“A Restricted Residence of Unusual Beauty”

Beth Hinchliffe writer
Larry Buckley photographer

On October 23, 1880, a group of farmers and businessmen traveled by horseback, carriage, and foot along a dirt path now known as Forest Street. These residents of West Needham (as Wellesley was then called) were headed to the Town Hall/Poor Farm on a nearby hill to cast their vote for what would become an historic turning point for their town and neighbors. They pushed their way past the men from East Needham (now known as Needham), and entered the hall for what would turn out to be the most heated, dramatic, and important town meeting in Wellesley’s history. The issue to be debated? Whether to separate West Needham from East Needham and form a new town. In a few hours the vote was cast, and the decision to split was won.

Someone retracing their steps today will still see the building to which these men made their way that chilly Saturday evening. But not for long. The birthplace of the Town of Wellesley, in 1910 transformed from the Town Hall/Poor Farm into the Wellesley Country Club clubhouse, is now scheduled for demolition.

However, even though it’s losing its anchor, the Country Club neighborhood still fiercely holds onto its identity as what a 1910 piece in The Wellesley Townsman called “a restricted residence of unusual beauty.” Soon after Wellesley became a town, the first of hundreds of spacious homes was built here. Located at what is now 10 Livermore Road, the first home in the neighborhood belonged to John Hardy, a Selectman for whom the Hardy School was named.

But it wasn’t until near the turn of the 20th century that this acreage of farms and untouched woods (the triangle bounded by Washington Street, Abbott Road, and Wellesley Avenue) started to become the heart of Wellesley’s emergence as “an exclusive and desirable home for Boston’s business elite,” as the Boston Traveler called it a century ago. And it was due to the vision and eccentricities of two men: Judge Josiah Abbott and Isaac Sprague Jr..

According to Wellesley writer Gamaliel Bradford, the impression Abbott (US Congressman, former state legislator, and one-time gubernatorial candidate) gave was “one of extreme official dignity. He fairly reeked with dignity.”

Abbott started buying land in his hometown at the end of the Civil War, and by the time of his death in 1891 he had acquired 215 acres, which his children then decided to develop. This ushered in a remarkable 30-year period of development in Wellesley. They called the area “Belvedere” after the name of the home where they were born and raised, which in Italian means “fair view.” A sign for it still stands at the corner of Abbott Road and Washington Street today.

What was extraordinary about the Abbotts’ plan was its foresight. Long before anyone dreamed of what would come to be called “zoning laws,” the Abbotts created their own, setting strict rules for lot size (31,000 square feet), setbacks, distance from side and rear lines, and minimum home costs.

The Belvedere Estates were landscaped by the Olmsted brothers (whose work included Central Park in New York City). The development of Belvedere began with 209 lots on eleven streets, including Fletcher (named after Abbott’s older son), Franklin (Abbott’s other son), and Livermore (Abbott’s wife’s maiden name). The largest and most striking “manor home,” on a hill overlooking the entire area, was 51 Abbott, built in 1902 on a 126,000 square foot lot. More than a century later, it looks almost exactly the same as the earliest photos.

“We grew up with a great sense of the history of the home,” says Stanley Pratt, whose grandchildren are currently the sixth generation of the family to live in the house, bought by Pratt’s grandfather, Waldo. “With 17 rooms, a greenhouse, a floor for the maids, a carriage house, our own pond for hockey, and our own hill for sledding, we always had great places to play. We were the center of the neighborhood.”

In 1909, Isaac Sprague Jr. took over where the Abbotts left off and guided the neighborhood’s development through the building boom of the 1920s. (Sprague School is named for him.)

Sprague continued and refined the building restrictions imposed by the Abbotts, which in 1926 inspired the town to adopt the first official zoning bylaws in the country. His were the most expensive homes in town, which he proudly advertised on the front page of the Townsman as “a community of homes enjoying the delights of attractive natural conditions, open grounds, and good air … covered with oaks and pines.”

