The Cliff Estates

Beth Hinchliffe writer

C for Cypress Road. L for Lowell. A for Albion. P for Peirce.

When Albion Clapp started developing the land off Cliff Road more than a century ago, he decided to lay out roads that would spell out his last name. It was a whimsical gesture from a man better known for his level-headed practicality, but, despite the fact that he never developed the land that was to represent the second “P,” the area has nonetheless become a kind of memorial to him.

“For most of the 1900s, really, when people outside town talked about Wellesley, they meant ‘the Cliff Estates’,” says Barbara Shelton, who was born there in 1915 and spent the first half of her life calling the neighborhood home. “Elegance, careful planning, scrumptious landscaping, enormous yards, lots of woods, privacy, unique and magnificent homes, the very finest quality of life. That’s what the Cliff Estates was all about. And that’s what most people came to think Wellesley was all about.”

It wasn’t always that way. In 1699, when the first English farmers wanted to spread out from the mother town of Dedham to claim their own homesteads, town leaders carved 100-acre parcels for each settler in the area that’s now north of Route 9. These land grants, some with the ancient Indian paths still winding through them, were known as “the Hundreds.”

For nearly two centuries they remained primarily untouched, except where spots were cleared for farming, and were home to only a handful of families. Then, after the Civil War, young Albion Clapp moved to town with a vision and started buying up land. By 1881, he made headway into the cliff by sculpting the start of the road that would eventually become known as “Cliff Road,” and began to build the streets and homes that we know today.

He was crafting another vision at the same time. As one of the committee of 25 which led the successful fight for Wellesley’s separation from Needham (most of it headquartered at Clapp’s home at 11 Cliff Road), he took his place as a leader of the proud new government of his proud new town.

The residents were determined to leave their rural past behind and roar full-steam into the 20th century, with the finest, most modern, and most far-sighted civic amenities available. A Boston newspaper started referring to Wellesley as “the town that gets what it wants.” In the first few years of existence, the town had introduced gas to homes (although some residents demurred, fearful it would “kill our wives’ houseplants”). The first municipal water system was also introduced, along with concrete sidewalks, a new fire station (a building that was used for nearly a century), and a public trolley car system.

And Clapp was behind each of these innovations. Clapp even had the first telephone in Wellesley, which had been invented by a neighbor named Alexander Graham Bell, and introduced the gadget by throwing a telephone party at his house. His mansion became a showplace, known for being the first to have central heating and the “shocking novelty” of not one, but two bathrooms. Ten thousand square feet of trees and shrubs planted around the house enhanced its glamour.

But Clapp’s most important legacy was shepherding in an era of careful, conscious development, and defining the look of the growing town. With a vision far ahead of his time, whenever he sold lots or acreage he imposed strict rules that were the equivalent of his own zoning laws, regulating the minimum price, size, and setback of homes. Although Wellesley didn’t have a landmark Colonial green like Lexington, or stately historic homes like Concord, through Clapp’s vision this village began to develop its own identity. By 1900, Boston newspapers were calling Wellesley “the most beautiful” and “wealthiest” town.

Because of the influx of new businessmen who no longer wanted to use the decrepit shack that had served as the railroad station, a new Farms Station was built in 1894, designed by Boston architect H.H. Richardson, who pioneered the “Richardsonian Romanesque” movement and designed Trinity Church in Copley Square, among other fine buildings in the area. Frederick Law Olmsted, considered to be the father of American landscape design, created the grounds around the station, where many of the original rhododendrons planted then can still be seen today. Today, the station is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

At the turn of the century, Booker T. Washington chose to send his son to Rock Ridge Hall, a private boys’ school set on the peak of the Cliff Road hill and founded in 1899 by George White, the husband of Clapp’s daughter Irma Mary. Its brochure stated that the area “is absolutely free from all evil influences which tend to corrupt youth.” (Except, perhaps, the reported ghost of a victim murdered by the school’s cook, whose unearthly shrieks reportedly terrified the students and staff.)

