by Nancy Bertrand
The Town of Wakefield, originally the oldest part of the seventeenth century town of “Redding,” was initially centered around the Great Pond, now known as Lake Quannapowitt, with some outlying farms. As the town grew, farmlands were staked out over fields and early paths developed into roads. One of the most ancient of the paths was the one that stretched from the west side of the Lake toward the rocky hill primarily owned by the Cowdrey family, and was early known as the ‘Road to ‘Oburn.’ The Cowdreys were descended from first settler William Cowdrey, the first Town Clerk and influential citizen. Several of his descendants built homesteads on the hill along what we now know as Prospect Street; several other early families also had holdings dotted across what was then the outskirts of town, abutting what was part of Charlestown (now Stoneham), and the Third Parish of the Town (now Reading).
This area remained primarily farmlands and pasturelands well into the nineteenth century. When the railroad was laid out through the town in 1845, it enabled the rapid growth of native industries, like shoemaking, and encouraged new industries like the manufacture of rattan and iron. It also encouraged settlement around the railroad stations for those intrepid enough to consider commuting to Boston while living in the healthier suburbs. Gradually, some of the Gould and Cowdrey family farmlands were sold for house lots and houses began springing up on the west side of town. Industries were established along Foundry Street and onto Albion Street and houses sprang up around them, homes for millworkers and ironworkers and shop owners. But the area around the top of ‘Cowdrey Hill’ was very sparsely settled indeed.
A lot of the area was originally the property of Stoneham, and was transferred to the Town of Wakefield in two separate acts of the state legislature, in 1856 and 1889. From the vantage point of the top of the hill, the town stretched out like a picture postcard, encouraging some wealthy townspeople like Dr. Charles Jordan to build homes capitalizing on the view. As the town grew, the old farms began to be broken up into houselots. James Eustis’ sons sold his fields to the north of Prospect Street and streets were laid out. J. A. Thompson, Boston publisher of the Shipping List and grandfather of architect Louis Sullivan, whose home near the corner of the present Prospect and Chestnut Streets had land and orchards stretching out behind it, worked with Oliver Perkins to lay out Adams Street. Recognizing the area as a real estate opportunity, local businessman J. S. Merrill began buying up land and laying out houselots along what was then called Spring Street (now Park Avenue), on Morrison Road and Summit Avenue.
Soon after, Merrill joined with Boston attorney and entrepreneur Charles S. Hanks (1857-1908). Hanks was an interesting man; Harvard-educated, he had the distinction of besting fellow classmate Theodore Roosevelt as the lightweight champ of Harvard. A corporate lawyer, he was also the writer of several books: “Hints to Golfers,” “Camp Kits – Camp Life” and “Our Plymouth Forefathers,” geared toward children. A dedicated sportsman and world traveler, he was responsible for importing some of the earliest Borzoi greyhounds from Russia to the kennel he maintained at his residence at Manchester-by-the-Sea. With the collaboration between Merrill and Hanks, the concept of Wakefield Park was born. They had an idea for a new kind of residential development that might appeal to Boston businessmen seeking a healthy atmosphere for their families, close to the train station, but high above the town.
Development intensified in the 1890s. In 1892, Hanks entered three different plans for houselots at Middlesex Registry of Deeds. “Spring Street” became Park Avenue and other streets were planned. As many enterprising men before and after him have done, Hanks named many of the streets after himself and his family members. His wife had been Clarina Shumway; he himself was Charles Stedman Hanks; the new streets were named Stedman Street, Clarina Street, Shumway Circle and Hanks Street (later Bellevue Road) along with Morrison Road and Dell Avenue.
The Hanks-Merrill team developed a marketing strategy: the new area would be one of the town’s most prestigious addresses. Impressive stone gates were erected, topped with an ornate “WP” in wrought iron. Each houselot was sold with a deed restriction to ensure that the lot sizes would remain large enough to maintain the area as a “Garden Suburb.”
The realtors on the team marketed the area as “The Most Picturesque, Delightful, Healthful and Progressive Section of Wakefield!” (See photo, below.) Over one hundred acres were laid out to allow broad streets and avenues, with “reasonable restrictions … to insure the character of the Park.” By 1894 over 30 lots had been sold, “embracing some of the most attractive of modern architectural designs.”
During the course of the construction, the home that was widely considered to be the oldest house in town was lost. The home that had been owned by Matthew Leslie, which had been built by Sgt. John Parker around 1667-1670, was acquired by Charles Stedman Hanks, but was lost to a fire on April 18th, 1901. (Built at least 17 years before the earliest date ascribed to the Hartshorne House, the Sgt. Parker house would have been considered a “First Period House.”) The house had been located around 150 feet behind 157 Prospect Street.
In 1990, Wakefield Park was added to the National Register of Historic Places as a National Register District, including 19 properties as contributory to the character of the district, with a remarkable collection of Colonial Revival and Shingle Style homes.