Francis Blake and Charles Wells Hubbard
The “Eccentric Suburban” and the Quiet Idealist
Pamela W. Fox writer
Estate owners Francis Blake and Charles Wells Hubbard had much in common. The brothers-in-law were six years apart in age. They owned adjoining estates with houses in close proximity, and both were ardent outdoorsmen and conservationists. Perhaps most important to Weston residents of today, they influenced the development of the town in significant ways—Hubbard through his gifts of land and Blake as a selectman from 1890 to 1910.
Charles W.’s father, Charles Townsend Hubbard, was one of the first Boston businessmen to establish a country home in Weston. The elder Hubbard made his fortune processing jute into twine, burlap, and upholstery webbing. His first wife died young, leaving him with three daughters: Charlotte, Elizabeth, and Louisa. He remarried and had a son, Charles Wells, and another daughter, Anne. In 1867, C.T. Hubbard purchased 214 acres of farmland along the Charles River for $5,800. He continued to buy land and in 1879 was taxed for 404 acres, one of the largest estates in Weston.
The family summered in the existing farmhouse off Intervale Road for many years before building a fashionable mansion, Ridgehurst, in 1881-83. The Shingle style house, set on a ridge with panoramic views south over the Charles River to the distant hills, took a year and a half to build and cost $65,000, a staggering sum at the time. As each of his daughters married, C.T. Hubbard gave them land and their grandfather contributed money for a house. Daughter Elizabeth married Francis Blake in 1873, and this is how Blake—scientist, inventor, and true Renaissance man—came to settle in Weston.
To design their new house, the couple commissioned the youthful Charles Follen McKim, who would go on to become one of the country’s leading architects. Five years after the marriage, Blake made his own fortune with the invention of the Blake telephone transmitter. A story passed down in the family alleges that Elizabeth’s stepbrother, Charles Wells Hubbard, knew of the device but decided not to invest in any of “Frank Blake’s half-baked schemes.”
The Blake transmitter was a major improvement over Alexander Graham Bell’s original model, which was so unreliable that you never knew whether you would hear words or just an annoying buzz. Blake’s invention put Bell on an even footing with rival Western Union and encouraged investors to come forward while Bell pursued and won a case for patent infringement.
Over the next decade, Blake devoted his attention to improving his estate, “Keewaydin.” He enlarged and remodeled the house and bought furniture on a Grand Tour of Europe. He bought more land, added a miniature lake and formal garden, and developed a sophisticated water supply system that eventually provided water to neighbors in the South Avenue area. Blake even installed poles from his house to Newton Lower Falls so he could have his own private telephone connection.
In the 1880s, Blake added a handsome complex of attached brick outbuildings called “The Cottage,” grouped around an interior brick courtyard. There was a stable/carriage house, coachman’s cottage, other staff housing, mechanical workshop, photography darkroom, two-lane bowling alley, storeroom, and gymnasium. Later a squash court was added and the gymnasium converted to a miniature theater seating 75 to 100 people. In one of the rooms was a hand printing press used to print invitations, dinner menus, and theater programs for Keewaydin. In 1893, Blake enlarged the house and encased it in a tan firebrick façade that completely obliterated McKim’s original design.
Blake developed the Keewaydin landscape in a formal style rarely employed by Weston estate owners, who generally preferred a more casual approach. Landscape designer Ernest Bowditch created the sunken garden adjacent to the house, with its formal circular layout and central sundial. Blake imported 100 tubbed evergreens from England. A second dramatic landscape feature was a series of three broad terraces created by building massive stone walls 20 feet high. Plum, peach, apple, and pear trees were planted on the upper terrace, while the second was covered with seasonal flowers, and the third was the location of Blake’s famed greenhouses.
At the foot of the terraces were the tracks of the Boston and Albany Railroad. Every morning the morning newspaper was thrown off the train and the butler would go down to retrieve it. The railroad also provided a subject for Blake’s experiments with motion photography. He was an accomplished amateur photographer who worked for years to develop a shutter that would allow for quick exposures. He pursued other avocations with the same intensity. Blake was renowned for his discriminating taste in food and wine. He kept scrapbooks where he carefully pasted bills for imported foods like guavas and oolong tea, as well as expensive Havana cigars from specialty shops in the city. He filled another scrapbook with pasted labels from wine bottles, along with the receipts. Blake often recorded what wines and liquors he served guests at Keewaydin and how many bottles they drank.
Some of the most elaborate entertainments were given for the Thursday Evening Club, an old and prestigious Boston club composed of 100 men of social or intellectual prominence who met on alternate Thursdays. Blake entertained the group every other year. He kept every RSVP and made a list of each member with notes next to his name like “bad health” or “came without accepting.” His total cost, carefully itemized, for the April 1902 meeting attended by 81 guests was $328. 18, which covered the Burgundy, champagne, cigars and cigarettes, turkeys and chickens, oysters, salmon, lobsters, Philadelphia ice cream, train fares, “illumination,” and even the estimated expense for gas and electric lights. One guest wrote, “I always consider it the one spree of the staid old Thursday club.”
