In a rare opportunity for garden lovers and general snoops such as myself who always wondered what it would be like to tour the exterior of Wellesley’s most iconic property, the Hunnewell Estate on Rte. 16 in Wellesley was opened to the public this past weekend through the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days program. Horatio Hollis Hunnewell, who made his millions in railroads, mining, real estate, and other business ventures, built the house in the early 1850s as the country estate for his wife, Isabella Pratt Welles, for whom the town is named, and their nine children. Mr. Hunnewell was also an extraordinary horticulturist, credited with — among other things — popularizing rhododendrons in the United States.
I was salivating over the idea of finally getting close-up pictures of the expansive property, but when I emailed ahead to request permission, I was told politely but firmly that bloggers were not welcome to ply their trade, photographically speaking, on Garden Conservancy day. Devastated, I was left to envy the ocean tide-like pull and amazing connections that allowed blogger Patrice Todisco unfettered access earlier this summer.
Ah well, with ticket in hand and camera banished to my pocket, I toured the estate. The biggest impression as I wandered around was the sheer size of the property. It’s rare enough in Wellesley to visit a home that sits on a half-acre of land. Touring the over 32-acre lot made this cottage dweller practically agoraphobic. It was just so open and country estate-like and un-suburban, what with its multiple sheds, barns, garages, greenhouses, a tennis court, and a lakeside pavilion, some of which are in full use, some not. In one greenhouse grew a bumper crop of peaches and grapes, neatly espaliered and lovingly tended. Next to that was what once must have been an amazingly productive vegetable garden, now weed-choked and waiting for someone with the time and inclination to take it on as a project. The place isn’t manicured within an inch of its life — that would take five or more full-time gardeners. If I’ve learned anything from watching Downton Abbey, it’s that wars, inflation, and increased workers’ opportunity have conspired to force country houses everywhere to make do with a staff that is loyal, but bare-bones. Indeed, the place is a mixed metaphor of impressive scale and ragged beauty, of local gentry and rough edges, of romance and benign neglect.
Of course, the topiary garden was there in all its clipped glory, and it was interesting to view it looking down from the top of the 75-foot embankment rather than from the Lake Waban path looking up. And I always wanted to stand in that Italianate structure on the hill overlooking the lake. Well, now I have.
As I toured the pinery and the azalea garden, and strolled the crushed-stone paths appreciating the maturity and sheer variety of trees I thought, what a treat to walk around here. Then anxiety hit. What if it all gets sold and subdivided? What if all these beautiful, rare trees get chopped down to make way for “progress” of some sort? Nope, not happening. In keeping with its over 150-year history of philanthropy, the family has looked ahead, far ahead, and has placed the property under conservation restrictions, primarily with The Trustees of Reservations. This foresight protects the farmland, gardens, landscapes, vistas, and natural native landscapes from development. In fact, in 1988 the property was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
Wandering through the pinery and the azalea garden, and gazing at Lake Waban, I sighed over the no pictures edict, but as a rules-follower at heart, I obeyed. However, when I described one of the many beautiful tableaux to Swellesley’s sketch artist, he came up with a pretty fair likeness of a statue in the conservatory:
As my car crunched down the gravel driveway and turned onto Washington Street, I looked back at my usual view of the place. Somehow, amid all the changes that are happening in every neighborhood in Wellesley, there old Horace Hunnewell’s estate stands, same as ever. If he came back, he might hardly recognize the town. Until he got home, that is.