Stories from the Gilded Age: The Whitin Lasell Manor

June 25, 2019

 

Gilded Age mansions have always had a certain undeniable mystique about them.  When one goes on the market it’s a bit like the coming-out party of an early twentieth-century society girl: she’s beautiful, mysterious, stepping out for all the world to see, and looking for her worthy match. And there is not another in the world quite like her.  

 

Such is the case with the historic Whitin Lasell Manor at 120 Hill Street in Whitinsville, MA. Built in 1890 for Charles Whitin Lasell, president of Whitin Machine Works, this 43-room mansion and sprawling woodland estate brings the best of Downton-Abbey-esque elegance to modern times. But even more captivating than its surface grandeur and period details is the true gold beneath the glitter: the rich stories the mansion has to tell of the lives it has witnessed and shaped.  

 

When I was asked by a friend involved in the sale of this Colonial Revival home to do a little digging into its early history, as a lover of all things cultural and vintage, my curiosity was piqued. Upon my first visit to the house, I fell in love with the beautiful bay windows, the grand staircase and expansive entertaining spaces, the nooks and crannies, and the feeling of luxury surrounded by calmness. (Did I mention the dining room is a woodcarver’s dream?) But what drew me in most was the old Aeolian player pipe organ console, rescued by the mansion’s most recent owner from an unheated shed on the property. It was clearly ravaged by time, still waiting to be restored and reconnected to the organ pipes gracing the wall of the adjacent ballroom. Yet if I closed my eyes, I could almost hear the music of this grand instrument reverberating with the laughter and voices of a century-gone debutante ball.  Whose hands had coaxed melodies from this organ’s keys, and who had danced with suitors to its music?

 

Above the fireplace in the entrance hall a bronze plaque reads:

 

The Chester Whitin Lasell House

Given in Memory of

Chester Whitin Lasell

July 5, 1861 – Dec. 17, 1932

And

Jessie Keeler Lasell

Nov. 2, 1864 – April 26, 1950

By their Daughter

 

Who was the nameless daughter who had grown up in this house and years later dedicated this plaque to her parents? What was her story, and that of her family? I set out to find out.

 

The daughter’s name was Hildegarde “Higgie” Lasell Watson (1888 – 1976), and it was much to my delight to discover she had written a memoir, The Edge of the Woods, published posthumously by her husband, J.S. Watson Jr., in 1979. More a compilation of stories and observances than a complete memoir, the book offers a fascinating glimpse into the home, people and events shaping the life and thoughts of a remarkable woman from Whitinsville’s gilded age.

 

In historical records Hildegarde is most known as a concert soprano and early film actress. From the title and content of her memoir it is clear that this house with its idyllic grounds played a pivotal role in inspiring the artist within the society girl.  In the woods behind the home, as children Hildegarde and her younger sister Marion had freedom to play and dream. Hildegarde describes reluctantly coming in for dinner from “the woods we had hated to leave” and then lying on a big polar bear rug in front of the fire in the billiards room, painting and listening to stories read by “Biddy”, the French governess of whom the girls were very fond.

The girls’ upbringing was particularly unique because their home in Whitinsville, though in a mill town, was located only 15 miles south of Worcester and 40 miles west of Boston, easily accessible by carriage and train.

 

The family moved in high class social circles which spanned the globe, all the while enjoying a small-town tranquility of life perhaps less-accessible to their big-city counterparts. It was luxurious, clean-air living with big city benefits. Close enough to both cities for the girls to go to concerts and doctor’s appointments in Boston and dancing lessons in Worcester; far away enough to fall asleep to birdsong rather than street noise. It was in this dual world the girls were nurtured by their parents both financially and artistically.

 

Charles Whitin Lasell was a businessman by title, but horseman by nature. Described by his daughter Hildegarde as a “quiet, shy man,” he had the good fortune of being the grandson of the town’s founder, which gave him the social station to provide amply for his family while devoting most of his time to equestrian pursuits at his nearby racing stable and track, Oakhurst Farm. His wife, Jesse Maud Keeler Lasell, hailed from out west, where she had been among the first generation of American females to earn a college degree. Jesse had aspired to be an actress but was constrained by her time and class. She contented herself by reciting Shakespeare and Chaucer to her two daughters and encouraging their musical pursuits. (Before embarking on her singing career, Hildegarde studied piano with a student of the great Franz Liszt; Marion played the violin “with fervor and love.”) Also a benefactress, when the girls were grown Jesse would become the patron of the brilliant organist, composer and music critic Virgil Thomson, a regular at Sunday dinners.

 

Jesse loved serving food, but she didn’t do it alone: mealtimes in the Whitin Lasell House were lavish affairs all the way through 1928. (The drawers where the servants kept their belongings are still visible up on the third floor.)