By 1908, Good Housekeeping was profiling the increasingly well-known neighborhood, noting that its housekeepers were “high class” (paid $3.50 to $7.00 per week), that DeFazio’s market delivered food twice a week right to the door, and that residents enjoyed “easy walks to lovely paths in deep woods.” A few years later, to ensure preservation of its emerging identity, Wellesley enacted the 1914 Town Building Law which essentially codified Clapp’s zoning provisions, becoming the first town in the United States to adopt “big city” building laws. In 1926 it carried this even further by designing and passing the remarkably far-sighted Zoning Act, to guarantee “pleasing attractiveness” and balance in the appearance of its neighborhoods. Wellesley had deliberately chosen to become a suburb where quality of life was pre-eminent, and its leaders painstakingly nurtured its growth.

Development in the Cliff Estates, as the area had come to be known, exploded in the 1920s and 1930s, when the majority of the homes were built. Clapp’s son, Albion Billings, took over for his father after his death in 1928, and soon others were involved too, including developers (and longtime Wellesley residents) Isaac Sprague (who also developed the Abbott Road area, and for whom Sprague School is named) and George Haynes (whose son G. Arnold carried on his tradition throughout the rest of the 20th century). Architects ranging from nationally-renowned Royal Barry Wills (whose re-interpreted Cape Cod-style homes were instantly recognizable) to Wellesley resident Warren Rodman (who designed the original Maugus Club) were also part of the scene.

“We were the last of the children who could wander through the untouched land, eating wild blueberries till we thought we’d burst, and in winter bringing our sleds and hatchets into the woods to cut our family Christmas trees,” Barbara Shelton recalls of her childhood in the 1920s. “By the time I was in my early teens, everywhere I looked there was another lot being cleared, another house going up, another batch of children moving in.” The shack where Old Man Potter, Clapp’s woodchopper, cut 500 cords a season, was replaced in the 1930s by homes on the new Edmunds Road.

To absorb all of the children of the hundreds of new families who were arriving, the town built a new school (designed by Wellesley architect William H. Brainerd) and named it after Dr. Seldon (“Pa”) Brown, the town’s high school principal for 30 years, who lived next door to the new building at 22 Colburn Road. During excavation, for the playground, workers discovered a large Native American fire pit, just off what had been an old trail.

When Brown School opened in 1924, there was nothing but woods toward Cliff Road and Weston; however, within ten years it looked like a different place, with neatly laid out roads, scores of new homes, and so many more children that there was already talk of a new addition. Eventually closed because of another shift in population, in 1985 Brown began a new life housing luxury condominiums.

“Brown was a wonderful neighborhood school, and the whole area was a wonderful neighborhood,” says Deb Otis, who grew up there in the 1950s and 60s. “There is richness in the memories—yards filled with huge, gnarled old trees for tree houses and climbing. Lots of big families spilling out of great big houses filled with exciting secret passageways and nooks and crannies for hide-and-seek. [We had] a cozy neighborhood school we could walk or bike to, Brownies’ meetings at my friends’ houses, Christmas caroling parties. It really was the best of places, and the best of times.”

In 1957, when the popularity of the area had grown so much that Brown was at its bursting point, the town commissioned another local architect, Robert Bastille, to create a new school. Named after Ernest Upham, the former head of Wellesley High School’s history department (who died just before the building was completed), Upham now has 255 students in grades K through 5, and is known by many in the community for its wildly popular annual “gently-used” sports equipment sale.

Over the years, the Cliff Estates have been home to a fascinatingly eclectic group of residents. Francis Ouimet captivated the nation when, in 1913 as a 20-year-old amateur, he came out of nowhere to defeat the British champions and win the US Open; revered for making golf an accessible sport for the average American, he was recently portrayed by Shia LaBeouf in a movie about his life.

In 1917, Mary Bunker, who had grown up here racing her horse against the afternoon train in Boston, founded Wellesley’s first Girl Scout troop in her home at the corner of Chestnut and Cliff; the local Girl Scout camp named in her honor was enjoyed by generations of Wellesley girls.

