52 Holden Lane, Conantum
Interviewed August 10, 1992, in his Cambridge home
Concord Oral History Program
Renee Garrelick, Interviewer.
The idea of the development of Conantum started 40 years ago when I was teaching architecture at MIT and Rupert Maclaurin was teaching economics at MIT, and it was a stage where there was a lot of worrying and thinking about the direction that America was taking. There was a lot of talk about new towns, more talk than action, but Rupert felt that it was an interesting idea and he got me together with a builder named Joe Kelly. Joe was a builder of speculative, relatively inexpensive houses. The idea being that between the builder and the architect and the economist, you had the basic ingredients for starting a new town.
I knew about Conantum, a big 200 acre site that was probably available and was a lovely part of the world. First thing I knew Rupert had gotten an option on it, and said "Well, let's now start a new town." Not exactly, of course, 200 acres is in an existing town, it's not really a new town, but it was a good way to begin we thought. We did a lot of discussing and I think the least anxious to get really going, at first, was myself. But Joe Kelly said he wasn't used to talking without doing anything, so he said, "Are we going to build any houses or aren't we?" That got us started. Since Rupert and I were associated with MIT, we felt that was a good sort of captive audience to work on or with. Rupert got us going on a set of plans. We were quite interested in prefabrication. We felt that was a good way to keep costs down or get them down. We designed about three different plot plans and decided to vary them by adding basements where the land would permit or encourage it, and attics or second stories where extra space would require it.
I remember we started pricing these houses. Joe was, looking back at it, a little bit lighthearted about pricing things. I think a basement was going to cost $500 or $300 more than no basement and an attic or steep roof which would have room for at least two bedrooms and a bath on the second floor, or an unfinished attic would be $200 more. Well, we developed a post card and sent it around to the whole of MIT, and we were inundated because the prices seemed so reasonable, perhaps too reasonable, and the property was marvelous, and Concord was a wonderful place already.
We had a very advantageous bank mortgage plan and I'm sure it took advantage of the Veterans Administration conditions. I'd say it wasn't the very first blush of the end of the war but quite soon after, and it certainly was at a period when there was a great dearth of housing. As I was saying, MIT faculty came in droves, at least half the people who bought houses, and by buying houses what they were doing was looking at a model house which we had built in a hurry, which as I remember had both an attic and a basement, and we had a plot plan for the whole development. We decided to save at least 60 acres for common land.
I had great ideas of a swimming pool, clubhouse, boat landing, and tennis courts, but the MIT owners were very negative on most of that. We finally ended up with the tennis courts, and for a couple years we had a sort of a boat landing and two tiny little sail boats that about 20% of the eventual 100 owners participated in or bought together. I remember learning during the development of all my plans my disappointment at the lack of enthusiasm for a big natural swimming pool. The rights of the minority had to be carefully considered and there were at least 10 out of 100 who didn't want a swimming pool, so we didn't have a swimming pool. It was felt those 10 shouldn't be forced to participate in something they weren't interested in, and we couldn't leave them out because their feelings would be hurt. I never quite understood this minority rights business. I've never heard of it applying as it did there. We have plenty of discussion about minority rights now, but that minority, 10 people, kept us all from something. My wife doesn't know how to swim to this day partly because we didn't have a swimming pool, or swimming hole. There was a marvelous place for it. There were springs coming out and sand, it would have been great. Another thing they were afraid of was that all of Concord would come and use it.
There was quite a lesson in human relations in this whole Conantum thing. I remember I was very low, not bankrupt, at one point, and I remember being very comforted by being asked, even though I was one of the three principals whose failures had led to bankruptcy, and being very encouraged about being put on the common land committee and one of the other members of the committee to whom I finally said, "Why are you always so negative about everything about common land?" He said, "I'm on the committee to keep anything from happening." He was pretty successful.
