Lou Hills
360 Harrington Ave.

Age: 70

Interviewed February 15, 2005

Saving the Harrington House

Concord Oral History Program
Renee Garrelick, Interviewer

Hills, Lou

-- 1973 sale of Ralph and Mary LeBallister House with 15 acres of land Proposed demolition of the Harrington House- conflicting uses of the site- for development as tennis club, recreational, conservation land, preservation of 18th century farmhouse. Acquisition of site by the town- Natural Resources Commission who opposed keeping the house.

-- Grassroots effort with petition signatures, support from the neighborhood, formation of work parties- Phebe Ham, Mary Shorey, enlistment of support from newly formed Concord Historical Commission.

-- Preparation of warrant article for 1975 Town Meeting for acquisition of the 18th century farmhouse (earliest part circa 1740) for purchase price of $6800 and the work of volunteer labor crews. 1977 Town Meeting approval of revolving fund as the way of financing maintenance of the house.

-- Selection of first tenants, Rob and Becky McCall and fundraising with Rob's Old Coyote String Band. Professional consultation with the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities. Selection of current tenants Peter and Jane Benes in 1983.

-- Involvement in saving the West Concord train station as a grassroots effort in the late 1980s.

Thirty years ago Town Meeting voted to save the Harrington House from being demolished to be acquired by the Town under the supervision of the Concord Historical Commission.

The grassroots effort to save the Harrington House was a really big project and one that we learned a lot from. That brings us back to the early 1970s, over 30 years ago. The neighbors learned back in 1973 that the LeBallisters (Ralph and Mary) who had lived in the house had decided to sell their property. Many of us knew the house and had often stopped along the road to look at the horses and enjoy the beautiful old Colonial white house on the hill. We were surprised to learn that it was being offered to a developer who was interested in building a tennis club. Well, our road was quite narrow and many of the neighbors weren't quite sure we could handle all the traffic. So we began to try to learn more about it.

At that time, the town was acquiring conservation land and each year at town meeting we'd hear about another piece of land that was being voted on. So this particular piece of property attracted the people in the Natural Resources Department, and they contacted the owner and lo and behold we learned that Natural Resources had prepared a warrant article for the purchase of the 15 acres of property. All the surrounding land was open fields where local farmers were growing their crops. This became really an opportunity for the town. As the LeBallisters moved out and the town began to seriously think about acquiring it, town meeting came up. In that town meeting they did vote to appropriate the money to purchase the property. That was something that the neighborhood supported and we all welcomed.

Part of the money to be raised for the purchase of the property surprisingly came through the funding of the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation. That sort of stirred the interest of some people in the community that there was a chance that the property wouldn't just be conservation land, but also recreational land. Well, that was not necessarily the wish of the Natural Resources Commission. They had planned for the property to be conservation land as many of the surrounding areas were conservation land also. We had the big rifle range area, and on Ministerial Drive there was conservation land. So we began to see at least two interest groups, the recreational people and the conservation people. They began to talk with each other and some of us looked at that house and said maybe that would be a nice thing to save also. All of a sudden, we had three groups and three areas of interest.

Some of the things the groups were in total agreement with, and others it became confusing. We had several meetings at our house with neighbors. The house was now vacant and was being vandalized. There was sort of a temporary insulated ceiling and there were poked holes in that and the windows were broken. The fire chief happened to live across the street and he was very concerned that the house may burn with the vandals in it. So there was certainly an active interest in tearing it down.

Well, that's not exactly what some of us had hoped as we poked our heads in the door. We saw possibilities. We also realized that it was really an old farmhouse possibly a couple of hundred years old. It may even go back to prior to the Revolutionary War. It was on a natural farm site. Its something we don't see too many of and particularly in West Concord. We started a group that was interested in saving the house, but not being inconsistent with recreation or conservation. We thought they could be done in a compatible way. Unfortunately, the house sat on a hill that would make a good sleigh riding hill so there were a small number of vocal people in the neighborhood that said, it makes a better sled riding hill than saving a house. So that became quite interesting. My wife (Jean) and I went out and wrote a petition and we got over 40 of our neighbors to sign it that the house should be saved, and that it would be compatible with future uses of the land for conservation or recreation. A subcommittee group was formed to work on this little project. I was invited by the Historical Commission, who by this time was getting right in the middle of this controversy as they supported the saving of the house. Their sort of sister commission, Natural Resources, wasn't too sure that this was a good idea.

