Needham at the Turn of the Century
Needham at the turn of the 20th century was a town in transition. Although most residents were farmers or craftspeople, a rising class of merchants and professionals had settled into homes surrounding the business center of Great Plain Avenue. Children spent more time in the classroom than they did at home learning their parents’ trades. And the excellent train service to Boston was making commuting – and suburban living – increasingly convenient.
Needham was also undergoing a physical transition. The train route, which bypassed the old town center on Central Avenue, had gradually drawn businesses and residences toward the new center on the Great Plain. In 1884, the town purchased a large square of land for the Common, bounded by Highland and Great Plain Avenues and Chapel Street (which in those days took a sharp bend to the right and intersected with Highland). For two decades, municipal offices were established in rented rooms, located above Woodruff’s General Store on Great Plain Avenue. Finally, in 1901, Town Meeting recognized the increasingly urgent need for “proper and fitting accommodations” for the conduct of town business – adequate space for the town offices; fireproof security for vital town records; and not least, a desire to present the town as a dynamic and modern locale for residence and business.
The Town Hall was a civic monument to Needham’s Twentieth Century identity:
“We have only to consider our needs to decide what is the necessary and wise course to pursue in providing a suitable building . . . altogether arranged and constructed so that the stranger landing in our town will not be obliged to ask, ‘Where is the Town Hall?’ but it will speak for itself, and for the progressive spirit of our people.”
– Selectman Edgar H. Bowers
The photos in this exhibit depict the Needham landscape in 1900. Some of the sights are still familiar today. Most are gone from our collective memory, and exist only as fading silver images on paper.