The Staples-Craft House is not a grand mansion, but it’s the oldest home in Waban and the only link to our agricultural past. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986. On April 23, 2015 the Newton Historical Commission voted unanimously to approve this property as a Newton Landmark Preservation Site. And now it’s under attack from a developer who wants to use the 40B trump card to override history and zoning laws to destroy Waban’s historic village center.
Let’s travel back in time to 1688. 68 years since the Mayflower landed in Plimouth, only a decade after the end of King Philip’s or Metacomet’s war. A war so vicious and traumatic, involving more than half of all New England towns, that his head could still be seen mounted on a pike at the entrance to Fort Plymouth. It would remain there for another ten years. Four years later the Salem Witch Trials begin and 12 years later Cambridge, or Cambridge Village, will be called New Towne, or Newton.
Deacon John Staples arrived in a land about 7 miles west of Boston that looked pretty much the same as the native Americans had seen it for hundreds of years. It was where Sachem Waban, a Massachusett native, hunted. While various areas to the north and west had the beginnings of villages, there were no structures anywhere on his vast 93 acres of land. Perhaps it was the perfect mix of trees, rich earth, the slight scent of the sea, the creek and the pond, the sun painting the hills and valleys… whatever his reasons, John selected just the right spot to build his home. If you look at the map below, the speck on the right below the hill – later Moffat Hill – is where he chose to build.
(The original map had North facing down so I reversed it to orient it the way of most modern maps. The horizontal road is Sherbourne – eventually renamed Beacon – forking to Woodward. No Chestnut, nor any other Waban roads exist.)
John was a weaver by trade but he ended up as the first public school teacher, the town clerk, a policeman, and a selectman or alderman, (now city councilor). In 1690, he married Mary Craft. In 1714, he helped do a survey and sited the new meeting house, found on the oldest map of Newton.
John and Mary had no children of their own but raised some of Mary’s relatives including Moses Craft, who would eventually take over the home. Keeping the foundation, which is three feet thick in places, and as often was the practice, he reused all the material and built a new house – the home that would still be there 300 years later. Moses married Esther Woodward – don’t you love connecting the names with the streets – and had eight children. Moses sold the rear L shaped part of the house and 20 acres to his son Joseph, who would eventually take over the entire farm.
When Joseph died in 1821 – a year after Maine became a state – farmer William Wiswall purchased the property. It is believed that he and his wife Ruth added the Greek Revival updates to the house including the front porch. While Abraham Lincoln was accepting the nomination for a seat in the senate in 1858 and delivering his “house divided” speech, a Boston merchant named David Kinmoth bought the property. Apparently the property changed hands twice more before becoming the property of Waban’s first power couple: William and Mary Strong.
William Strong was the president of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society and he used the property as a nursery. William knew how to grow things. You have to be careful, choose what you plant, give it space, make sure it can sustain itself, tend to it, make sure nobody tramples it. Waban’s commercial building on Beacon was built by Strong.
At the geographic heart of Waban, the village literally emanates from the farm house: roads were added to reach properties for new homes, churches were built nearby, and the new railroad would bring new inhabitants. Throughout all this change, the house, planted firmly in the rich ground John Staples thought was the perfect place to call home, would stand majestically, linking Waban to its agricultural and historical past. More families moved in over the years and became caretakers of the property. It was the rectory for the Parish of the Good Shepard by 1961 when it was sold to Donald and Virginia Nordbeck. Longtime Waban residents – the two attended Angier Elementary – they would see their daughter Caroline marry future Ward 6 Councilor Dick Blazar in the house. Eventually, charmed by a note left on their door by Sheldon Peck which said he loved the house, and would be a trustworthy caretaker of Waban’s historic icon just as they had, they sold it to him in 1983.
He converted the barns into his orthodontic practice. After three decades of good stewardship of the farmhouse, Peck astonished everyone by filing for a demolition permit. Why would he do that after caring so long for the 300 year old home?
While his plan to create offices out of the barns was found reasonable and permitted, on two previous occasions, his plans for changes went too far and he withdrew their consideration at the time. All the neighbors on Windsor road, the board and members of the Windsor Club, which surrounds the landmark, and the city, cried foul and stopped him cold.
Had Peck put the house on the open market last year for the reported purchase price of $2,100,000, he would have had no problem selling. Instead he chose to sell it directly to a developer who has engaged the services of Geoff Engler, son of legendary 40B developer Bob Engler.
So why should we care? In my youth and early 20s, like most of my peers, I was busy trying to get a foothold on the ladder of life and in my mind, my home was nothing more than a roof over my head and a place to eat. I didn’t consider that a house or a community had a history, or that I even had any connection. However, now that I’ve put in a few decades, my grandmothers and my father have gone, I’ve married and have two kids, my worldview has evolved considerably. I understand that all we do is built on the lives of others. We take much of that for granted: those who created the technology, transportation, life-saving medicines and other things we rely on every day… But those who came before us spent their lives creating the things we use everyday in our quest to make our own contribution.
Similarly, our village is made up of houses that craftsman built, that our predecessors worked hard to buy and maintain. Just like William Strong the horticulturist, they planted the garden that makes our lives flourish. They gave us our village library for cultural growth, a school to grow young minds, and parks and trees. Waban generations before us lived here, coached little league, gave piano lessons, went to war, helped each other in a flood, looked after each other’s children, taught them how to ride bikes, how to cook, change a tire, on and on. As I walk the same steps that John, Mary, William, Moses, David, did so many years ago, I know they gave us our village, and it was no accident. Waban has been crafted over the centuries by foresight and care. What is wonderful is the fact we still have the first homestead that gave birth to Waban village – the house and the land that started it all. The heart and soul of the village.
Should we care about our history and preserving it? Most of us hope that we can make it through life without too much trouble and a little joy. If we are able to pitch in and make life better for others, that’s considered icing on the cake for some, and for others, it’s kind of a duty. I do think that while we are here, we really should do our best to make things better for future generations. Part of that is recognizing the contributions made by those who came before us – paying due respect. While living in Paris, one of the criticisms I often heard about Americans is we seem to have little respect or knowledge of history, and do not notice when we trample or even destroy things that have stood for generations. I vowed not to be one of those who allow our heritage to be trampled. It is inconceivable to me that we would allow a landmark vestige of our history to be desecrated in some sort of profiteering Disneyland apartment complex that would overwhelm Waban’s village center. Sacrifice the last remaining piece of farmland – the very ground that John Staples tended? Imagine a 4-story apartment building towering over this historic house – and over a village where the structures are generally 2 stories. We tore down Waban’s HH Richardson stationhouse to put up a parking lot. We must learn from such mistakes, and save the historic Staples-Craft property from 40B over-development now. What do you think?
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