The Simons Estate: An analogy for the North 40’s future

The following article appeared in the Wellesley Townsman on January 7, 2016.

Simons Estate as shown on the 1897 Atlas of Wellesley

Simons Estate as shown on the 1897 Atlas of Wellesley

You can hear it if you listen real closely. Amidst all the noise generated by the Town Manager debate, the Hardy-Hunnewell-Upham discussion, and a possible 900 Worcester Street sports complex, people around town — residents and officials alike — are quietly talking about what we could possibly do with the newly acquired North 40.

This isn’t surprising at all. The Town paid $35 million for the 46-acre parcel last year, and given the scarcity of available land, people certainly want to know how it’s going to be used. Will the land remain as open space? Or is there development in its future?

This article can’t answer these questions. But perhaps our town’s history can help guide the process should there be a study of the North 40 in the near future.

See, Wellesley has been through this exact same situation once before. In 1924, the municipal land-starved Town acquired most of the former Simons Estate, the 14-acre tract of land on the south side of Washington Street bounded by Brook and Cameron Streets to the east and west and Fuller Brook Park to the south. It’s the land right across from Town Hall.

The history of the Simons Estate prior to 1924 is not especially relevant here. It is, however, interesting. Owned by the Blanchard/Simons family since 1839, the property for much of that time was just one of a handful of residential estates adjacent to the heart of West Needham village (now Wellesley Square). But for a relatively brief moment, during the occupancy of Stephen Blanchard Simons from 1880 or so until his death in 1897, the estate was what you would call a showplace. The founder of a successful men’s clothing firm in Boston, Simons used his riches to turn the main house — which sat in the center of the property near its highest point on what is now the rear part of the library parking lot — into a 21-room mansion surrounded by landscaped grounds featuring a horseshoe-shaped spring house (opposite Spring Street) and ponds filled with rowboats and ducks. It was on this estate where he would entertain friends and associates, most notably 22nd and 24th U.S. President Grover Cleveland. (The only part of the estate that remains standing today is the gardener’s cottage at 19 Brook Street.)

Flash forward to 1924. Stephen Simons’s widow, Almira, who had quietly occupied the house with her cousin and a few servants after her husband’s death, had passed away four years earlier and an opportunity arose for the Town to purchase the vast majority of the property for $90,000 before her estate’s executor sold it to private interests. Just like the North 40, there was overwhelming support to acquire the Simons Estate. Sure, some residents were gravely concerned about its effect on the tax rate. After all, Wellesley voters at the time were much more fiscally conservative than they are today. But Town Meeting quickly approved the sale.

Then came the process of figuring out what to do with the property. It was a process that would take half a century to complete despite several obvious uses for the land.

The most glaring need came from the fact that Town Hall was bursting at its seams. Not only was this building the administrative center of the town, but it also housed the public library, the police lockup, as well as the only auditorium in the entire town large enough to hold Town Meeting. In fact, the primary motivator to purchase the Simons Estate was so that Town Hall could be turned over to the library and a new town hall would be constructed across Washington Street.

Then there was the issue of parking. Currently, in 2016, there are six public parking lots in the vicinity of Wellesley Square. In 1924, there were none. Yet the automobile had already overtaken the horse and streetcar as the predominant form of road transportation. Add to that the surging resident population of the town, as well as the physical expansion of the Wellesley Square commercial district, and it’s no wonder that cars were everywhere. Increasing the number of parking spaces was critical.

The third and final need for additional land involved Hunnewell School, a crowded and outdated elementary school then located on Central Street between Cross Street and Weston Road. Perhaps the more relevant issue here was not the poor condition of the building, but rather the fact that Central Street had begun its evolution from a primarily residential country road into a busy thoroughfare lined with commercial blocks. It was no place for a schoolhouse.

Despite the straightforwardness of these needs, explaining how Wellesley came to decide what the Simons Estate would be used for is an exercise in frustration. Never did Town officials divide up the land and say, “OK, we’ll reserve this area for a parking lot and that area for a school, etc.” Rather, the property was treated similarly to how a person would treat his or her 401(k). Don’t touch it unless you absolutely have to.

This isn’t to say that there weren’t constant suggestions from individual residents, boards, and committees about how to use the land. In particular, there was the Committee of Nine, a Town Moderator-appointed group of nine of Wellesley’s elite — chaired at first by none other than Isaac Sprague — that was charged repeatedly during the 1920s and 1930s with making recommendations regarding the Simons Estate.

One idea from this committee that nearly came to be in the early 1930s was to construct a series of classically designed municipal buildings — including a town hall, police station, and auditorium — along a U-shaped roadway off Washington Street. Within the interior of the U-shape, there would be a war memorial and public park.

Sounds like a really neat idea! So why didn’t this happen? Two reasons. First, we were totally preoccupied with other building projects. Between 1923 and 1938, the Town constructed a new senior high school, 7 elementary schools, the Hills branch library, and the Central Street fire station, not to mention a handful of bridges along Washington, Walnut, and Worcester Streets. It was way too much to ask Town officials and residents to consider even more construction.

The second reason related to that. With so many expenditures to cover these building projects — not to mention the hiring of additional teachers and employees, as well as increased fiscal awareness brought on by the Great Depression — Wellesley’s taxpayers weren’t going to approve anything that wasn’t critically important.

That doesn’t mean that the Simons Estate was off-limits. One of those building projects — the 1938 Hunnewell School — required carving out a small area in the southwest corner of the property for a school site. And seven years earlier, in 1931, a small strip of land at the corner of Cameron and Washington Streets was turned into a parking lot. (Both the school grounds and parking lot were expanded years later.)

The first half of the 1940s also saw little activity. But this, too, was understandable. The country was at war. Resources were tight. Attention was focused more on the nation than the town.

Following World War II, the Simons Estate once again became targeted by several building committees, specifically in regards to determining where to locate a new junior high school (then located at the Phillips School on Seaward Road) and a police station (whose headquarters were at the old Church Street fire station). But the Simons property was passed over in both cases. The Town chose to locate these buildings on Kingsbury Street and at the edge of Morton Field, respectively.

And so the Simons Estate just sat there more or less completely undeveloped, this despite a steady stream of ideas continuing to come in through the mid-1950s.

Eventually, however, one of these ideas stuck: move the library out of Town Hall and construct a new library across the street. This would free up Town Hall for departmental offices (most of which had been renting space in downtown Wellesley Square for decades) and give Wellesley the modern library it deserved. This building was completed in 1959.

You’d think that this marked the end of the Simons Estate debate, right? Think again. There was still undeveloped land along its eastern side. So in the early 1970s, there were two separate proposals that called for the construction of a local history museum and a youth center between the library and Brook Street. But they just weren’t seen as worthy enough ideas. That land remains to this day part of Simons Park.

Looking back on it all, you can’t help but feel that what we got on the Simons Estate — a library, parking lot, school, and park — was probably the best possible outcome for the Town of Wellesley. Although it would’ve been nice to have that U-shaped complex of municipal buildings, or several of the other proposed ideas, none of them were truly necessary and could have hurt the Town’s fiscal standing.

So here’s the lesson. Maybe we should approach the North 40 with the same amount of careful thought. If this land is going to be anything other than open space, perhaps we should take 10 or 20 years (or longer) to determine how it should be used. That may be difficult in this on-demand world we live in where results are expected instantaneously. But if anything, the judicious development of the Simons Estate has taught us that patience and sacrifice are requirements for a prosperous and well-planned future.