Blake was elected to the Weston Board of Selectmen in 1890. Weston was changing from a predominantly agricultural community to a favorite location for country homes. He pursued a progressive agenda that included centralizing the schools, building a new high school and library, improving roads, purchasing fire-fighting equipment, and installing streetlights and telephone and electric lines. Blake had the foresight to see that Weston’s future growth and prosperity would come, not from industrial development or “improvements” like street railways, but by attracting people seeking a quiet country atmosphere. He worked to preserve the natural beauty of the town, introduce modern conveniences, and keep down the tax rate.
By the 1890s, Blake and his estate had acquired an almost legendary status. A newspaper article entitled “An Eccentric Suburban” describes him as “one of the romantically-grown-rich telephone men…[who] lives just out of the city. . . where he has a palace and lives like a duke.” The reporter adds, “He bears his great wealth well, and is more of the type of the English country gentleman than is possible for the average new rich man to become.”
Meanwhile, Blake’s brother-in-law, Charles Wells Hubbard, led a quieter life and generally escaped the press attention paid to the more flamboyant Blake. During his 25 years of leadership, the Ludlow Manufacturing Company started by his father experienced exponential growth. He worked to make Ludlow a “model village” for workers, building a library, hospital, textile school, and recreation center and swimming pool.
It was in the area of land conservation that C.W. Hubbard made his largest and most lasting contribution to the town. He was instrumental in preserving more than 100 acres along the Charles River for public use and enjoyment. In 1892, he donated 19 acres for Weston’s first public park. The following year he sold the City of Newton 42 acres of riverfront for park purposes. Next, he purchased land along the Charles for the construction of Riverside Recreation Grounds, an outdoor sporting facility that he later donated to the Metropolitan Parks Commission. The Weston and Newton parkland and most of the former “Rec” land are now part of the Leo J. Martin Golf Course, a public recreational resource made possible because of Hubbard’s conservation initiatives. In 1972, the Metropolitan District Commission was asked to rename Riverside Park in honor of Charles W. Hubbard. The MDC voted to erect a memorial tablet instead.
Hubbard’s other major legacy is the Chiltern Hundreds neighborhood that straddles the Wellesley line. “The Hundreds” refers to the 1699 division of land in Wellesley into 100-acre tracts, and “Chiltern” is thought to be an English place name favored by the Hubbards. According to one observer, the project was dear to Hubbard’s heart as he felt Weston “ought not to be just for the very large land-owner.”
Chiltern Hundreds was by far the largest subdivision in Weston up to that time. The plan was the work of Arthur Shurtleff (later Shurcliff), the eminent Boston landscape architect who had earlier designed Weston Town Green. Deed restrictions were used to prohibit industrial uses and allow only single family houses with specific setbacks from the road and property lines. The winding street plan encompassed the present Chiltern, Locust, Dean, Ferndale, Old Colony, Pembroke, and Columbine Roads, as well as the southern parts of Oxbow and Ridgeway Roads.
Francis Blake died in 1913 at age 62. His son Benjamin occupied Keewaydin until his death in 1959 and his widow for some years thereafter. The small staff kept the lawns carefully mowed. The interiors of the big house and cottage remained frozen in time. Construction of Route 128 was destructive but paled in comparison to the devastating effect of the Massachusetts Turnpike, when the Weston interchange was built largely on Blake land.
When Ruth Field Blake died in 1963, the historic preservation movement was in its infancy. The public viewed the house as “colossal and rather ugly.” The property was sold to Edward Swiedler, who developed approximately 20 houses on Blake and Tamarack Roads. The original stone entrance posts to Keewaydin remain along Park Road near the corner of Blake Road, the pond remains, and the enormous stone terraces behind the mansion have recently been incorporated into a new house at 44 Tamarack Road. The reservoir for Blake’s water supply system remains at the top of the hill on Orchard Avenue. His files and papers fill more than 70 manuscript boxes at the Massachusetts Historical Society.
Time proved kinder to the Hubbard estate. Ridgehurst still stands at 80 Orchard Avenue. It’s smaller than originally because the servants’ wing and the billiard room were removed and made into two separate houses on nearby lots. C. W. Hubbard’s 1912 Italian Garden, designed by Olmsted Brothers, remains behind the house. The estate barn and stable were combined and turned into a house appropriately named “Barnstable,” and the caretaker’s house and other converted outbuildings remain on Orchard Avenue. The quiet street retains the pastoral quality that Charles Wells Hubbard loved and worked to protect.