An Architectural History of Wakefield

Image above:  A nineteenth century Franklin Pool Painting showing a view looking north down Main Street from around the current corner of Main and Lincoln streets.
The area which is now Wakefield was first settled in 1639 by a small group of settlers. We have no buildings surviving from the town’s earliest period, but we do have a still functioning system of roads, a pattern of land use, landscaping features and the Old Burial Ground, laid out about 1688-1689.
The Hartshorne HouseWakefield’s earliest surviving structure may be the First Period part of the Hartshorne House, thought to date from 1681. Beginning as one room, now at the southwest corner of the house, the structure was greatly expanded during the Georgian period.

Another First Period House, an ell of an old farmhouse, survives at 391 Vernon Streetand has been tentatively dated to 1680. The main part of this house was built by Captain Daniel Green in Lynnfield in 1750. It was moved to Wakefield by his son, Caleb Green. The house has been placed in a special “First Period” grouping of structures on the National Register of Historic Places by the National Park Service.

As the agricultural community tended to grow slowly, not many Georgian houses were built in Wakefield. Of those remaining, most have been altered, often radically.

Building in the community was done with the abundant local wood, rather than expensive brick or stone. Houses were framed using the First Period technique of heavy, and hand-hewn timbers, mortised and pegged together.

Another example of Georgian architecture is 71 Prospect, built c. 1764. Originally 3 bays long, it is said to have been built on the site of the original homestead of William Cowdrey, an influential first settler. Set on rubble stone foundations, it retains its Georgian window frames and sash. Its door surround appears to be transitional to the Federal period.

The Georgian/Federal house at 58 Oak Street, is the James Smith/Ezekiel Oliver House, probably built before 1750.

Although, the Georgian style lasted in Reading until after the Revolution, houses built after the town became South Reading in 1812 were designed in the prevailing Federal style. The emphasis was on symmetry, and the focus of architectural interest was on the door surround.
An example of the style is the house at 142 Main Street. The house represents a Federal period remodeling of a much older house, c. 1727. One of Wakefield’s most imposing landmarks, this house is most closely identified with Lucius Beebe, who lived here from 1852 until his death in 1884.

Another of South Reading’s high style five-bay houses is the Suell Winn House at 72-74 Elm Street , which features a leaded glass fan over its central door.
The house also has a Rufus Porter mural on its dining room wall.

With the coming of the railroad to South Reading in the 1840’s, the town’s population would double. South Reading was no longer a remote hamlet,. The town’s industries began to grow and evolve throughout the nineteenth century.

South Reading needed to reorganize its school system. The town undertook the construction of four new schoolhouses, and the purchase of the now defunct South Reading Academy to be used as a high school in 1847. The West Ward School at 39 Prospect Street remains from this period.

The Greek Revival style flourished in the town between 1830 and 1860. Most of the buildings designed in this style were constructed before the rapid industrialization of South Reading, but so persistent was the style in this conservative town that they continued to be erected until about 1860, when much of the rest of the country was building in the newer Gothic Revival and Italianate styles.

The Gothic Revival style, begun in England and used in America by 1840, was a protestation against the artificial rigidities of the Greek Revival style. Houses built in this style were to have irregular, asymmetrical shapes, to blend with, rather than contrast to the environment, and to inspire feelings of cozy domesticity or grant ideal romance out of the pages of the widely popular Sir Walter Scott novels. In South Reading, the style was very restrained, although a notable example is at 16 Cordis Street.

Another Romantic style was the Italianate, like this house at 25 Yale Avenue, which proved very popular in Wakefield. The style took its imagery from the landscapes pictured in Romantic painting, and from a new nation’s adulation of the sophistication of an ancient one. Typically, Italianate-styled houses built here featured only one or two stylistic features from these designs, retaining the safe, familiar house forms of earlier times.

Two of Wakefield’s most imposing landmarks are built in the Italianate style, facing each other in the old religious center south of Lake Quannapowitt. The First Universalist Church, built in 1836, was remodeled in the Italianate style in 1859. The First Baptist Church, built in 1872 during the High Victorian Italianate period, is Wakefield’s highest style Italianate church.

The town’s early industrial boom remade the commercial center in the Italianate style, of which very little remains.

