Needham History Center & Museum

“Earnest, zealous, and with his whole heart engaged…”

William Emerson Baker entertains guests at a party in the Pavilion Grove, circa 1875. Baker is second from right, with the walrus mustache, studiously looking away from the camera.
William Emerson Baker entertains guests at a party in the Pavilion Grove, circa 1875. Baker is second from right, with the walrus mustache, studiously looking away from the camera.
 

Although William Baker was the inspired genius behind the creation of his estate, someone needed to do the actual work.  That someone was Richard Greaves, his long-time sidekick, landscape architect, and enthusiastic garden-building partner-in-crime.

 

“Those qualities required by the host [ie, Baker himself] to execute numerous projected illuminations at fetes or surprises for the grounds, and give finishing brush touches to ornamental works, buildings, &c, have been found in … the general superintendent, Richard Greaves, [with whom the host has] communed when planning the work seen accomplished at Ridge Hill Farms.

Of the superintendent nothing need be said, inasmuch as “by his deeds shall ye know him.” The garden speaks, as no words can, of the skill and taste of the man.  Earnest, zealous, and with his whole heart engaged many, many, many consecutive nights, continued far into the morning hours, has he, with matches and candles, walked over the grounds with the owner, building castles in the air, removing obstacles to progress, projecting ornamental water-works, fountains, artificial ponds and lakes, and planning wonders underground.”

— William Emerson Baker, A Guide to the Ridge Hill Farms, pages 103-104.

 

It hardly seems necessary to say any more about the man. But, of course, I will.

Although William Baker was the inspired genius behind the creation of his estate, the Ridge Hill Farms, someone needed to do the actual work.  That someone was Richard Greaves.

When Baker bought his estate in 1868 (more about that here), the property mostly consisted of an ancient farmhouse surrounded by hay fields, woodlots, and pine swamp.  But Baker had big plans, so by 1869, he had placed advertisements in the English newspapers for a landscape architect to become General Superintendent of his estate. The ad was answered by a genial 31-year-old Welshman named Richard Greaves. Greaves came over to the States in 1870 for an interview and was hired to assemble and supervise a grounds staff of about 20 people.  A few years later, he brought over his wife and family, and they settled into a cottage on the estate. As the above quote makes clear, by expectation and by choice, Greaves was always “on call”, so he needed to be on site.

Baker and Greaves built, added, altered, and generally tinkered with the estate for 20 years – but the main period of activity was the mid-1870s. This is the time frame during which they built most of the large buildings, laid out the general plan of organization, and created most of the follies.  In all, Baker’s 800 acres of hay fields became the site of more than 100 structures or feature of varying sizes and complexity.  The estate had three main sections, and features were arranged accordingly.  The section north of Charles River Street and east of Grove Street (known as The Grove) was for science and learning – the Norino Tower (a science museum), the Conservatories, the formal gardens, the exhibits. Across Grove street to the west was the Sunset Slope, mostly given over to leisure – the boat houses, the fountains, the scenic ponds and bridges, Sabrina Lake (artificial and hand-dug) for the pleasure boats, and the scenic Lakeside Balustrade with its rows of classical sculpture. South of Charles River Street and down to the Charles River, was the Charity Reservation, which held the Hotel Wellesley and the working farm. Apart from the Hotel, the Charity Reservation was not for public amusement; this was where Baker carried out his experiments in agriculture and public health.

The Ridiculous and the Sublime. Alongside such lovely vignettes as Flora’s Telescope in the formal gardens (right), there were oddities lurking around every pathside bend, like the Farmer’s Boy (“the Farmer’s Boy on the hill has a pretty smile”).
The Ridiculous and the Sublime. Alongside such lovely vignettes as Flora’s Telescope in the formal gardens (right), there were oddities lurking around every pathside bend, like the Farmer’s Boy (“the Farmer’s Boy on the hill has a pretty smile”).

