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Harvard History: What to do with this old house?

The Bromfield House on Mass. Ave. is by no means the first building in Harvard to be abandoned once its usefulness was over. And the question of what to do with it has been asked of old buildings throughout Harvard’s history. Then, as now, there have been interesting—and sometimes outlandish—possibilities.

District No. 1 schoolhouse was moved from the Common in 1905. (Photo courtesy of the Harvard Historical Society)

The first building to outlive its purpose was Harvard’s original meetinghouse, built at the top of the Common near today’s Town Hall in 1733. When it became too small for the expanding congregation, residents voted to build a new meetinghouse, just southwest of the existing one. The old one remained standing while the new one was constructed. But then, in 1774, with two meetinghouses right next to each another, the town was in a quandary. A proposal was made to use the old building for militia training, but that idea was rejected. Perhaps residents thought that would make things a bit too crowded, or some might have objected to gunpowder being so close to God. After two years, it was sold to the founders of Boxborough to be the new town’s meetinghouse. It later served that town in other capacities, the last being the public library, until it burned in 1953.

In the first half of the 19th century, the rise and decline of new religious sects caused a series of moves around the Common. To make way for the Congregational Church to be built at the foot of the Common, the town livestock pound and hearse house had to be moved from the site. It must have been fairly easy to move the wooden pound a short distance to the west and only slightly more difficult to move the small hearse house across the burying ground. When the Methodist Church, for which the town had allowed a spot on the burying ground’s east side, failed to thrive, it was a different matter to move the larger building. But luckily the new site was almost directly across the street; there it became a residence, which it remains today. The town had granted the Universalists a parcel of land just beyond the crest of the Common on which to build their meetinghouse. The group dwindled and the meetinghouse became dilapidated. It was sold and moved a substantial distance to Ayer, where it was converted into a residence with stores below. It later burned.

Throughout the 19th century, people moved houses around on the Common as though it were a chessboard. An 18th-century building next to what is now the old library was moved to 12 Ayer Road; a house at 8 Ayer Road was moved four house lots north; and the house at 3 Elm Street was moved across the Common to Old Littleton Road. All three of these moves seem to have been motivated by a desire to build a new house more to the new owner’s liking. Today, people are more inclined to see the house and lot as a package deal.

The town’s decision to finally give up its district school system and centralize grammar school students in one building led to the question of what to do with the 1851 District No. 1 schoolhouse that stood between the General Store and the Congregational Church. One plan was to move it to the Little Common, that portion of the original public land extending down between Fairbank Street and Oak Hill Road. The roads proved too narrow to allow this. One wonders where people thought the fairly large building could go. The Little Common itself was filled with trees, and by that time houses already occupied the surrounding land. An article on the 1905 town warrant proposed moving the schoolhouse to the site of the new elementary school on Mass. Ave., where it could serve as a gymnasium. In what seems a prudent move, the town chose instead to sell the schoolhouse. It too was moved to Ayer, for a multifamily dwelling.

In 1896 the store at 1 Still River Road, built in 1851, was moved around the corner and across the street to 9 Mass. Ave. to make way for the new Gale & Dickson general store. The old store was used for grain storage, and at some point it had at least one apartment on an upper level. It was torn down in the 1950s.

In contrast to these past moves, which in most cases were made to pave the way for something new, Will and Rika Stevenson of South Shaker Road undertook a move for the sake of preservation. A few years ago they moved a large 1835 barn that had once been part of a farm on Stow Road to their property, where it was beautifully restored.

When it comes to the fate of Bromfield House, which was built in 1914 to serve as the Bromfield School’s principal’s house, many residents hope there’s another preservationist out there.


Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of articles based on Carlene Phillips’ forthcoming book, “A Common History: The Story of Harvard’s Identity.”

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