In the 1860’s and 1870’s, the town’s prosperity and leadership worked together to provide strong municipal services and a strengthened town identity. The population increased from 3,207 in 1860 to 5,349 in 1875. By the end of the 1870’s, Wakefield was established as a manufacturing town. The Wakefield Rattan Company, the Smith and Anthony Foundry, and Emerson Shoes were employing many of the 2,000 new residents.
If any architectural Style were to represent Wakefield in its mid-nineteenth century hey day, it would be the Mansard Style which appeared on civic and commercial buildings, on mansions and cottages alike. It is also, however, the style that has arguably suffered the greatest losses and alterations in the town, so that its importance today is not easily discernible.

The Wakefield Block at 414-416 Main Street was next to the Town Hall and built at approximately the same date. It too had a mansard roof which is now demolished. Beneath it, the town’s largest commercial block had arched stone lintels incised with Eastlake motifs. Miller’s Piano Factory (razed in 1960 to provide space for a bank building) from the 1880’s was the third large Mansard style building at this town center.

The style of architecture that spanned this entire period of prosperity and growth was theQueen Anne style. English in origin, it was a style which aimed at being picturesque by emphasizing complexity in the building’s volume and on its surface. Complexity of volume was achieved by embellishing the basic rectangular floor plan of earlier styles with bays, oriels, towers, porches, cross gables, dormers and pavilions.
Perhaps the best example of the complex volume achieved by the Queen Anne style is to be found at 25 Avon Street, dating from the 1880’s. Here, beneath a truncated hip roof are most of the design features in the repertoire of Queen Anne designers.

The Centennial Exposition of 1876 in Philadelphia was responsible in large part for re-introducing the building forms and materials of the First Period, Georgian and Federal periods into the country’s design vocabulary. Out of a pride for native patterns, architects brought the Colonial Revival style to Wakefield by the 1880’s.
A fine example of Colonial Revival is the house at 18 Park Avenue.

The Shingle Style was originated by Boston architect H. H. Richardson in Cambridge of 1876. It was a style often chosen by the wealthy for their seaside or country homes. Their architects developed a high style characterized by the distinctive shingle clad exterior, smooth rounded forms, more open planning, horizontal emphasis, and a Queen Anne complexity of composition.
At right is the house at 122 Chestnut Street, one of the town’s best examples of the Shingle Style.

For a brief period at the end of the nineteenth century, large masonry buildings in Wakefield including schools, commercial blocks and at least one apartment were constructed in one of two styles: the Romanesque Revival or the Renaissance Revival.
The First Parish Congregational Church, a Romanesque Revivalbuilding, was designed by Hartwell and Richardson in 1890 and rebuilt after a fire in 1912.

The more conventional Romanesque Revival Lincoln School uses rounded arches are used to mark entry and windows, while the surface is colorfully treated with diapered brick and sandstone patterns.
Charles E. Park was the architect for the Renaissance Revival Warren School in 1895.

The turn of the century did not cause Wakefield architects and builders to abandon their popular Queen Anne and Colonial Revival styles. Rather, new ideas made their way slowly alongside the old. Economics and the desire for more efficient, functional buildings were the basis for the development of the Rational Revival Style, which began to appear about 1910 – 1915. Closely allied with the Rational Revival is the Craftsman style, the expression in architecture of an entire aesthetic generated by Gustave Stickley The Craftsman aim for honesty and simplicity in construction.
The Bungalow style refers more to a house form than to a style. It is a one and a half story house whose roof usually extends far beyond the facade wall to provide a deep porch. To American eyes, the style appeared modern and cozy. Its construction was relatively inexpensive, and it spread across the country. Wakefield has some of the finest, high style examples of the Craftsman Bungalow in the Greater Boston area.

Wakefield architect Harland Perkins made an outstanding architectural contribution to Wakefield around 1910 – 1913 when he designed the three houses of Elizabeth Boit’s family compound at the corner of Prospect and Chestnut Streets.Perkins introduced the English Cottage Style which took the work of a number of contemporary English architects as its inspiration.

The Neo-Historical or Period Revival styles are Neo-Renaissance, Georgian, Classical, Federal, Colonial, Norman and Tudor. A re-treading of the Revival styles, they combined traditional elements in a modern manner. At right, the Massachusetts State Armory Building, now the Americal Civic Center. 

It is the period of architecture which set its stamp most firmly on Wakefield’s downtown, its public buildings and public and private institutions. The styles were chosen to convey the dignity and security associated with historical architecture. Perhaps the most refined example of the Neo-Historical style’s intended message is the Beebe Memorial Library of 1922 on Main Street.

Wakefield Historical Commission, copyright 2010