“You can’t go home again,” wrote novelist Thomas Wolfe, meaning that of course you may return to where you grew up, but it won’t be the same place you remember.
Beverly Dunlap Rodrigues learned this truth when she moved back to Harvard last March, to the house she grew up in on Old Littleton Road. In a recent phone conversation, she said almost the first thing she heard were rumors that the town was going to burn down Bromfield House, a place that figured prominently in her family history. Her grandfather lived in that house during the 37 years he was principal of the Bromfield School, from 1917 until his retirement in 1954, and her father was born and grew up there. Although she never lived in the house herself, she sees it as very much a part of her identity—and also as a significant part of the town’s identity.
Rodrigues quickly learned that the town has no immediate plans to demolish the house, although it might eventually come to that unless an alternative can be found. With the superintendent and other school personnel moving to offices in the new Hildreth Elementary School, the School Committee will have no further need for the building. The Oct. 3, 2020, Town Meeting passed an article that gives the “care, custody, management, and control of Bromfield House” to the Select Board to “sell, convey, transfer, or otherwise dispose of” the building and the land. The Select Board appointed a committee of six—three members of town boards and three citizens-at-large—to come up with a plan for the house to present to voters at Spring Town Meeting. Rodrigues said that because of her family’s history of investment in Harvard’s schools, she feels an obligation to be involved in the fate of Bromfield House, and she wants to help create a proposal for its future. Although she was not chosen to serve on the committee, Select Board members have said they welcome Rodrigues’ input, as they welcome ideas from everyone in the community.
While she said she understands that the town cannot afford to put money into the necessary repairs and ongoing maintenance of the house (and the Select Board has clearly stated it will not put money into renovating it), Rodrigues hopes there are alternatives to demolishing the building. She pointed out that newer residents, many of whom moved to Harvard because of the school system, “may not have personal experience of the building as an integral part of that system’s history, [but] I think they may respect the unique role that the building has played in creating that excellent system.” And, she said, “I believe that Harvard’s longtime residents cherish the Bromfield House for its history and admire its simple elegance as a significant contribution to the character of the town.”
Rodrigues’ paternal grandfather, James Albion Dunlap, brought his wife and two daughters to Harvard in 1917, when he was hired to be the Bromfield School’s second principal and to teach math and science. Residence in the recently built Bromfield House was part of his contract.
Affectionately called “Prof Dunlap,” he also coached the baseball team, and he made practice bats on a lathe at his home. Rodrigues said: “People have told me that he drove the team in his car to games in nearby towns. Only half of the boys would fit, so the other half would start out walking. He would drop his riders just short of the destination, so they walked the rest of the way while he went back to pick up the original walkers and take them to the end of the route. They all got exercise and transportation.” Rodrigues said she hears other stories of her grandfather from children of his former students.
James A. Dunlap Sr. (right) and Jr. on the front porch of Bromfield House circa 1944. (Courtesy photo)
Rodrigues’ father, James A. Dunlap Jr., was born in 1919 in a bedroom of Bromfield House. He grew up there, graduated from the Bromfield School with the Class of 1936, and went off to serve in World War II. Rodrigues has a photo of her father in uniform, standing with his own father on the front porch of the house. After Bromfield House, her father lived the rest of his 98 years on Old Littleton Road.
Rodrigues said she recalls very little about the inside of Bromfield House, although she seems to remember the kitchen, perhaps, she said, because her grandmother, who like her husband came from a Maine farming family, was a good baker. She can picture a soapstone sink and an icebox that had a door to the outside so the ice could be delivered without bringing it in through the house. She said she often played on the lawn of Bromfield House when she was in elementary school because her friend Bernice was the daughter of George Rogers, who succeeded Rodrigues’ grandfather as principal of Bromfield.
It was probably in the early ’60s that the house ceased to be a residence, as the town needed the space for school administrative offices. (An earlier Press article by this writer mistakenly stated that Bromfield House ceased to be a residence in 1940.) For Rodrigues, the 106-year-old house remains a tribute to a longtime school leader who, she said, “was such an integral part of the community,” a situation that was “priceless.”
In thinking about the fate of Bromfield House, Rodrigues said, “I believe we should make every effort to keep this building and land intact as an important historic property.” (The house does not fall within the bounds of the Town Center Historic District.) She said she doesn’t think it’s necessary for the town to try to sell the property, the proceeds of which would go to the Bromfield Trust for funding scholarships. Instead, Rodrigues said: “We should beat the bushes for someone who would be willing to take it off the town’s hands with the agreement that it be restored as accurately as possible and put to good use as a one-family, or possibly two-family, residence, depending on the desires of the builder and the approval of town boards. There would be no cost to the town and the renovated property would generate revenue in taxes.”
Bromfield House in the 1920s. (Courtesy photo)