House Tour Holiday

Beth Hinchliffe writer
Larry Buckley photographer

When Wellesley celebrated its Centennial in 1981, the town decided to buy itself a birthday present. But what do you get a town that’s turning 100? The leaders were clear: The gift had to have triple significance; it had to be a reminder of the past, provide enjoyment in the present, and be a legacy for the future.

And then suddenly, serendipitously, there it was. Up for sale were 42 acres of meadows, woodlands, marshes, and brooks that centuries ago had been a Native American encampment, which today offered nature trails for family walks, and which would preserve precious open space for generations to come. In a vote that tallied only one voice short of unanimous, Town Meeting made the decision to purchase the land and name it in honor of Wellesley’s 100th birthday.

“Today, even if you rarely go to Centennial Park, it is comforting just to know that it is there, enriching the community, providing open space where people can walk and where children can play,” says Mary Ann Cluggish, a longtime town activist who, as the first Chair of the brand-new Natural Resources Commission, shepherded through the acquisition of the land 26 years ago.

Centennial Park is now the anchor of an area of Wellesley which has remained a pure and unique mixture of residence, recreation, and education. Originally home to Chief Maugus’ Massachusetts tribe and then the site of private farms, a century ago it welcomed a handful of young nuns from Nova Scotia, whose spiritual descendants still live here and whose dedication to open space and schooling still defines the landscape.

Known as the Sheridan Hills/Standish Estates area, this half-circle of land is geographically self-contained, circumscribed on one side by Route 9 East (between MassBay Community College and Harvard Community Health), and on the other by the looping curve of Oakland and Cedar Streets.

Although once the site of mills and factories, today it has no stores or businesses and, except for the streets that mark its boundary, no through traffic. Within its borders are hundreds of acres of protected open space, the college campus, a pond, the town forest, and two carefully developed clusters of limited-access roads named for pilgrims and presidents.

“We adore living here,” says Shirley Marden, who with her husband Keith (“Captain Marden” of Wellesley seafood legend) moved to Standish Road nearly 50 years ago. “We’ll never leave this neighborhood. We call it ‘our little pearl.’ People don’t want to move outÑthey either buy a larger house a couple of streets away or add on. It’s accessible to BostonÑjust a couple of minutes from the Mass PikeÑyet so private, so closely-knit. It’s the best of all worlds.” But it wasn’t until the 1940s that streets were laid out, neighborhoods were designed, and families arrived. Before then it had been home to just a few.

After 1635, when the first Englishmen settled in the area (later buying from the Native Americans the land that became Wellesley for a payment of five pounds currency, three pounds of corn), Eleazar Kingsbury (a selectman in Dedham, of which Wellesley was then a part) built his home off what is today’s Oakland Street. Much of the land stayed in his family until a little over a century ago. His grandson Eliphalet’s house opposite Putney Road also served as a schoolhouse and as a gathering spot for the West Needham militia which marched to battle on April 19, 1775.

Pieces of the land ended up belonging to the Ware family (their 1720 home, one of the oldest in town, still stands at 200 Oakland Street), the Putney family (their farmhouse, built in 1877, is at 161 Oakland Street), and Marshall Scudder (who in the late 1800s on the site of today’s MassBay Community College campus built an extravagant estate that featured the first bathtub in town).

And then came the unexpected settlers who would give the area its lasting identity. In 1893 a handful of young nuns, known as Sisters of Charity, left their homes in Nova Scotia to answer the call of their order to open a Catholic school for girls. Seven hundred miles later, just off a dusty toll road known as Worcester Street, they found and bought over 200 acres of farmland on a hill in this quiet, rural, 12-year-old town, and they opened the Academy of the Assumption.

For nearly 80 years the Sisters devoted themselves to education, while passionately preserving their treasured land. The original school was joined by St. Joseph’s Academy for boys, and then Elizabeth Seton High School (named to honor the saint who founded their order). The buildings now house MassBay.

