Needham History Center & Museum Needham History Center & Museum, Needham Massachusetts 02492
 

Our Historic Houses

Rendering by Needham artist Bob Larsen of the Upper Falls Schoolhouse (1842) and the Matthias Mills House (1834).

 

In April 2006, the Needham History Center & Museum moved to its new headquarters in the renovated Matthias Mills House (1834) and Upper Falls Schoolhouse (1842).  Both structures were moved from their original locations on Central Avenue, to their new location at 1147 Central Avenue, in front of the Newman Elementary School.  A small structure was built to join the two buildings, and to allow space for handicapped-accessible entries, restrooms, and an elevator.

Our new headquarters were designed to facilitate collaboration with the Town and the public schools, and to provide much-needed program and teaching space.  The new location provides for greater public access to exhibits and research collections, and offers greater visibility of the site with adequate parking and full accessibility for all visitors, improved workspace for staff and volunteers, and increased security for collections and storage.  The buildings serve not only as an improved venue for History Center programs, but have become the favored location for the meetings and events of other local organizations.

The renovation of our new headquarters also set an example of adaptive reuse of historic structures, a small counterbalance to the rapid destruction of our historic house inventory through tear-down and development.  The Kingsbury-Whitaker house (our former home) was sold under a covenant administered by Historic New England/SPNEA, requiring its preservation as a National Register property.  Both the Mills House and the Schoolhouse were intended for demolition before they were relocated by the Needham History Center.  We were thus able to assure the long-term preservation of three important historic structures.

Together, the Mills House and Schoolhouse provide generous space for the History Center’s exhibits, programs, and research.  The Schoolhouse is also the location of our famous third-grade program, the 1850s Schoolhouse Day.

 

The Matthias Mills House (1834)

The Mills family settled in this area in the 1600s and played a significant role in the history of the Town.  Benjamin Mills Sr, Benjamin Mills Jr, William Mills and Zechariah Mills were all signers of the Farmers’ Petition to separate Needham from Dedham in 1711.  The Mills family sent twelve men, fathers and sons, to the Battles of Lexington and Concord.  Five Needham men were killed that day, Elisha Mills and Amos Mills among them.

Matthias Mills was one of the four children of Lt. Fisher Mills.  He built his house on Central Avenue in 1834, at the time of his marriage to Peady Hemenway of Framingham.  Originally, Fisher Mills and his four sons all built houses within a half-mile radius of the intersection of Great Plain and Central Avenues.  Although Matthias’ house has now been turned to face Central Avenue, it originally faced northward toward Great Plain Avenue, supposedly so that Matthias could look out his door toward the houses of his father and brothers.  The Mills families kept large packs of hounds, and the intersection’s traditional name, “Dog’s Corner,” is said to have originated in their incessant howling and barking.

Matthias built a workshop behind his house where he made glue, in partnership with his brother John.  Glue was, at that period, a valued commodity, and the Mills brothers became quite prosperous.  Matthias was also a member of the Norfolk Rifle Rangers, Needham’s militia company, and was a founding member of the Evangelical Congregational Church.

The Matthias Mills House (1842) in its original location on Central Avenue, facing Great Plain Avenue

 

The Upper Falls Schoolhouse (1842)

The Upper Falls School, or “Little Red Schoolhouse,” was built in 1842 at the intersection of Central Avenue and Webster Street to serve the children of the Upper Falls district.  As the population of Needham grew, however, the school rapidly became inadequate, and in 1869 a new Upper Falls School (later renamed the Eliot School) was built nearby at the corner of Central Avenue and Gould Street.  The old schoolhouse was sold at public auction in 1870, and became a residence.

The schoolhouse remained a residence on its original site until 2000, when the property was sold to a developer.  To rescue the structure from demolition, a committee of citizens called Save Our Schoolhouse raised the funds to move it off the site.  The schoolhouse was placed temporarily on the St Mary’s Street pumping station property while a final destination was sought.

Although the Old Schoolhouse did not have a long life as a school, it is the only surviving example in Needham of a type of building that was once quite common.  All of Needham’s early schoolhouses were one-room.  Needham built some multi-classroom schools after 1870, but one-room schools were in use in the more remote parts of town until the 1930s.

The Upper Falls Schoolhouse (1842) in its original location at the intersection of Webster Street and Central Avenue. At the time of the photo (1948) it was being used as a residence.

 

The Schoolhouse was chosen for inclusion for the new lobby murals in the John Eliot School.