Forgotten Wellesley Citizens: John W. Shaw

The following article appeared in the Wellesley Townsman on January 8, 2015.

John W. Shaw (1816 - 1896) Source: Bradford (1928)

John W. Shaw (1816 – 1896)
Source: Bradford (1928)

Villages. They’re not exactly what we associate with Wellesley anymore. After all, nobody talks about Wellesley Square, Wellesley Hills, Lower Falls, and the Fells like they do about, say, Newton’s thirteen villages, which each have strong identities and even some political autonomy.

How this came to be isn’t complicated. Over roughly the last half-century, the efforts undertaken within Wellesley’s political, commercial, and social venues focused more on the entire town rather than on the individual villages. Combine that with the closure of six of our neighborhood elementary schools in the 1970s and 1980s, and it’s no wonder that Wellesley is now viewed by many as simply one homogeneous town.

An unintended consequence of these actions: residents seem to have no appreciation for or understanding of the history of each village.

So let’s now look at one particular village — Wellesley Hills — and one individual who was instrumental in its early development: John W. Shaw.

Why he came to Wellesley Hills is actually a story in and of itself. Two years prior to Shaw’s arrival, on a wintery night in 1852, his brother, prominent Boston merchant George Shaw, and sister-in-law were returning from that city to their home at 402 Linden Street — the large white pillared house at the corner of Clifton Road — when their horse-drawn sleigh was struck by a locomotive at the grade crossing of the Lower Falls Branch of the Boston & Worcester Railroad on Washington Street. Tragically, George Shaw’s injuries were fatal. His wife, however, survived — albeit losing her entire left arm and part of her right hand. Unable to care for herself or her four young children, she called upon John Shaw to relocate to their Linden Street mansion to assist them.

At the time, Wellesley Hills — which was then known as Grantville — was almost nonexistent, consisting of nothing more than a few dozen houses, one or two stores, a church, the Elm Park Hotel, and a railroad depot, all confined to the vicinity of Washington Street between Oakland and Forest Streets.

Over the next four decades, Shaw was active in almost every aspect of the village’s development. Real estate, however, was his primary focus. Although he mostly bought and sold land, Shaw also laid out Laurel Avenue, constructed several stately three-story mansard-roofed residences throughout Grantville (two of which still stand on Laurel Avenue), and helped renovate the Elm Park Hotel.

Shaw also played a pivotal role in the establishment of the Unitarian Society, the village’s second church. In particular, he assisted not just in the day-to-day operations of the Society, but also in its significant undertakings, including the acquisition of its first chapel (since replaced by the current church edifice) as well as the construction of its original parsonage (now 10 Maugus Avenue).

But what truly separates Shaw from other individuals involved in the village’s development was that he — like Isaac Sprague decades later — spared no personal expense to make Grantville one of the most charming and attractive villages in the region. A few of his contributions: the planting of elm trees along Washington Street to improve the streetscape (and the employment of an arborist to care for them), the addition of expensive slate tiles as opposed to regular shingles on the roof of the Unitarian Church’s parsonage, and the establishment of a public park — now known as Shaw Common — at the bend of Laurel Avenue.

His most notable gift, however, was a clock, bell, and globe for the village’s new schoolhouse that was constructed on Forest Street (to the rear of the Community Playhouse) in 1874-75. Not surprisingly, this village landmark became known as the Shaw School.

It would be remiss, however, not to mention one more contribution from Shaw: Wellesley’s independence from Needham. Beginning in the 1850s, he became one of the more vocal residents urging that the West District split off. And he just kept on pushing, eventually serving as one of the representatives of the district who successfully petitioned the Commonwealth in 1880. In large part, because of this, Shaw was chosen as a Selectman when Wellesley was incorporated the following year.

So it’s quite appropriate that in 1928 — three decades after his death — Town leaders honored John W. Shaw once again with the construction of the clock tower (now known as the Sprague Tower) in Wellesley Hills Square on the site of the Elm Park Hotel, reusing the clock and bell that were removed from the Shaw School when it was razed two years earlier. Sure, Grantville had long since given way to what we know as Wellesley Hills. But Shaw’s imprint on the town was still widespread, as he had laid the foundation for enhancing village character throughout Wellesley.

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