of Schofield Elementary School) were the only large-scale playing fields. But these facilities weren’t anywhere close to adequate. Envision a grassy field, perhaps one that isn’t all that level, maybe somewhat overgrown with weeds, and quite muddy in low spots.

The town’s leaders recognized that this had to change. Wellesley was quickly evolving into an affluent suburb, and modern athletic facilities were an expectation of its residents. Hunnewell Field — the largest and most convenient playing field in town — was an obvious candidate for the role of recreation center.

Of course, we’re not just talking about improved grounds; also in the plans were tennis courts, a swimming pool, and a skating rink.

The construction of a fieldhouse, however, was what was needed to initiate this transformation of Hunnewell Field into a recreational paradise. With its locker rooms, restrooms, and storage spaces, a fieldhouse would give residents and local sport teams what had been lacking at Hunnewell Field and encourage around-the-year use of these athletic facilities.

Enter the main door into the 5000-square-foot fieldhouse and you would step into a 30-foot square “warming room” appropriately featuring a 10-foot-wide fireplace to help athletes warm up after long practices and games during the colder seasons.

On each side of the warming room were separate changing rooms, bathrooms, and shower rooms for the official school athletic teams for boys and girls, respectively. These spaces presumably would be shared by Junior and Senior High School teams, as both schools used Hunnewell Field for their athletic programs and neither school was located nearby. (The Junior High was then housed at Phillips School on Seaward Road, and the Senior High was located at the current site of the Middle School.)

Downstairs in the basement of the fieldhouse were similar facilities for the visiting school teams and local club teams, in addition to large storage areas.

Function was obviously important, as this fieldhouse had to meet the recreational needs of the town for years to come. But the architects — J. Williams Beal & Sons, whose other works in Wellesley included the 1938 Hunnewell Elementary School — didn’t forget about form. The Fieldhouse Committee clearly noted, special attention was given “to make sure that it is a thing of beauty as well as utility, believing that this is the wish of Wellesley citizens for all their public buildings.”

Alas, this fieldhouse never left the drawing board. Initial failure was primarily due to fiscal conservatism on the part of the Town. With all the other construction going on — schools, a fire station, bridges, etc. — there just wasn’t enough appetite to build a fieldhouse. The proposal was thus tabled.

But the idea to construct a fieldhouse never died. Instead, it was incorporated into a much larger plan by the Park Commission in its proposed transformation of Hunnewell Field into the aforementioned rec center.

The odds looked good even after the construction of the 1938 High School to the south of Hunnewell Field. Then World War II began and nearly all Town projects were put on hold. When municipal construction resumed post-war, Wellesley’s vision for Hunnewell Field had changed. With the development of the Sprague playing fields, a rec center at Hunnewell Field no longer seemed a high priority.

Eventually, however, Hunnewell Field got its fieldhouse — during the summer of 1957 to be precise. But this structure paled in comparison to the 1920s proposal. Instead it was basically a storage shed and outhouse. Which is why few people even know that this fieldhouse will soon disappear forever.