The way we arrived at the design of the house was sort of interesting. Leon Lipshutz in my office wanted a home of his own, and he decided to see how efficient and economical a house he could plan without having a site to put it on. This was sort of backwards from all of my architectural training. In most architecture, you fit the house to the site. They had to come together. So he did plan a house and then bought a site in Lexington. So we decided if we were going to work Conantum the way we thought it could be worked, it would be to have the owners actually be the investors. They would select a lot and select a house. They would have a chance at least of looking around. If they wanted a house with a basement, we wanted to be sure they didn't pick a site that was solid ledge everywhere. As with Leon's house, we had managed to make the lower level a very livable level by the house being sited on a slope so that half of the foundation was exposed almost down to the basement level.
The Cambridge Trust Company agreed to take the mortgages on these houses. MIT people were fairly bankable. The way it worked was that the first person that put down a $100 got first choice in a lot. There were only 100 lots, and they differed from one another and they varied in price. The houses ranged from $10,000 to $18,000 for each buyer and a share in the common land averaged $2,900. To buy their lot which included their share in the common land might have been $2,900, although I had a feeling that there were lots less in price than that including the cost of water and electricity. Anyway each person developed their own mortgage and the bank provided all but 20% of the final cost of the house and land. We as architects put in our labor expecting to be paid at some point in the process. We got paid very, very little because of the bankruptcy thing. There were at least several of the buyers who had nothing but a hole in the ground at the time we went bankrupt.
It was a very strenuous period when we went bankrupt. Rupert came through like the knights of old. He dropped all his other business, and came out and just helped provide the necessary funds. He put in a lot of his own money and he got others to help and turned what could have been a horror show — I mean a man that has put down $2,000 or $3,000 and have a hole in the ground so far and the money gone. Those houses were built and Rupert is largely responsible for having the bankruptcy turn out so well.
My assistant was Frederic "Lanny" Day. It was a hard time for him. We were all given an education at a point when what we knew was not anywhere near enough to handle the situation in which we found ourselves in. Joe Kelly never had to deal with individual buyers. All of his projects, he had been left alone to complete the houses and turn the property over to a broker or a salesman and move away and not listen or be affected by the potential buyer. But here we had these endless committees made up of very intelligent MIT professors. One story was they came around with moisture testers and were so disgusted with the moisture in the studs that they complained that they could get a better moisture reading from a living pine tree on the property than they got from testing the moisture in the studs. That didn't help the building operation too much. A number of the concrete mix trucks said they would not come to the project again if they were going to be faced with the concrete construction committee who insisted that the concrete be stiff enough so that they couldn't even get it out of the truck. They wanted slump tests which is the kind of thing you would get with the United Nations building or Rockefeller Center, but which Joe Kelly wasn't used to at all in building low cost houses.
Building 100 houses caused quite a reaction in Concord. I remember one of the neighbors was riding by on his horse while I was clearing my own piece of property. I had a small bonfire which he immediately asked if I had a permit for. At that point I might not have been sure a permit was necessary. It never occurred to me to tell the man that he was trespassing which he really was. His attitude was such that I often thought since that it was too bad that I didn't give his horse a good pat on the fanny and tell him to leave.
The town wouldn't give us water so we had to dig our own wells. We no sooner got them dug and finished and set up our own water department when I guess the town decided it wasn't such a good idea to have two water departments especially since I think we were getting our water for a lot less than they were, so they took it over. So we've never had to use the wells since
Rupert Maclaurin went before the PlanningBoard to sell the town on this development. We didn't find our way was made easy. I was really scared to death when I found out we had to dig our own wells and provide our own water. We assumed we would get it from the town. I remember there was a great deal of discussion that this size development was going to lower all the property values in the neighborhood. People were upset that the taxes were going to go up to educate all these children that would be moving in, and they did go up.
The name Conantum came about from two or three of the people in the community who were history buffs. Conantum is an Indian word and I think Thoreau called that area Conantum. There
is one of our walking spots within the area that's called Martha's Point. Allowing Thoreau never paid too much attention to women, Martha was a friend of Thoreau's as far as we know.