In the 1930s, little Anne Harvey, who walked every day to Brown School from her Garden Street home, later grew up to be Anne Sexton and received a Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Keeping her beloved Colburn Road home her base for 30 years, Margaret Heckler led a political life that took her from being Wellesley’s Congresswoman to serving in President Ronald Reagan’s Cabinet as Secretary of Health and Human Services, and finally to being the US Ambassador to Ireland. In the 1960s, Jeff Sagansky was the gangly redhead named “Most Popular Boy” at Wellesley High; years later, as president of CBS Entertainment he helped develop The Cosby Show, Cheers, and Touched by an Angel, and later became president of Tri-Star and Sony Pictures.

And throughout the 1980s, Dennis Johnson used to commute from his Albion Road home to the Boston Garden, where he won championship rings with the Boston Celtics.

But the true value of the neighborhood has not been found in its celebrity nor the prices of its homes; it has been in the tapestry of daily family life. “When we were moving, we looked at this home, and made the decision to buy it within 20 minutes,” says Jill Nilsen. “For us, this just matched all the images of what a neighborhood should be. And it’s always lived up to that first impression of being a wonderful place to live—it’s quiet but still full of life; there are big yards where children and dogs can play; it’s beautiful because people take a lot of pride in their grounds; and, most importantly, we’re surrounded by wonderful neighbors who have become good friends.”

For Gina Wickwire, her home belongs not only to her family, but also to history, because it had been built by Francis Ouimet, using Royal Barry Wills as his architect. The Wickwires’ bookcases were his trophy cases; they named their dog “Mamie” to commemorate the fact that President Eisenhower stayed overnight in one of the guest bedrooms; she tends the daylilies that Ouimet himself planted; and they have greatly respected the home’s historical integrity.

“We appreciate the legacy and responsibility we hold,” she says. “It would destroy the lines of the house if we tried to renovate or add on, so we would never do that. The architectural details, the slate roof, Ouimet’s story—they’re what drew us to the house, and we were absolutely thrilled to get it. We take this stewardship seriously.”
Another resident with a unique position as both resident and guardian is Allyson Hayward, an internationally-known landscape historian, who “inherited a woodland treasure” on their two acres of grounds, and maintains and enjoys it with the help of her three golden retrievers.

“This is such a beautiful, quiet, wonderful neighborhood to live in,” she says. “We moved here because it was so lovely, had a great school, and because we liked our neighbors and the way they respected and cared for their homes.” Some of her favorite memories are of the golf tournaments they set up over a succession of neighboring lawns, using kiddie pools for the water holes.

Gina Wickwire notes that the area is not a “stopping off place.” “You buy your grown-up home and stay here for thirty, forty, or fifty years, so your neighbors become your family,” she says. They share block parties, new neighbor welcome parties, trick-or-treating, and Christmas caroling.

And it also includes a unique trove of unspoiled beauty. “This is an idyllic place to bring up children, and they love to discover the many natural treasures,” says Jill Nilsen. That includes not only ice-skating on Abbott Pond, but also exploring the Carisbrooke Reservation (the trail begins at the end of Glen Brook Road), the Rockridge Pond Trail (off Hundreds Circle), and, most especially, the Devil’s Slide.

The Devil’s Slide, located off Greenwood Road behind 44 Bradford, is a steep natural thrill ride that’s closer than Six Flags. Made of 650-million-year-old Dedham granite that was smoothed and positioned by a glacier passing through here 13,000 years ago, it’s been the favorite secret tradition passed down from generation to generation of children who love to clamor up the hill and then slide their way back down.

“My father was always so proud of the Cliff Estates,” says Barbara Shelton. “He felt that he and his friends had really crafted something special here, something that set the tone for the whole of the town. They had the chance to create the most perfect place to live, and they did it. He loved it here until the day he died.”

Summer 2023