The Historical Commission had just been formed themselves in 1973. This was now in March 1975, and they were just getting their feet wet on what they should do. But here we had some very historically significant property in danger. The two commissions held joint meetings, in fact they were public hearings where members of both commissions got up and explained their interest in the property.

While the commissions were working things out, we began to realize that we had to get it up to a point where it could be occupied. Volunteers were needed so we began to see articles in the newspaper, and we passed out handouts about the house and people signed up. That summer there were just all kinds of activity around the house with ladders and people working on the roof. This all was to culminate in an occupancy permit. Could we get an occupancy permit? We needed money to do the repairs, so a warrant article with estimates of the costs was put together with the sole purpose of bringing the house up to occupancy. The Bureau of Recreation said if you're going to have recreational facilities you have to have the electricity underground from the street. So that was an expense item of over $1000. The septic system had to be repaired. Heating ducts had to be put in. The roof had to be repaired. Paint had to be purchased. That all added up to about $6,800 in addition to our donations. The warrant article was prepared and the article was passed in town meeting. So we had money to begin work. Tradesmen came in and worked on the house. The oil tank had to be put underground, the septic was repaired, the house was painted, and the windows repaired. Philips Hardware came up and gave a workshop on how to repair windows and donated the glass, and we got the windows repaired.

That was an interesting summer. It then culminated in a lease being finally agreed upon by the two commissions in October. We went to the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities who managed at least at that time over 60 properties. They had caretakers in them and they were preserving them well. They had consulting engineers that knew structurally about property and what had to be maintained and what was significant. We asked for a copy of their lease and they shared with us a copy of their caretaker's lease and we used that as a model.

We realized that there were essentially two leases. One is to pass the property from the Natural Resources to the Historical Commission. And that would contain through a lot of negotiation only a small amount of land that was immediately associated with the house. The Natural Resources was also concerned about whether a telephone would be available in the house in case somebody was on the property and an emergency would arise. They were also concerned there was a person in the house to look after the property in a way that if something happened that they could make a phone call. So there were items in the lease agreement between the commissions that spelled this all out. So that lease was then put into place. Under state law a historical commission can buy and manage property. The commission realizing this became the landlord and the major lease holder. Then it was up to the Historical Commission to prepare what might be considered a sublease for the tenant. Now there were still a lot of repairs to be done in the house. So it was just three rooms that became available. A lease was then prepared and cleared through town counsel, and it was advertised. About that time a person who had helped us and worked with us, Rob McCall, lived here in West Concord with his wife Becky and children. They came up and expressed an interest in living in the house. Rob was a bit of a handyman. He had a service in town helping people out by fixing things around houses. He was a chimney sweep and it fit right into what we were all thinking about. Becky was an artist. They then were selected as the first tenants. I think the rent was around $68 and they got three rooms and they had to tolerate a lot of people still working on the house. There were still plenty of things to do. As a few dollars began to come in from the rent, we went back to SPNEA and asked them to help us understand the house. Was it really falling down? Who lived in this house? Sarah Chase was the key contact person. She then had reports written on the house. It was a Wheeler house, then a Harrington house, and it was at the end of Harrington Avenue coming down from Old Marlboro Road. So we learned about the history of the house and who lived in it. It turned out it was just three families that had lived in this house. The Wheelers were first, then the Harringtons. There were several generations of Wheelers. They had 500 acres of land. The Ministerial area, the Ministers Wood lot -- it was the Wheelers that gave that land to the First Parish Church for the minister. It had several generations of Wheelers living there. I would think they were related to the Wheelers of Nine Acre Corner area. One of the wives of one of the Wheelers was a Hosmer. There were Lees. There were a lot of Wheelers, and the Wheelers came early. I think they came in the 1630s originally.