Part of the development’s early popularity was that resident businessmen could walk down to the Hills railroad station or the Washington Street trolley for the ride into Boston. The houses had carriage houses in front and stables behind them, and sometimes a horse would get loose, so the boys would chase it along the dusty, unpaved roads. Later, around 1910, the motorcar had won increasing popularity, and when a wife ran off with a chauffeur, it caused quite a scandal.

Eventually the development expanded beyond the Abbotts’ land to reach south of Forest Street to Wellesley Avenue, including the addition of the Whiting farm, leading to streets named after the family’s sons: Alden, Allen, Ordway, and Sumner; and, of course, Whiting Road itself.

Today, the unofficial mayor of the area is Don Puffer, who at 98 has lived in the same house on Abbott Road since he was a few months old. “As children, we’d walk down to the Shaw School on Washington Street, then later to the Phillips School (now Phillips Park),” Puffer recalls.

“Growing up, it was a great place for a boy to play. When it was time for dinner, a whistle would bring us home from the woods trapping for skunks, or shooting clay pigeons from the Herseys’ porch, or sneaking off to see the Bakers’ pigs (and coming home reeking of the scent), or watching the chickens at the Ferhens’ farm on what’s now the Babson campus.”

Children went birding with their fathers in what is now Windsor Road, and in the winter they skated on the little pond off what became Lincoln Circle and coasted on the hill that’s now Livermore Road. On Sundays neighbors would congregate at the Pratts’ house, where Waldo Pratt gave concerts on the enormous pipe organ he had installed at the foot of the ornately carved wooden staircase.

The center of the neighborhood was the Maugus Club, a huge wooden landmark built in 1897. The fathers bowled; the sons’ first jobs were as pin-setters. Entire families went to the club’s plays, and children celebrated their birthdays there, with great kegs of ice cream from Gramkow’s in the square. Saturday nights the place was alive with squash games, billiards, dinners, and parties, and during the week, the formidable Mrs. Ferguson taught the youth of Wellesley how to dance.

But the Maugus Club closed in the summer. For many years around the turn of the century, the favorite hot-weather activity had been the Perrin family’s little golf course on land off Arlington Road. With golf so popular, when the town decided it no longer needed the old Town Hall/Poor Farm, the Wellesley Hills Golf Club lobbied to lease, and then buy, the building and 66 acres. In 1910 the Wellesley Country Club was created, and Abbott Road resident Harrison Plympton served as its first President.

Puffer’s eyes light up as he describes the nearly 100 years he has spent at the club, as the son of a charter member and then a member himself. “What a place, what a wonderful place, what memories,” he says. “It’s where I learned to play golf, where I grew up, where I met my friends, where I still go almost every day.” Boys cut through the woods in their back yards to play pick-up games on the course; it was simply a part of the neighborhood’s fabric.

But not everything was rosy in Wellesley in the first half of the century. Every weekend one could see families making a sad little parade the length of Abbott Road to visit their sick children at the Children’s Hospital’s Convalescent Home on Forest Street, located where the Babson campus is now. Nearby, off Forest Street, the Channing Sanitarium for “mental and nervous ailments,” was housed in 10 buildings and 50 acres. Both the hospital and the sanitarium closed in the 1950s and were bought by Babson College.

Roger Babson, who lived at 31 Abbott Road, is looked upon as one of Wellesley’s most iconic figures. Considered to be the father of financial forecasting, he was also an educational visionary who, in 1919, in his home, began the Babson Institute (now College). Four years later, he moved it to the meticulously manicured, colonial white and brick Georgian campus he built on 450 acres on Forest Street and Wellesley Avenue. In designing it, he said that it should be “just as attractive a hundred years hence.”

In 1953, tragedy struck when the Maugus Club caught fire. “I woke up and looked out my window and across the street the Maugus Club was on fire. I saw the whole thing burn,” recalls Stanley Pratt. Hundreds gathered to watch helplessly as the heart of their neighborhood went up in flames. A woman who witnessed the fire was quoted in The Boston Globe in the following days as saying, “everybody who was anybody was there.”

