“A Town Common of Remarkable Individuality”
Pamela W. Fox writer
Photography Courtesy of Weston Historical Society
Weston center has always been the heart of the town’s religious, civic, and commercial life. While businesses have changed over the years from blacksmith shops to gift shops, their location has remained roughly the same. The “Town Square” is presently in the limelight, as residents consider new uses for the Josiah Smith Tavern and Old Library.
Boston Post Road was the most important transportation route west from Boston in colonial days. When settlers in Watertown’s “Farmer’s Precinct” (now Weston) began building their own church in 1695, they chose a central location on the post road at the intersection of important north-south roads. The original 30-foot-square meetinghouse and its 1722 replacement were used for both religious services and town meetings.
In 1757, Josiah Smith built a tavern across from the meetinghouse. The business prospered as a way station for stagecoaches and teamsters driving animals to market. Josiah’s son enlarged the tavern to include another taproom, large kitchen, and second floor ballroom with curved ceiling.
The early 18th century has been called “the golden age of Weston retailing.” Merchants supplied customers throughout the region until the coming of the railroads. Three generations of the Cutting family operated G.W. Cutting & Sons. The popular general store sold dry goods, grain, agricultural tools, and “virtually everything that the average farm and household needed” except perishable items. The post office was located here as well.
Farmers gathered at Cutting’s each evening. With the excuse of getting the mail or evening paper, they would ride two miles to the village and sit on boxes or barrels for an hour or more, talking about crops, the weather, or town affairs. As late as the 1880s, stagecoaches traveling between Sudbury and Waltham stopped here twice a day to leave passengers, newspapers, and mail. In his book Once Upon a Pung, Brenton H. Dickson III recalled with nostalgia the aroma from the hand-driven coffee grinder and the bins behind the counter, from which sugar, rice, dried fruits and other staples were scooped onto scales.
In 1840, First Parish built a new church in the Greek Revival style. The change created a problem for the town, which had been holding town meetings at First Parish since Weston was incorporated in 1712. To avoid the cost of a separate structure, church and town leaders agreed that the town would pay for a basement in the new building, with a large hall and offices for the selectmen and town assessor. Voters agreed, but the basement was never constructed. After 1840, church and town were finally separated not only in financial matters but also in physical space.
For the next few years, town meetings were held in the ballroom of the former Josiah Smith Tavern. In 1847, the first “Town House” was erected on the site of the 1722 meetinghouse. The Greek Revival building, with its impressive two-story Doric colonnade, served many functions. The first high school was located here from 1854 to 1878. In 1857, the first library opened every other Saturday from 3:00 to 5:00 pm and every Saturday night from 7:00 to 9:00. A meeting hall was used for community events and entertainments. And beginning in the 1890s, the town’s first hook and ladder truck was housed in the basement, which opened out at ground level to the rear. P.J. McAuliffe’s stable on nearby Church Street supplied the horses.
By the early 1880s, the wooden church “had become very shabby” according to a First Parish building committee report, and “not at all creditable to the intelligence and zeal of the society.” After prolonged debate, parishioners voted to build a new edifice of stone, at a cost not to exceed $10,000. One outgrowth of fund-raising was the formation of the First Parish Friendly Society in 1885. Under the leadership of Horace S. Sears, a civic-minded businessman and son of a former minister, the group was formed “to encourage friendly relations among members of First Parish of Weston and to promote the growth and prosperity of said Parish.” While the first entertainments focused on fund-raising, the society soon offered twice-monthly events including theatricals, lectures, variety shows, holiday parties, dances and games, poetry readings, and debates. The active organization added greatly to the social life of the town.
To design the new church, the committee chose eminent Boston architect Robert Peabody, son of the Unitarian minister at King’s Chapel. Peabody’s travels in the early 1880s had introduced him to the small country churches of medieval Britain. His picturesque design for First Parish was well suited to the site, the building requirements, and the church’s pocketbook.
Peabody located the new building closer to the street, which increased its visual impact. The church could not afford a tall tower, so Peabody had to find another place for the clock, which had been donated to the town in 1875 and installed in the steeple of the old church. To landscape the site, the committee chose 28-year-old Charles Eliot, who was already well launched on a short but brilliant career as a landscape architect and champion of open spaces.