The house looks like it was originally built around 1740. There were some major changes to it along the way. We see some of the rooms that reflect 1830s, some that reflect 1880, but the people that lived in there essentially didn't modernize it or change it very much. I certainly would encourage people to go in and look at it. It's just a wonderful example of a New England farmhouse. The town purchased 15 acres. That was the original warrant article for the purchase. There was additional land surrounding it that was being farmed. When you looked at the house, you saw this additional open land. I might add that subsequently a lot of that has been developed. One of the adjacent pieces has subsequently been bought by the town and is farmed.

I think at the time of going to town meeting we caught most of the town government and selectmen a little bit off guard. As you know, there really isn't anybody in town government that represents historical structures. We have departments such as natural resources that look after conservation land, we have housing, we have recreation, but we don't have any full time people in the government that are interested and dedicated to historical preservation or historical structures. So it wasn't something that fit in nicely with town government. We found it necessary to work on our own and organize our own groups and our own volunteers and work with the community to raise awareness. But with the newly formed Historical Commission, we certainly found a lot of support and they supported the article.

We weren't involved in the initial warrant article to purchase the property. The next one on the revolving fund was where we asked for money. At that point the Historical Commission was supporting us and was speaking in favor. People like David Little got up and spoke very eloquently about saving a farmhouse in a farming community was very important for the early history of the town. The third article on the revolving fund didn't have very much resistance. That was a housekeeping or bookkeeping warrant article. Otherwise, the rent would go into the town general fund. That was a big surprise to us as we began to rent to Rob. Money came in and we had bills to pay and we had reports to prepare, and we went back for the money and lo and behold it was being spent on other things. Then at the end of the fiscal year, it was gone. This was hard for some of us to understand. Realizing that, Mary Shorey came up with the idea that her brother was using out at UMass Amherst on the dairy herd where they had a revolving fund. We looked around the town and found the cemetery and the parking meter group had revolving funds. So we said, well let's give that an article.

Without Mary Shorey and Phebe Ham, this project would never have happened. They came in and helped out and were part of our early subcommittee. They were active in LAWS, the Louise May Alcott Women's Society, a feminist group. They gave us ideas and encouragement. They spoke in support of the warrant article. They showed us how to make flyers and how to really work as a grassroots group.

Things went along pretty good. Rob McCall liked nature. He wrote little articles in the Concord Journal about what it was like to live in the Harrington House, and the birds and animals and the farmland around. Someone suggested that there should be a community garden on the property. There was a nice low area next to the river. Rob and Becky worked on the garden and many of the neighbors had plots down there and grew vegetables. Rob also gave us the idea of community. How could the property be made available to the community? He was a musician and wanted to have festivals. He had the Old Coyote String Band. The band would sit down on the corner downtown and collect money for the Harrington House.

When things began to happen successfully, we would have parties at the Harrington House and the band would play and we would have hot cider. Unfortunately, one day we got a sad letter that Rob and Becky were going to move to Maine. I believe it was about five years later. He had certainly enjoyed living in the house. In the letter, he thanked us all and was very sad that he was leaving. That then put us into a position where we went out and advertised for another tenant. By this time the entire house was available for rental. The house has a more recent, say 1950s, kitchen in the back. Anita Tekle, assistant town manager at that time and liaison to the Historical Commission, went out and found parts for the stove for us. She was very familiar with our bills and receipts.

One of the reports began to identify that there were essentially three kitchens in the house at different times. We saw that as a central theme and with Rob's interest in community we had several tours of the house. Once I remember 150 people went through that day. There were classrooms that came. That was written in the lease that we were interested in having the house made available to the public. People came that were architects that were interested in the unique structure in the way the roof was made in the house. Other people came to look at the well in the basement. There were a number of community activities that were more in the interpretative educational area of what it was like to live in an early farmhouse. That theme has been continued.