The self-sufficient sisters ran their own farm where Centennial Park is now, with a silo, dairy barn, horses, cows, chickens, and vegetables, and neighbors grew accustomed to seeing the nuns in full habit and heavy black wimples, riding their horse-drawn carts or lifting their ankle-length robes when the sisters walked through the pastures.

When they eventually had to face changing times and financial realities, they carefully managed the transfer of their precious open space and schools so as to create a lasting legacy of education and beauty.

They first said no to the extravagant offers from developers in the 1960s, instead selling 70 acres to the Wellesley Country Club, making sure that the resulting golf course would preserve the ponds, trees, and wildlife they loved. A decade later, once again rejecting plans for hundreds of new homes, they sold the school buildings and 125 acres to MassBay Community College, ensuring that education would continue in the very buildings they had created.

Finally, in 1980 they gave up hundreds of thousands of dollars when they rejected a $1.4 million bid offered by one of the major developers in the state, accepting instead a significantly smaller amount from the Town of Wellesley for their remaining acreage, with the promise that it would be protected in perpetuity as Centennial Park. For themselves, the Sisters kept only the abutting land on which their Mount Saint Vincent Retirement Home/ Elizabeth Seton Residence sits.

“The Sisters have enjoyed being a part of this neighborhood family for over 100 years, sharing the hopes and dreams of generations of children,” says Kim Condon, program director at Mount Saint Vincent. “They didn’t want to see God’s natural beauty despoiled by bulldozers and concrete. Instead, these gentle stewards of the land chose to entrust their inheritance to current and future generations of Wellesley residents.”

The little stone grotto they had built on the corner of Oakland Street and Route 9 now welcomes students to MassBay Com-munity College, which offers programs for employment and courses paralleling the first two years of a Bachelor’s Degree. The College is committed to preserving the surrounding wooded campus.

“As a community college, MassBay takes special pride in its many connections with its neighbors. These connections are historic, geographic, and more recently programmatic in nature,” says Dr. Carole Berotte Joseph, MassBay’s president, pointing to local service and learning opportunities ranging from volunteering with the retired nuns at the Elizabeth Seton Residence to working with the Wellesley Symphony, the college’s orchestra-in-residence. “We truly are ‘your community college.’ ”

While the Sisters were teaching in their Gothic brick classrooms which now house the college, World War II brought the outside world to Wellesley with sobering reality. At the end, a boom of young soldiers returned to the states eager to put the anguish behind them and secure bright futures for their children. And Wellesley’s role as a family suburb began.

The land just beyond the Sisters’ beckoned with promise, and so two separate, carefully planned developments began in the 1940s. The Standish Estates, filled with new and original designs by architect Royal Barry Wills, celebrated the state’s early Pilgrim roots, with intertwined streets bearing names like Brewster, Carver, Winslow andÑcharminglyÑStandish and Priscilla. (Since Standish Road, named for Miles, and Priscilla Circle intersect, their names are forever joined on a signpost, providing a different ending to the Pilgrim legend. Amusingly, Alden Road is by itself more than a mile away.)

Its neighbor, another self-contained development named Sheridan Hills with streets named to commemorate Presidents Jackson, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe, was built at the same time by Frank P. Lind, who lived there with his family. One of his sons joined him in building homes in the area, and later became Monsignor Joseph Lind, former pastor of St. Paul Church.

“It’s a lovely, lovely place to live,” Monsignor Lind says, reflecting on the area that was his home for many years and is his and his father’s legacy. “We wanted the houses to be all Colonials, to reflect our New England history, so we designed them ourselves. It’s a very special neighborhood, filled with families and family feeling.”

A neighborhood where stories of childhood sound like Leave it to Beaver. “Growing up there was a total joy,” recalls Bob Tremblay, who spent his boyhood on Standish Circle in the 1960s and 1970s and eventually became editor of The Wellesley Townsman.

“We felt very safe. Childhood was spent playing sports and climbing trees. The big sport was street hockey, and our area was ideal for that since there was hardly any trafficÑif a car came, we simply moved the net, let it pass, put the net back in place and resumed playing.” He still has the Pete Rose-autographed baseball that neighbor Sam Papps brought him back from an All-Star game.