Where did Baker and Greaves get all the stuff that filled the estate – the statues, vases, architectural details, even whole buildings? To be sadly honest, they were shameless scavengers. Whenever a building in Boston burned down or was demolished, there they were to collect the pieces – the Gothic arched door to the former Presbyterian Church on Beach Street, columns from the Old Post Office after it was damaged in the Great Boston Fire of 1872, statues from an old theater, painted panels from a former club on Tremont Street… 

The mother lode was the Centennial International Exposition, held in Philadelphia in 1876. The Exposition was a showcase of America’s achievements and industry to celebrate the country’s 100th anniversary. The Expo lasted for six months, and was visited by an estimated 10 million people.  There were hundreds of exhibits, sponsored by businesses, inventors, manufacturers, American states, and at least 36 other countries.

Once the Expo closed, all that stuff had to go somewhere.  Much was dismantled, discarded, or brought back to its place of origin. A large amount of material was sent to Washington DC to form the core collection of the Smithsonian’s Arts & Industries Building.  And Baker and Greaves bought some of it.

Baker sent Greaves, his wife, and one of their children to Philadelphia for a week, to take in the Exposition and to scout it for potential acquisitions. Greaves returned with many (many) statues, fountains, and similar sculptures; architectural elements; and even a few buildings.  Most were smaller structures, like the Chilean Mineral Pavilion, which became a garden gazebo and later a pump house.  The gem of their collecting was the Great American Restaurant. The restaurant was a showcase for fine American dining, intended to show that American techniques and ingredients could hold their own against the European cuisines.  Greaves had the restaurant dismantled and shipped in pieces to Baker’s estate, where he had it rebuilt (with additional floors) as the luxurious Hotel Wellesley.

The Greaves family lived on the estate, and their children had the run of the place.  They knew all of the workmen, who would often make them toys, doll beds, and other small creations. In the 1950s, Heda Greaves Harrell, one of the Greaves’ daughters, would recall her childhood on the estate:

“Seldom has a child grown up in such a fairyland as I did!  Everyone loved Mr Baker.  He was of medium build with a round smiling face and a shiny bald head edged with curly white hair which blew in the wind.  He was full of fun and liked to play pranks, and his enthusiasm for planning his estate was boundless…  Mrs Baker, on the contrary, was sedate and proper as befitting a Farnsworth.  She was a real Boston blueblood.  She was petite and dark haired and completely wrapped up in her two children, Eddie and Walter.  Mrs Baker had little sympathy with her husband’s wonderful plans for Ridge Hill Farms.  [She was] not friendly like he was…”

After Baker died in 1888, Charlotte Baker rapidly sold off the estate – both the land and the movables.  The statues went to dealers (such as the Wounded Indian, subject of a recent story), but where most of it ended up is not known.  The Greaves family moved off the estate to another location (possibly in Wellelsey? He does not appear in the Needham directory for these years).  Greaves was about 50 at the time, and probably continued to work.  In 1896, Greaves was retired, and he and his wife purchased the house at 1321 Great Plain Avenue (still standing).

Greaves died in 1921 at the age of about 83. He is buried in the Woodlawn Cemetery in Wellesley, a property that he helped to landscape.

A view of Elm Tree Pond. The Pond was a small inlet off of Sabrina Lake. The columns of the Boston Fire Monument can be seen at the top right. The Circular Bear Pit is just behind the large elm tree at center. Near the left margin are the Gothic Freestone Arch, which led to the underground Grottoes; and the lovely Arboretum Bridge, which connected Elm Tree Pond to Sabrina Lake.
A view of Elm Tree Pond. The Pond was a small inlet off of Sabrina Lake. The columns of the Boston Fire Monument can be seen at the top right. The Circular Bear Pit is just behind the large elm tree at center. Near the left margin are the Gothic Freestone Arch, which led to the underground Grottoes; and the lovely Arboretum Bridge, which connected Elm Tree Pond to Sabrina Lake.

Gloria Polizzotti Greis, Executive Director, Needham History Center & Museum