There was always a concern of what the future of the house would be. We knew SPNEA had houses and people went through them and there were also caretakers living in them and we envisioned and they encouraged us to look in that direction.

I think the Harrington House now has about $68,000 in its account. It was expected that the tenant would do a certain amount of work to the house so the rent is correspondingly low as a reflection of the work included. This was an idea that came out of necessity if you will as we talked to Sarah Chase and we looked at examples. We had a lot of things to do and some of them were fairly straight forward and not particularly difficult. But we did need money, so this idea of having a lease which has work-in-kind for part of rent was built in and was used very effectively. In other words the lease had an attachment and it set some of the work items, and in the lease it would say so many hours a month that the tenant would provide. When I mentioned the early rent of $68 and later $85 and later $112, you might think that gee, that was a real bargain but also included were the work hours. If you put a value on the work hours, then it was several hundred dollars for the rent. Now maybe someday we won't need that and that may not be appropriate. But maybe instead of work, the caretaker would be a guide as school children or people came into the house. So maybe they would have to provide that kind of service. Where you're getting somebody very compatible with the objectives of the house, and it was an idea and we've kept it all along. The tenants we selected knew it upfront and they were in agreement.

The reports from SPNEA gave us direction in what we might do. One of the things we haven't done is we haven't begun to buy things for the house, such as things for the fireplace, kitchen utensils from the 1830 period or 1880 period. We haven't gotten to the stage where the tenant would provide more frequent tours and possibly the tenant could also give talks on the building and its history. Peter Benes, the current tenant, has done that at the Concord Museum. And Thoreau School children have come to the house. That was directly in line with what we had originally envisioned and had hoped would happen. I think people will enjoy that.

The next step in that process with a RFP is to determine whether their response to the request is consistent with the request. Also a lease will have to be updated to go along with the new dollar amount that had been proposed. This is being done because of a new state procurement regulation. It is another one of the sort of formalities which I would think wouldn't have any impact with the objectives.

I found a couple of boxes full of documents. These are letters, draft documents, subcommittee minutes that frequently don't have a date, and petitions, drafts of warrant articles, a lot of newspaper clippings. What I've done is put them in binders and I've tried to put them in chronological order so I could better recall what might have happened. I would think at some point, some of these newspaper clippings and some of the examples of where things were discussed might go in a vertical file in the library. So if somebody came in to listen to one of the tapes they could go to the reference librarian and get additional material. I don't think they would want to look over the 350 documents in front of us, but they might want to look at the newspaper clippings.

I've been involved in sort of similar projects such as saving the West Concord train station. I don't have six volumes in front of me to talk about. Saving the West Concord train station was a similar project in that it was an endangered structure which the town didn't know what to do with. A number of volunteers throughout the town joined together and ultimately were able to save the train station and make it available again as an active train station. That would have been in 1988-1989. It was through a grassroots group that that project was successfully done again with interesting relationships with the town and also on the federal level. I might say right now we have a new project and that is the West Concord Catholic church.

One of the exciting things about the house is we're always discovering things. As the volunteers cleaned up the front of the house, there was a millstone, a very large millstone that was used as a little porch at the front door. If you go into the basement, you can see part of the stone. Around the house is important. One of the people that helped us a lot was Carol Dwyer. Carol is a landscape architect. She's very sensitive to historical landscapes. She wrote a very nice report on the Harrington House that included sketches and ideas for relocating the road to allow the driveway up to the Harrington House to be returned possibly to the way it originally was and to be flat. In one of the letters that we got from Carol, she spoke about the contribution that the Historical Commission had made on behalf of the Harrington House, and that she hoped in the future that they would realize and recognize this 18th century farmhouse for its special significance because of the undeveloped farm setting. So I think people have to think of the house as a farmhouse in its setting around it.

Hills, Lou.
Text mounted 3rd October 2012; Images mounted 11th October 2012. RCWH.