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Stories from the Gilded Age: The Whitin Lasell Manor

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.)