The Church Fire that modernized the Wellesley Fire Department

The following article appeared in the Wellesley Townsman on September 3, 2015.


The Village Church in Wellesley Square (1872 – 1916)
Source: Wellesley: An Illustrated Poem (1898)

You get what you pay for. Or more precisely, when it came to Wellesley’s firefighting efforts during the 1910s, you don’t get what you don’t pay for.

More than a few times that decade, Wellesley’s voters ignored the fire chief’s recommendations to purchase a vehicular pumping engine that could assist the department in battling blazes. The consequence: numerous fires that shouldn’t have been as serious as they were.

The most dramatic example, of course, was the destruction of Wellesley College’s main building, College Hall, in 1914. You’d think that a fire that almost single-handedly forced the closure of the world-renowned institution would move the townspeople to modernize their fire department.

Think again. It wasn’t until nearly three years later, on the evening of December 30, 1916, that Wellesley citizens finally got the memo that their fire department was ill-equipped to do its job. It was on that night that the Village Church, in the heart of Wellesley Square, burned to the ground.

The origin of the Wellesley Fire Department dates to 1886, just five years after the Town’s incorporation. It was established for the simple reason that, for Wellesley to maintain its place as one of Boston’s finest suburbs, it had to provide safety and protection for its citizens. From the beginning, there were three companies: Wellesley Square (Hose 1), Wellesley Hills (Hose 2), and Lower Falls (Hose 3). Each company, however, was stationless until the 1890s; their equipment instead was stored in the stables where the horses that pulled the hose wagons were kept.

This situation hadn’t changed all that much In Wellesley Square by the mid-1910s. Although Wellesley’s first fire station was built in this village in 1891 — on Church Street nearly opposite the end of Waban Street — few improvements had been made during the intervening years. When firefighters at Hose 1 got word of a fire, they had to run over to Diehl’s stables on Central Street at the corner of Crest Road (on the site of Peet’s Coffee & Tea), bring the horses back to the station, hook them up to the hose and ladder wagons, and ride to the scene of the blaze. Their success was therefore largely dependent on how long it took the Hose 2 men to show up with their vastly superior, albeit still imperfect equipment.

So why was the Wellesley Fire Department so ill-equipped? Two words: low taxes. Wellesley has always prided itself on its low property tax rate. But during the first two decades of the 20th Century, its residents and officials were borderline miserly when it came to the budget. Each request from the fire chief for more men or better firefighting equipment was therefore met with absolute resistance from the voters.

Take for instance, in 1915, upon another rejected request for improved equipment, the fire chief and two members of his force had to construct their own motorized hose truck by fitting the body of an old sleigh on a truck chassis that had been purchased secondhand. This only six months after an electrical fire nearly destroyed the Alice L. Phillips Grammar School on Seaward Road.

Another cost saving measure taken by the Town that same year was to enter into a mutual aid arrangement with the City of Newton, whereby Wellesley’s Hose 3 would respond to all fires on the Newton side of Lower Falls, and vice versa with the Newton Lower Falls company for fires in Wellesley Lower Falls. The Town could also request the services of a motorized pumping engine from West Newton for larger fires anywhere within its borders.

To many taxpayers, this looked like a good deal. Extra service for little money. But it ended up costing the town the Village Church.

Completed in 1872, this wooden gothic structure was the architectural centerpiece of Wellesley Square. Much of its commanding presence and form could be credited to Henry Durant, one of the members of the church’s building committee, and who was already in the midst of constructing College Hall for the female seminary that would open three years later. Besides contributing one-fifth of the building costs, Durant was able to acquire the services of Boston architect Hammatt Billings — whose work included College Hall — to design the church.

Durant had a clear motive. First, he wanted free access to the church should the college require it for services or special ceremonies. But perhaps more importantly, Durant hoped the architecturally striking church could make a profound statement on his new students (and their families) as they arrived at the nearby Boston & Albany railroad depot and got a glimpse of Wellesley for the first time.

For 44 years, this church did just that. And perhaps it would still be standing in the square today if not for that fire on a chilly Saturday evening in 1916.

The fire began when an overheated pipe that connected the hot air furnaces to a vent underneath the organ in the main chapel ignited some dry woodwork. In a perfect world, this story should have ended there, as the only two people in the building quickly discovered the smoke and flames as they were setting up for Sunday’s service and immediately notified the firefighters who were right around the corner at the Church Street fire station. But the Hose 1 equipment was no match for the fire. Nor was that of Hose 2, who arrived on the scene minutes later. The water pressure was just too low.

Important footnote: Only the previous year, the Fire Department had borrowed a motorized pumping engine to show the residents the importance of acquiring such a piece of equipment. In this demonstration of the apparatus in action, a large stream of water was thrown approximately 30 feet above the spire of the Village Church. Alas, the townspeople still declined the purchase.

It was this lack of foresight that sealed the fate of the Village Church. With no pumping engine in Wellesley, the firefighters had to wait until the trucks from West Newton and Waltham arrived. But by then it was too late. The Village Church was engulfed in flames. The only job at that point was to stop the fire from spreading to the rest of Wellesley Square.

So did Wellesley officials go out the next day and purchase a pumping engine? Well, not exactly. At the next Annual Town Meeting, in the spring of 1917, the residents voted to approve a request to purchase a motorized pumping engine but immediately reversed that vote and opted to defer any action until a committee could study the matter further.

Seven months later, the United States entered into the Great War and the issue of supplying the Wellesley Fire Department with improved equipment was tabled. It wasn’t until 1920 when Town Meeting could finally appropriate $12,500 to purchase a new pumping engine. A slowdown by the manufacturer — the highly regarded Seagrave Co. of Ohio — delayed the arrival of the truck until the following January.

Thus marked a turning point in the effectiveness of Wellesley’s Fire Department. No longer was the town reliant on other communities for help in battling fires.

Furthermore, it served as a case in point for many townspeople that you had to spend money to provide Wellesley with the services expected of any modern suburb. Sure, extreme fiscal conservatives may have disagreed. But it was obvious to enough people that the consequences of not doing this could be disastrous.