During Hildegarde and Marion’s childhood as the turn of the century approached, a cast of characters passed through the house, described by Hildegarde in her memoir. There was great-grandmother Sarah Elizabeth Pratt, the second wife of John C. Whitin, known as “Tanny,” who lived across the way. She kept a small farm, complete with white peacocks in the yard and baby pigs in a giant sarcophagus-like bathtub. Booker T. Washington was a close friend of Tanny’s, and a visitor at the Whitin Lasell House as well. Then there was Uncle Lawrence “Nukie,” Jesse’s younger brother, said to be one of the first people to put electric lights on an outdoor Christmas tree. He was also a mechanic who owned one of the first cars in town, and made quite a show the first time he pulled up the grand driveway of the manor in his Stanley Steamer to take Hildegarde and her grandmother for a ride. Nukie’s friend, President Garfield’s younger brother, would try to cajole Jesse into letting the girls stay up past their bedtime for parties, while Hildegarde writes of fond memories of stealing out of bed and sitting at the top of the stairs above a party below, listening to the clinking of billiard balls as cigar smoke wafted up, waiting to hear her cousin Leila (then Brownwell) Geddes sing.

 

Hildegarde and Marion went to finishing school in New York in their early teenage years, and later studied abroad in Florence, but they returned home for their “coming-out” season in Boston and the flurry of social engagements it entailed. There was fashion-setting (Hildegarde and her cousin Lillian were among the first girls to wear collarless-necked dresses in the city), and much dancing, with parties every weekend. My own research into the Aeolian player pipe organ revealed this specific instrument (each given its own unique number) was contracted in 1905, shipped in April of 1906, and installed that same year. This correlates with the timing of the girls’ coming-out season from 1907-1908, and Hildegarde’s mention of the organ around the same time. She speaks of John A. Warner filling the Whitin-Lasell Manor with music: “Much gifted, he would hurry across to our organ and, pulling out the stops, begin a Bach toccata - music roaring through the house, our spirits rising with excitement.”

 

One can almost smell the flowers Hildegarde’s best friend Clara Hayes would pluck from the lush gardens outside the manor to put in her hair every night before dancing, and feel the youthful enthusiasm of those summer nights ripe with the dreams and revelries of youth, spilling onto the veranda with all the glamour of the age.

Eventually, both Hildegarde and Marion were married in Whitinsville, with notable suitors and wedding guests by their side. Marion was married first, to the young Italian lawyer Minturn di Suzzara Verdi, in September of 1912. Reportedly President Taft, a family friend, attended the wedding, but ran a bit late, keeping the bride waiting in the church doorway until he arrived. After the wedding Marion and her husband moved to New York City and began a family. Marion and Minturn had three daughters before Marion’s life was tragically cut short in 1922, just over a week after the birth and death of her infant son.

 

In her early twenties Hildegarde danced and corresponded with Mackenzie King, the future prime minister of Canada, and took him on walks through the woods behind her home. The love of her life, however, was James Sibley Watson Jr., whom she met in Illinois in the winter of 1915 while studying singing, and married in October of 1916. The wedding, according to Hildegarde, was a lavish affair arranged by her mother, with the chestnut and pine trees on the terraced lawn at the Whitin Lasell Manor decked out with Japanese lanterns for the festivities. (That very lawn, nationally recognized for its beauty and innovative design, was featured on the cover of House Beautiful Magazine in both 1915 and 1918.) Famous attendants at Hildegarde’s wedding included poet E. E. Cummings, who served as an usher. He would remain a close friend of both Hildegarde and her husband throughout their lives.

 

Hildegarde and James were well-matched, sharing a love for the arts inherited from their independent mothers. (Emily Sibley Watson, James’ mother, was both a divorcee and founder of the Rochester Memorial Art Gallery.) In addition to being a successful radiologist, James was publisher of the famous literary magazine The Dial. He was also an avant-garde filmmaker; Hildegarde co-starred as an actress in two of her husband’s films: the 1928 silent film “The Fall of the House of Usher” and the 1933 film “Lot in Sodom.” As a concert soprano, Hildegarde performed across Europe, the U.S. and Canada from 1914-1940, donating all proceeds from her concerts to the war effort or charity.

 

Hildegarde and James had two children, Michael (b. 1918) and Jeanne (b. 1921). Although the family settled in Rochester, for many years they kept a farm not far from the Whitin Lasell Manor, where they were frequent guests in Hildegarde’s childhood home on weekends and holidays. One can just imagine: as the hallways echo with the golden voices of her children and nieces coming in from the woods to sit down to an elegant dinner at their grandmother’s table, there is Hildegarde, lingering in the ballroom, completing a melody. From the alcove by the organ, perhaps she pauses to gaze out the great bay windows in reverie. Marking time, the late afternoon sun illuminates the floors where she and her sister had danced, and dreamed, in the house which made it all possible: the Whitin Lasell Manor.

 

-Story Contributed by Karen Stokke

 

Interested in shaping the next chapter of the Whitin Lasell Manor’s story? Contact Norman D. Hodson at (617) 818-2101 or NormanHodson@KW.com to schedule a private tour. 

 

Visit the webpage for the house's sale: 120HillStreet.com

 

Video of the manor:  120HillStreetTour.com

 

 

The story above was contributed to Preservation Massachusetts by Karen Stokke. If you are interested in submitting a piece for publication on our obline blog, social meida and/or e-newsletter, please contact Erin Kelly at ekelly@preservationmass.org 

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