December 17, 2017

A Wellesley Mansion that rivals the Cliff Estates

The Baltzwell Mansion at Elm Bank, with its 14th century Italian baptismal font restored and flowing. Image from The Chelsea Company.

By Olivia Gieger ’17, Editor in Chief                                                            

Every day, runners, walkers, dogs, and baby carriages alike beat down the dirt paths of Wellesley’s Elm Bank reservation. Unbeknownst to most, however, are the over-100 years of history that lie under their feet and those muddy trails.

The rich history of Elm Bank surrounds visitors as soon as they enter the estate on Cheney Drive, a road named for Benjamin Pierce Cheney, an early owner of the estate. Cheney is credited with turning the land of Elm Bank into the sprawling landscaping feat it is today.

Cheney obtained the property in 1874, but the land’s story begins long before his ownership. For years, Native American tribes inhabited the land. Whether it be legend or fact, Elm Bank’s 19th century residents believed that the Native American residents planted five Elm Trees on the land in the 1600’s.

As English settlers arrived– the earliest deeds on record date back to 1732– they shared the land, creating an “interesting mixture of English-style-wood-frame houses and wigwams,” as researcher Allyson M. Hayward describes in her article Elm Bank: The Evolution of a Country Estate in Dover, Massachusetts. The property straddles the Wellesley/ Dover border, and although more of the land itself lies in Dover, visitors enter in Wellesley, and the Massachusetts Horticultural Society’s address is listed in Wellesley.

The land then underwent a series of owners, including John Jones Jr., who acquired the property in 1740 and planted the elm trees along the banks of the Charles River, a landscaping decision that gave the property its name. Although the acreage was originally farmland, as the practice of suburban summer homes became commonplace among wealthy Bostonians, Elm Bank became just that.

Buying the land as one of these summer playgrounds, Cheney acquired Elm Bank in an auction in 1874. Cheney rose to the height of Boston’s banking aristocracy through his successful delivery business, United States and Canada Express Company, which later merged with other express delivery companies to become American Express. Although the now major credit card organization does not credit Cheney with being one of its three principal founders, Cheney was the company’s primary stockholder, director, and treasurer. He also served as a leading director of Wells Fargo. His financial expertise carried over into his love for gardening as he served on the financial committee of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, which is the non-profit that now maintains the land through an 100-year lease from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Cheney’s passion for horticulture was clear as he turned the modest farm land into the grand estate it is today. He and his wife, Elizabeth Stickney Clapp, grew a vast collection of award-winning chrysanthemums, creating a vibrant Victorian-style garden and brilliant planting arrangement, dubbed the Turkish Mat Garden for its resemblance to an imported rug.

After his wife’s death in 1904, the estate went to Cheney’s daughter, Alice Cheney Baltzell, and her husband, Dr. William Baltzell. For the couple, especially Alice, the property became a lifelong project and passion, and her changes to the property have endured to this day.

It is the small anecdotes about Baltzell and her life that give the property such charm and allure to this day, such as Baltzell’s fear of fire that lead her to knock down her father’s wooden home and build her own with one-and-a-half-foot thick brick walls, or her stubborn plea for privacy that discouraged anyone from photographing the estate and its gardens.

Baltzell carried on her father’s love for the natural world as she cultivated her own elaborate gardens and exquisite landscaping. She enlisted architects John Merven Carrère and Thomas Hastings, most well known for designing the New York Public Library, to design her manor house, which still stands on the property. They designed the house taking care to incorporate the garden. For the garden’s design, Baltzell hired the highly revered landscape architects John Charles Olmsted Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr.. It is due to the work of these notable designers that the site is on the National Register of Historic Places.

On a sunny, spring Saturday, as the reservation echoes with shouts of soccer games and the buzz of walkers and joggers, it is easy to image the estate as the lively place it was under Baltzell, with over 30 gardeners (a stark contrast to today’s three groundskeepers!), tennis courts, a boat house, and lavish parties — even fox hunts — on the estate.

The Italianate Garden at the front of the manor gives visitors a sense of how the manor may have felt in the early 1900’s. The Baltzell couple sent back a 14th century Italian baptismal fountain during their two-year honeymoon. After lying on its side, cast to the skirts of soccer fields at one point, the fountain now flows, having been restored by Daedalus Inc., Watertown based art restorers, through a grant from the Amelia Peabody Charitable Fund.

 

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The building itself, however, does not reflect the same upkeep as its grounds. Now surrounded by a fence and caution signs to keep visitors safe from falling slate shingles as nails in the roof rust away, the building has been abandoned for nearly 50 years. The 45 rooms of the mansion included a ballroom, a music room, and an elaborate two-story-tall library with a paneled ceiling (something people may remember from the film Ghost of Girlfriends’ Past, which is set at the manor house). Each of these grand rooms houses a hand-carved Italian fireplace sent back from the Baltzell’s honeymoon. “It really is too good to be knocked down,” said Katherine Macdonald,the president of Massachusetts Horticultural Society, commenting on the mansion’s ornate interior and the question of what will become of the manor in the years to come.

With so much history beneath the fingertips of Wellesley residents, the question now is “what are we going to do with the house?” According to Macdonald, this is the most common question Mass Hort, the non-profit that now runs the property in a ten-year lease from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, receives, and while it’s a question surely on Mass Hort’s mind, it’s one they don’t have the answer to yet. For Macdonald, however, that current uncertainty is the fun part.

Currently, the non-profit organization is fundraising in order to launch a “master plan,” a complex analysis that will look at the possibilities for the house’s future in terms of Mass Hort’s mission. “We can’t just go restoring it,” said Macdonald, describing the complex process of fundraising and restoring the house with a purpose. “We need to understand what we’re doing and know what to do with it,” she said listing some of the questions the master plan will ask. “What is the vision for the buildings and grounds that supports our mission and interests as well as our community?”

Restoration will only come after the long process of fundraising, building and analyzing the master plan report, deciding what will become of the house, and much more fundraising for the actual project. While restoration remains far off on the horizon, some initial ideas for what the house could become include a horticultural museum, an extension of Mass Hort’s thriving wedding venue, or a farm to table restaurant or coffee shop. “That’s the exciting part of the master plan,” Macdonald said, “going out, talking to people, finding ideas.”

This solicitation of ideas from towns-folk speaks to Elm Bank’s integral place in the community. Elm Bank hosts the sophomore class’s annual semi-formal dance, the cross country team’s running trails, and youth soccer teams’ games, creating a community relationship that has only scratched the surface of the property’s significance in Wellesley’s and the country’s history.
For the meantime, however, Mass Hort is focusing on its fundraising. They will host a Twilight Garden Party fundraiser, an event complete with hors d’oeuvres, drinks, and a swing band, in celebration of their 20th anniversary on the Elm Bank land.

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  1. Who put the elms in Elm Bank? Wellesley High School’s newspaper knows | The Swellesley Report

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