The handsome building reflects the increasing wealth of the community in the late 19th century. Another indication of this prosperity was the formation of the Village Improvement Society, which sought to preserve the rustic beauty of the town but also improve it by planting elm trees along the main roads, building sidewalks, installing street lights, and watering the streets to keep dust down in summer.
A black metal watering trough was installed in front of First Parish Church in the mid-1890s, shortly after a town water system was established. The trough stood next to a flagpole on a small circle of cobblestones level with the road surface. Residents and teamsters stopped regularly to water their horses.
Meanwhile, the library in the 1847 Town Hall was bursting at the seams. In trying to determine the best site for a new library, a town committee employed landscape designer Ernest W. Bowditch to create a master plan. The plan was not implemented, but the town did purchase the Cutting family house as a library site. The Tudor-inspired brick library, designed by local resident and architect Alexander Jenney, opened in late 1900. A preservation-minded local resident moved the Cutting house to 36 Church Street.
Just west of the Town Square, in what is now Weston’s commercial district, businesses were interspersed with residences. Across from the present Cambridge Trust Bank, Joel Upham operated a blacksmith shop from 1830 to 1887. In his obituary, he was described as “the best known smithy between Boston and Worcester.” The shop later moved across the street, where it remained until the 1930s.
Farmer Edward Coburn built three interconnected stores on the south side of Boston Post Road, then known as Central Avenue. For many years, a “dry and fancy goods” store, hay and grain dealer, and harness maker were located here. An 1893 fire destroyed the block, which was replaced by the present commercial building. For more than a century, it has housed a hardware store, originally operated by Benjamin R. Parker. The Parkers also repaired bicycles and automobiles and maintained a Socony gas pump out front. Today, Puopolos hardware store still has the original wooden floors and other interior features.
In the years just prior to the town’s Bicentennial, civic pride was high. Leaders were concerned that future growth in the center could bring squalor and congestion, especially with increased automobile traffic. Landscape architect Arthur A. Shurtleff (later Shurcliff) was hired to develop a plan for the Town Square and the swamp behind town hall. Shurtleff had worked in the Brookline office of Frederick Law Olmsted before starting his own firm in 1904. He later served as chief landscape architect for the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg.
Shurtleff’s Town Improvement Plan of 1912 gave Weston its New England town green. Many present-day residents do not realize that this much-loved public space is less than a century old. Reflecting the Olmsted influence, the plan preserved the natural contours of the land and created an open greensward surrounded by scattered groves of native trees and shrubs. By moving a stream underground, Shurtleff was able to dry out the swamp. The new Townhouse Road improved traffic circulation and isolated the four-acre common as a distinct entity. In the 1912 Town Report, he advocated for the plan: “In my opinion, the execution of this scheme would give Weston a Town Common of remarkable individuality and in many respects the finest open space of its kind in the Commonwealth.” He added a warning: “This plan would also guard the town against congestion at the centre. . .and at the same time head off the growth of a slum district in the wet land behind the present town hall.”
As part of the project, two brick Georgian Revival buildings were constructed: the fire station (1914), designed by Alexander Jenney; and Weston Town Hall (1917), designed by the Boston firm of Bigelow and Wadsworth. Horace Sears donated $20,000 for the auditorium, Sears Hall, which was quickly put to use for Friendly Society productions. The old town hall was razed and Cutting’s Store was relocated to the site where the St. Julia’s rectory is today. The horse sheds were rebuilt next to the church. The Town Improvement Plan took about a decade to complete.
First Parish was only the first of several churches built in Weston Center. The Baptist Society has been in its present location since 1828. St. Peter’s Church was constructed in 1917. The Christian Science Society purchased this building after the present St. Peter’s Church was constructed in 1958. St. Julia’s Roman Catholic Church dedicated its handsome stone edifice in 1922.
After construction of Townhouse Road, the 18th-century Lamson homestead was razed and a new Mediterranean-style commercial block was built in its place. In the late 1960s, the Triple A supermarket was built in an extensive peat bog, on piles up to 45-feet deep. According to one estimate, some 60 percent of Weston’s business district is located in wetlands, and its development would not be allowed today.
Arthur Shurtleff, designer of the Weston Town Green, was responsible for another critical improvement. In the mid-1920s, he drew a plan for a roadway through the peat bog south of the town center. Because of wet soil conditions, many experts believed that the road could not be built. But the State Road Bypass was constructed between 1930 and 1933, drawing away traffic and allowing Weston Center to flourish to the present day.