Despite the loss, the area flourished mid-century, revolving around three people who were beloved fixtures in the neighborhood: Rip and Polly Lyman (he was a doctor who practiced out of their 1820s farmhouse, which she opened up to all the children and became a second mother to them), and Herbert Tabbut, the town veterinarian, who let children play in his enormous barn and hayloft.

Notables who grew up in the neighborhood include President George H.W. Bush’s powerful budget director Dick Darman, and NBC medical editor and author Bob Arnot. Over the years, the area has also been home to the Celtics’ Danny Ainge, the Bruins’ Johnny Pierson, legendary Wellesley High teacher Wilbury Crockett, and Nobel Prize winner Dr. Joseph Murray, who has lived in the area for 60 years.

Selectman Gig Babson has lived in the same house on Clovelly Road since she was six months old. She remembers growing up in the 1950s and 1960s with “fantastically beautiful” catalpa trees lining the streets, and wide open spaces everywhere.

“It was, and is, a great place to grow up,” she says. “I loved the freedom to go and spend hours by the brook, biking everywhere, playing baseball until dark in the field on Caroline Road, sliding down the Pratts’ incredible hill in the wintertime, climbing the trees in the apple orchards across the street, and finding Indian pipe in the woods.” She also created adventures, including printing her own newspaper, The Clovelly Road Weekly starting in sixth grade. She sold ads and subscriptions, and earnestly reported on everything she overheard, “which kept the neighbors on their toes.”

Fifty years later, the neighborhood still looks and feels the same. “I went to college at Babson in the 1960s,” says Babson’s current President Brian Barefoot. “It’s very special to be able to return as its eleventh president and drive around the same streets and see that the area has not changed in forty years.”

That has been a conscious choice. “People move here because they cherish these older homes, and really want to take care of them,” says Mary Beth Sandman, who “fell in love with the neighborhood and the sense of history” and so moved to Abbott Road 25 years ago and never wants to leave. “People are very good about trying to maintain the look of their homes. If you buy one, you’re trying to preserve history, to make a commitment and a contribution.”

Few, if any, of the original century-old homes have been torn down, and renovations have been done carefully and subtly, so that as you walk the streets you could be stepping right back into the world that Isaac Sprague created.

“It’s wonderful to see the respect that people have for the history of the houses and the neighborhood,” says Selectman Owen Dugan, who has lived in his 1914 home on Forest Street for 33 years. “And people choose this neighborhood carefully, so they tend to stay here a long time.”

The streets feel full of life, with many children, “so there’s always somebody to play with after school, or to help you set up lemonade stands,” says Mary Beth Sandman. There are carol sings at Christmastime, open houses to watch fireworks from widows’ walks, a Labor Day block party, a June cookout on Livermore park, progressive dinners, and neighborhood New Year’s Eve parties. Children now go to Fiske School instead of Shaw, Phillips, or Kingsbury, but they still sled down the hill off Lincoln Road, skate on the same little pond that’s now on the golf course’s third hole, walk and jog through the Babson campus, and explore the Brook Path next to the rebuilt Maugus Club.

“It was a great place to bring up three boys,” says Owen Dugan. “There are an awful lot of nice people who are genuinely concerned about their neighbors.”

That concern has translated into political action, when they felt that the atmosphere of the neighborhood was being threatened. In recent years, residents have come together to protest the closing, and subsequent development, of Phillips School; to oppose the creation of accessory apartments which would have increased the population density; and to create Centennial Park conservation land to the north of Abbott and Windsor Roads. Many of the residents support making the area an Historic District, to guarantee that the area’s unique appearance and history will be preserved.

“It’s a stately neighborhood, and the houses are so magnificent and kept up consistently well over the years,” Gig Babson says. “It’s very special that people are so interested in the architecture and history. What’s remarkable is how as new people come in, they still really work hard to maintain the character of the neighborhood.
“We are stewards of a unique part of Wellesley’s history, and we’re privileged to maintain that legacy for generations to come.”

Summer 2023