The Anchor of Wellesley Hills Square

The following article appeared in the Wellesley Townsman on June 23, 2016.

Isaac Sprague Memorial Tower (Source: 1931 Semi-Centennial Booklet)

Isaac Sprague Memorial Tower
(Source: 1931 Semi-Centennial Booklet)

New York City has the Statue of Liberty. St. Louis has the Gateway Arch. And Wellesley has the Isaac Sprague Memorial Tower.

OK, so maybe our monument isn’t on par with those other landmarks. It doesn’t symbolize freedom or westward expansion. But it does represent something — specifically, the efforts of our forefathers to make Wellesley one of Boston’s most attractive and desirable suburbs.

Officially, the clock tower is a memorial to Isaac Sprague, arguably the most important citizen of Wellesley during the 20th Century and a man whose vision shaped the town’s physical development – in particular, Wellesley Hills — into what we’re familiar with today. According to Sprague, a beautiful town attracts a certain type of resident, one who has not just great wealth, but also the intelligence and wisdom needed to run the town and help it thrive and prosper.

But the clock tower wasn’t originally built as a memorial to Isaac Sprague; he wasn’t dead yet when it was completed in 1928. Rather, it honored John W. Shaw, a resident of Wellesley Hills during the mid-to-late-1800s who, like Sprague, spared no personal expense to make that part of Wellesley one of the most charming villages in New England.

Perhaps Shaw’s greatest contribution was the clock and bell he gave to a new schoolhouse at the corner of Forest and Washington Streets in 1874 — the same clock and bell that are now in the Sprague Memorial Tower. Manufactured by master craftsmen at E. Howard Watch & Clock Co. and William Blake & Co., respectively, the clock and bell were an important feature, not just of the schoolhouse, but of the village itself. It wasn’t just that they marked the passage of time. The bell also chimed on notable occasions: funerals, the return of soldiers from war, major fires, etc. Because of this gift, the schoolhouse was known as the Shaw School.

The impetus for constructing a new memorial for the clock and bell can be traced to 1924, when a proposal was made to relocate them to the new elementary school on Oak Street, as the Shaw School had become derelict and was no longer in use as a schoolhouse. Of course, that never happened; the residents of Wellesley Hills found the plan so unacceptable they gathered 500 signatures on a petition to keep the clock and bell in the village to which they were given. (Isaac Sprague resolved the kerfuffle by gifting a separate clock and bell to the Oak Street School, resulting in the naming of the schoolhouse after him.)

A committee was then formed to find a permanent location in Wellesley Hills for the Shaw School’s clock and bell. Chaired by Sprague, this committee spent the next three years studying various options, including moving it to the Hose 2 station off Worcester Street north of Wellesley Hills Square. This plan, however, proved impractical as the clock’s mechanism was 40 feet long and needed to be hung in a tower to function.

Whoever came up with the idea to construct a clock tower on Elm Park was a genius. First, it’s the most visible spot in Wellesley Hills, at the crossroads of Washington Street and the old Worcester Turnpike. Second, the triangular grassy park — although a pleasant tract of open space — seemed like it was missing something ever since the old Elm Park Hotel that had once stood there was torn down in 1908. And finally, it just so happened that John W. Shaw had lived on this site during the latter years of his life when his relatives owned the hotel. A clock tower at Elm Park was the ideal everlasting tribute to Shaw and the gift he had made to the village half a century earlier.

The architect chosen to design the clock tower was Sprague’s favorite architect: Benjamin Proctor Jr. of Abbott Road. Having already impacted the development of Wellesley Hills via the construction of the Community Playhouse, Kingsbury School and Babson’s Reports Building — not to mention an addition and renovation to the Phillips School and Unitarian Church, as well as numerous residences throughout the Belvedere and Cliff Estates — Proctor was an obvious choice.

The clock tower is of Georgian Revival style — a four-sided structure comprised of local fieldstone that rests on an octagonal platform of bluestone and above which is a classically-designed cupola sitting on a square base with paneled aprons. On top of the cupola is a smaller cupola. And capping that is a weathervane.

In the 88 years that the clock tower has graced Wellesley Hills Square, very little about it has changed. One notable difference: the bell used to chime every hour, even throughout the night. This feature didn’t last long. Numerous residents complained — primarily the newer residents of town, as the old-timers were comforted by the familiar tones made by the striking of the bell.

Another change is the clock tower’s name. Following Sprague’s death in 1934, Town Meeting adopted a resolution to rename the structure the “Isaac Sprague Memorial Tower.”

The landmark truly is something special. In 2007, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places — the official list of the nation’s historic buildings and sites worthy of preservation. But that shouldn’t come as a surprise. Our forefathers knew what they were doing.