The following article appeared in the Wellesley Townsman on December 25, 2014.
Isaac Sprague must be rolling over in his grave. Now that the repairs to the Wales Street Bridge have been completed, the man who was instrumental in the design of this structure — and so many of Wellesley’s other landmarks — has to be wondering what’s going on with its new appearance.
Sure, at first glance, not much may seem amiss. Although the original fieldstone parapets were demolished and replaced with new crash-resistant parapets, efforts were taken to try to match the bridge’s original appearance. The only problem was these efforts weren’t enough.
Despite reusing the original granite slabs that topped the old parapets, as well as incorporating the engraved tablet from the original bridge, the stone facing used along the length of the parapets looks nothing like fieldstones. Furthermore, these stones weren’t positioned in such a way to create the illusion that they were supporting each other (such as in a fieldstone wall). In other words, it looks totally fake and doesn’t blend in at all with the lower part of the original bridge that is still intact.
So why does all this matter? Well, whether you knew it or not, the 86-year-old bridge and the site around it is actually quite historic. In fact, the stretch of Walnut Street to the south of the bridge was one of the earliest settled areas in all of Wellesley, the first European colonists arriving there as early as 1704 to establish several mills that took advantage of the water power generated by the large drop in the elevation of the Charles River.
By 1771, the first bridge connecting Wales Street and Walnut Street had been constructed. It was then that these roadways became among the most heavily used in the region, as they were part of the old Sherburne Road, Wellesley’s main thoroughfare that followed Walnut Street from the Newton line to the site of Warren Elementary School and then Washington Street, by and large, to South Natick.
It therefore isn’t surprising that Wales Street — a short road only 200 feet long — became a hub of activity during the 19th Century. On its eastern side was the Wales’s Tavern, one of the more popular social halls in Lower Falls that was frequented by both locals and stagecoach travelers alike prior to its destruction by fire in 1866. And on the road’s western side were a handful of small dwellings in what is now the river’s buffer zone. (Three of those dwellings were moved to Walnut Place off Walnut Street — where two of them are still standing today — when the Metropolitan Park Commission acquired the riverfront land by eminent domain in 1900.)
But what makes the Wales Street Bridge even more significant is that its appearance — prior to the recent modifications — captured what Wellesley was all about during its most formative years. From the time of the Town’s incorporation in 1881 through the 1930s, as Wellesley evolved from a small farming community to arguably the most desirable suburb of Boston, an incredible amount of attention was given to the design and aesthetics of new buildings and structures. Not merely the most important ones, such as Town Hall or the clock tower in Wellesley Hills Square, but also everything else: the houses, commercial buildings, schools, train stations, and even the roads and bridges. There’s a reason Wellesley was known nationwide as Wellesley The Beautiful.
And no one did more to help the town earn that moniker than Isaac Sprague. Quite simply, he believed that the appearance of a town is just as important as the citizens who live there. Perhaps more so, if only because the physical components of a town — the buildings, roads, trees, and parks — will outlive many of us. Build an attractive town and everything else will fall into place.
So it probably goes without saying that we should be more careful in the future. There are numerous older structures in Wellesley whose historic integrity and aesthetic appeal could be compromised if not enough attention is given to the potential impact of repairs and modifications. Just like Isaac Sprague, we need to think long and hard about how to make Wellesley beautiful for generations to come.