“This area is unique because of its layout and terrain,” says Dona Kemp, former president of the Wellesley League of Women Voters who has lived here for 23 years.

“The hills, the pond, the eskerÑall of that is wonderful to explore. And because it’s so nice and enclosed, kids can just wander around and bike to friends’ houses and play on the streets. Everyone knows their neighbors and there’s so much chatting, so much friendliness. That makes for a very close community.” Generations of children have taken part in the neighborhood traditions, which include ice-skating (with hot chocolate, hot dog roasting, and fires to warm little hands) on Longfellow Pond; the Halloween costume parade; Tuesday afternoon playgroups for toddlers; a Labor Day street party barbecue; and, the most anticipated, personal home visits from Santa (a jolly neighbor) who delivers a gift to each enchanted child.

Adults have the annual progressive dinner (with leftovers delivered to the Sisters), cookie exchanges, and a holiday cocktail party. Moms meet for monthly Bunco and wine evenings, and a group of longtime neighbors goes out together each month for dinners at local restaurants. Best of all, residents say, is the annual volunteer clean-up of Longfellow Pond (“we call it our own private pond,” says Marden), when all generations come together for a Saturday of work and reward picnics.

“It’s an awesome neighborhood,” says Linda Messore, the longtime president of the Sheridan Hills Neighborhood Association. “It’s so tightly-knit, like family. And a lot of fun. It’s a phenomenal place to bring up kids. We keep everyone active!”

A focus of those activities is the nearby Fiske School, which has just over 330 students in grades K-5. The original two-room Fiske School was built on farmland in 1893, the fifth schoolhouse in the infant town, and was named for Joseph Fiske, a Civil War hero who had organized and led Wellesley’s successful fight for independence twelve years earlier. When the new school was built in 1954 with plans to be renamed, the neighbors demanded that it forever honor the town’s most influential leader.

“It’s just a terrific school community,” says Messore. “We’re so lucky to have our own neighborhood school, with its own identity, and we feel very connected to it. We all support and enjoy the activities there, especially its Wild West Roundup every September.”

The school, local scout troops, and families use the nearby woods and trails for nature walks. For others, trail guides are available through the Natural Resources Commission, or online at www.wellesleyma. gov/Pages/WellesleyMA_Trails/trails.

You can explore Longfellow Pond, a millpond created in 1815 when Charles Pettee built a dam across Rosemary Brook for his nail factory. Just off the old cart paths that circle the pond are the chimney and gravesites of the 1833 Aaron Hastings House, and remnants of a century-old icehouse.

The 149-acre Town Forest, Wellesley’s largest conservation land and site of town wells and vernal pools, is a surprisingly undiscovered treasure, with various footpaths, including the Charles River Path, and the sharp Esker Trail, a climb of 80 feet. Add on the adjacent Ollie Turner Park, and there are over 220 acres to discover. And then there is always the heart of the town, Centennial Park, with its meadows and view to the Blue Hills.

“We love our neighborhood and our neighbors,” says Ellie Everts, who now watches her grandchildren play with others on her street. “It’s a charming area, lively, humble. These aren’t big gaudy houses, they’re warm and cozy homes. Homes to wonderful families who always pitch in to help each other, and love sharing. We have a brook in the backyard, woods everywhere, lovely walks. Who needs to go away for vacations?”

When Wellesley gained its independence in 1881, it adopted as its town seal a drawing that featured three symbols which the town founders felt were key to the new town’s identity. There were arrows and a tomahawk as reminders of the first residents; a book, for the importance of education; and a flower, to represent commitment to open space and nature.

More than 125 years later, these symbols still capture the essence of daily life in the self-enclosed Sheridan/Standish area, a place that brings together pilgrims, presidents, Native Americans, nuns, college students, and the next generation of Wellesley children in an embrace of the past, the present, and the future.

Summer 2023