One of the real tragedies of Conantum was that Rupert Maclaurin did not live long enough to see the development be as successful as we have seen it become. It was almost too much for him. He committed suicide at a point when Conantum was just really becoming a real success. It's too bad. My guess is that he was just embarrassed by having something for which he was so largely responsible go bankrupt. He shouldn't have been.
At least half of the people who moved into Conantum were MIT people. A lot of them still are but many of them must be retired by now. Because they were part of the academic community you were looking to build them inexpensive housing. When we started designing the houses, as I say, they were all based on the house Leon Lipshutz had designed for himself. I don't think we knew or realized that MIT was going to grab them. I don't think we had any real idea who was going to buy them. We did provide a lot more house for the money than what Joe Kelly was doing in his other developments.
I don't think the houses were that innovative themselves. What was really innovative was the method of getting the community going. Each person had an acre or more, 40,000 feet was the planning requirement for that part of Concord. We had at least half of the total 200 acres in common land and roadways and so on, and only half in lots. The lawyers had a lot of head scratching to do to work out the arrangement for share of the common land and the whole operation to be run by the owners. The land planning was more unusual than the houses themselves. This was a planned community and there were not so many of those in those days.
I would guess that 75% at least and possibly more of the houses have been upgraded or added to since then. One of the things we saved too much money on was the windows, double hung windows. You can always tell which is the new part of the house by the fact that the windows are different than the original ones. In fact some of the houses took out the original windows as they became very successful at MIT and put in better ones. I know right to this day my wife has said if we are going to stay in the house in Concord, we have to have new windows. My son is living there now and probably saying the same thing,
The people that moved in became integral leaders in the community after the fear that they wouldn't fit in with the old Concord. It was the first sizeable development of houses. Thoreau would turn over in his grave. We had a lot of trouble. I still remember the fact that we knew we were losing a lot of materials so we hired a past police chief or policeman anyway, and were still losing material. I think finally a Pinkerton man found a great deal of it in the policeman's chicken farm.
Most of the MIT professors wanted an easy house to heat. They all had pitched roofs and in those days one of the things you had to do to build a modern house was to have a flat roof. Conantum was designed and built considerably after this house for instance. This is definitely a very modern house, Bauhaus, international house. Those houses out there were done, almost everything, to make them simple and economical but not particularly modern — shingle roofs which we certainly never regretted because they are so practical. The water can get off the roof before it can find its way into the house.
There was so much nature all around and big windows and doors were expensive, so that I think most of the buyers or owners went out the kitchen door before they started worrying about planting. One of my minor disappointments is that we have never at Conantum done what we could have done, and could still do, to improve the common land. We talked a number of times about getting the forestry people to come and help us and have some landscaping done, but there is not as much community spirit as I would have liked to see. Maybe they feel the Conantum owners originally went overboard in community spirit and now they want to build fences around their property and their interest is less. For instance, there are three or four neighbors that we can't drive by that Jean doesn't say, "I wish they would do something about all that junk in their yard." One thing we're sure of is that there is no way to get those people to do anything. There is greater individualism than when we first started.
Redesigning Lewis Wharf became the most important project in my architectural career. It got to be too much for me. I sold out my major interest to Graham Gund who planned a lot of improvements or new construction on the wharves, but he fell into difficulties like most developers and I suddenly found myself the sole owner. I had never been the sole owner until now which at my age in definitely more than I wanted. But it's going pretty well. I'm having an interesting time worrying about Mr. Gund's $100 million elaborate marina on the end of Lewis Wharf, and I've been struggling with much less grandiose ideas. It's at least surviving and not having financial problems.
