Needham History Center & Museum

Modernist Needham

Looking around at the houses in Needham, you would not think of our town as a launching point for world-famous architects. But you would be wrong.  Not that we knew it at the time…


In research, as in life, one thing often leads to another. Like Bilbo Baggins said, once you step onto the road, you never know where you will end up. 

Several years ago, I was doing some research on Needham houses built by the architect Royal Barry Wills (1895 – 1962). RBW is credited with the development of the Colonial-Revival style, especially popular in the 1930s and 40s.  As the need for residential housing boomed, Wills sought to create houses that were inexpensive and efficient, but still had the aesthetic qualities of the craftsman-built homes of the past. He was quite successful, and there are still many Wills houses around New England.  There are even several Wills houses still standing in Needham – for example, 60 Stevens Road and 589 High Rock Street. Others are gone, notably the lovely cottage with the English garden that once stood at the bend on Glendoon Road.

A classic Wills Cape-style house, still standing at 586 High Rock Street. This picture was taken in the 1950s.
A classic Wills Cape-style house, still standing at 586 High Rock Street. This picture was taken in the 1950s.

Wills began his practice in Boston in the 1920s, and continued until his death. His son, Richard Wills, took over the firm and practiced until his own retirement about ten years ago. At that point, the firm’s archives were given to Historic New England for preservation.  Wills also published several books about his work, the most famous being Houses for Good Living (1940), which includes a couple of his Needham houses.  I was fortunate enough to talk to Richard Wills before he retired, and he was generous in looking up old files of Wills homes in Needham for me.

A typical RBW Cape-style house had a low profile and massive central chimney.  The sides were clapboarded, the windows were multi-paned, and the small arched garage was connected to the house by a breezeway.  Because of Wills’ fixation on scale and balance in his design, the interior of the house often felt larger and more spacious than it appeared from outside.  Although his main inspiration was New England’s traditional colonial cottages, Wills’ designs encompassed the whole range of colonial style, from First Period (Elizabethan) cottages to lavish Federal-style mansions.

The Thomas Troy house was built in 1938, on Wyoming Street in Needham. It was designed for Wills' firm by Hugh Stubbins. The house has since been demolished.
The Thomas Troy house was built in 1938, on Wyoming Street in Needham. It was designed for Wills’ firm by Hugh Stubbins. The house has since been demolished.

And then there was the Thomas Troy house. In 1938, Thomas Troy of Needham commissioned Wills to design a house for his Wyoming Street property. Unlike most of Wills’ clients, Troy did not want a Colonial, he wanted a Modern. Wills explained that he did not do Moderns, but Troy was adamant.  Fortunately, Wills had hired a young graduate from Harvard’s School of Design, Hugh Stubbins, who took on the Troy house and the handful of other moderns that Wills built in the late 1930s. Stubbins designed another modern house in Needham a few years later, for Edwin Hiam on South Street. Sadly, both the Hiam and Troy houses are now gone.

Hugh Stubbins worked for Wills for three years, before going on to establish his own practice and an international career. He is famous for landmark buildings all over the world – including the oyster-shaped Congress Hall in Berlin, the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, the Yokohama Landmark Tower, the Treasury Building in Singapore, and the luminous Citicorp Center (now 601 Lexington) in New York.  But some of his first commissions were right here in Needham.

Another interesting RBW factoid that I encountered – in 1938, Life Magazine solicited designs from several prominent architects for houses in four price ranges, for a design competition.  RBW and Frank Lloyd Wright were paired in the $5-6000 range.  Wills’ design was selected over Wright’s and the house was built in Edina, Minnesota.

All of which is just a way of bridging my narrative from RBW, to another architect whose early work was built in Needham – yes, Frank Lloyd Wright. 

From 1897 to 1899, when Wright was just starting out, he designed house plans for the Ladies Home Journal.  The LHJ published a series of seven articles, called “Model Homes at Moderate Cost,” intended for “people having modest means yet desiring artistic homes.”  The series featured seven house plans by “the Journal’s Special Architect,” which were designed to be built “at moderate cost anywhere in America.”  The plans (whose rights belonged to the magazine) cost $5, and the estimated cost of building each house was about $2-3000.

The plans for House # 2 were purchased by Needham resident Louis Holman (Holman, an artist and an expert on the life of Keats, is a story for another day).  Holman built the house in 1898; it still stands at 20 Oakland Avenue, right at the bend in the road.  Far from Wright’s iconic Prairie Style, the Holman house is a fairly standard Dutch colonial, with gambrel roof and an attractive oversize dormer.  The Journal never revealed the name of its Special Architect, but in 1957 House and Home Magazine wrote an article on the development of American domestic architecture, in which it identified the architect as Frank Lloyd Wright.   

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