I've always been a sailor. I remember flying to Europe to both go sailing which I had taken my boat over there, and I worked in Sweden as an architect for a year and I remember going over Boston harbor in an airplane and realizing that it is just as beautiful as Stockholm until you get closer to it or down on the ground. I had always felt where you work should be more inspirational than where you live if you're an architect. My first architectural office was at Snake Hill in my house and I was surrounded by architectural effort of my own. The second office was in Cambridge and the dean of women at Radcliffe in a friendly fashion told me that I could get a wonderful old house on Brattle Street that they owned and was available. So I rented that and had a marvelous time until she needed it again for Radcliffe. I spent a very anxious few months trying to decide where I could go that would be as exciting and pleasant an office as Brattle Street had been. The Boston waterfront was the first choice. I remember thinking that the ideal arrangement would be an office where I could be next to my home, and I had been both in Cambridge and Belmont, and where I could look out my office window and see my sailboat and participate in the most exciting part of Boston with her maritime history and the waterfront which was in a pretty serious state of disrepair back then. It was in the '60s. An awful lot has happened since then.
I found this brick building that was called the Pilot House which was occupied by an electrical contractor and used as a big storage facility, but a handsome old building. I was going to buy it but I couldn't get the FHA to agree that it would be a fit place to either have an office or to live. FHA was the means of financing at the time, so I gave that up. But while I was working on getting that, next door the old Lewis Wharf was owned by a remarkable man, Neil Tillotson who also owned Commercial Wharf. He had bought them for a song because they were just used as the cheapest storage facilities in Boston.
When I was hoping to get this brick building I was hoping to get a little more land which he owned, and he said he wouldn't sell me the land but he would sell me the whole damn shooting match, Lewis Wharf for a million dollars. I knew I didn't have a million dollars. I remember I went to the library and spent a couple of weeks becoming a shipper of the 1830s and 1840s. You read enough of that old stuff and you go right back to that period. Mr. Tillotson told me that although he wanted a million dollars for it, he would take a mortgage for enough so that I think we finally had to get $250,000 in cash. Well, I scraped $50,000 of my own and my mother came up with $50,000, the building came up with $50,000 and before long we got our $2S0,000. Rather than that little brick building which I thought I might be able to manage myself, I was part owner in the pride of Boston as stated in the newspapers I studied from that period. Someone stated "I am proud when I say I come from Lewis Wharf, the best in Boston." And for a while, in 1850 it was the biggest, most powerful place. Anyway I never got over the romance of that building and that period of time in spite of all the difficulties. If you go down to the waterfront now, it's an exciting place.
At that time there were no pleasure boats in the harbor. I remember Bill Horton was about the first to dock there. He got my permission to dock alongside Lewis Wharf. People were afraid he was going to sink in the winter. It was the beginning of a dozen marinas now.
I had my office at Lewis Wharf for many years. Another thing that Mr. Tillotson did which was nifty was that he said we could spend a good part of the cash which we had to pay him to take over the wharf in improving the wharf because he still had the big mortgage. Any improvements we did to the property were to his benefit as well as ours, and I remember he said the one thing I couldn't spend any of my money on was architecture, it had to be bricks and mortar. So we did the architecture for nothing and we designed a marvelous office for ourselves, it became a sort of a model apartment and office structure.
One of the things which hasn't exactly turned out as I hoped it would is you will see a fenced in lawn area that is no longer a wonderful creeping surface that it was originally because I've never got anybody interested in doing what I thought would be a big operation down there, which is English bowling. My grandfather had a bowling green out in Minnesota and I bought two sets of bowls. I gave one set to the Everdells who moved from Concord to Lewis Wharf but they didn't bowl. I never got anybody to really go and bowl on that green. The Italians have bocci balls but they would just as soon have dirt. In any case the bowling green has not been a great success.
I hope that at some time the building can recall to others the kind of excitement it engendered in me after a week or two in the archives in the public library. I had hoped the lobby would be such a place and I actually hired expert historians. I employed them to lay out a number of things that I had read about and gotten interested in studying in the library. Oliver Wendell Holmes took a ship from Lewis Wharf to Liverpool and wrote about it, and there were a number of famous trips by square riggers to California during the gold rush. I wanted to get a map of the world showing a number of these trips. I remember being rather disappointed with this historical group came up with a quilt, a map of the world made up by a person like you or me, a copy of a real map. Anybody who has traveled wants to find the places he has been on a real map.