Needham History Center & Museum

Towering Above

Paul Hadley, an engineer for Westinghouse, working on the installation of the WBZ tower in 1957.
Paul Hadley, an engineer for Westinghouse, working on the installation of the WBZ tower in 1957.

Because it is easy to get a clear signal here, Needham has been a transmitting/receiving site for decades, going back to the London-to-Halifax-to-Needham news service links in the 1930s. But just looking at this makes me dizzy!

Yikes! Just looking at this photo makes me dizzy!  This picture was sent to us in 2014 by Michael Hadley of Sagamore. It shows his father, Paul Hadley, at work on the WBZ-TV Tower in 1957.  WBZ-TV built their new tower on Cedar Street in Needham in 1957, to replace their older and smaller broadcast tower on Soldiers Field Road in Brighton.  The old Brighton tower (680 feet) was knocked down by Hurricane Carol in 1954; WBZ leased a temporary antenna in Malden, and set about planning a new, taller tower farther out from town. The new tower was 1200 feet tall, nearly twice as tall as the Brighton tower.  WBZ contracted with Westinghouse for the construction.  Paul Hadley, who was a Westinghouse employee, was working atop the nearly-completed tower when his picture was taken by a colleague – who was evidently higher still! 

The WBZ tower is both the first and the tallest of the four towers that stand so prominently beside Route 128.  Over the years, it took on the antennas for several other stations, including WGBH/WGBX-TV in the 1960s, and WCVB in the 1970s.  In 2000, the tower was renovated and new antennas were added to the top of the tower to accommodate the digital TV signal, raising the height of the tower to 1300 feet. It also has a small backup tower for WBZ, for emergency use ( a lesson learned from 1957!)

Later in 1957, construction began on a new tower, on Chestnut Street in Newton Upper Falls. The tower was originally built by the Boston Herald-Traveler newspaper company to accommodate its radio stations, WHDH AM and FM, and its new TV station, WHDH-TV. It was just slightly higher than WBZ, at 1250 feet. In 1960, WHDH moved to its new free-standing tower on Towner Avenue on Newton (see below), and over the years since, both the tower and its stations have changed hands several times.  The tower is currently owned by American Tower Corporation, which leases its use.  It is still primarily used to carry FM radio signals. Its official name is “American Tower Corp., Newton” but it is generally referred to (by those who refer to it) as “FM-128” – for both its signal and its location beside the highway.

The third tower is the most interesting – the free-standing WHDH-TV tower on Tower Avenue in Newton.  Because of its latticed cross-bracing and spreading base, the WHDH tower can support itself, and does not have to be guyed like the other three.  It is 1062 feet tall. At the time it was built in 1960, it was the third-tallest self-supporting tower in the world, behind only the Tokyo Tower (1092 feet) and the Eiffel Tower (only a foot taller, at 1063 feet).  Even 60 years later, it is still one of the tallest free-standing towers in the world – 11th tallest in the world, and second-tallest in the United States, after the WITI-TV tower in Milwaukee.  The tower is owned by WHDH Inc., and only carries the WHDH-TV and WLVI television signals.  It used to also carry the RKO radio stations (WNAC, WRKO, and WROR) until RKO lost its license in the 1980s.

The last tower to be built is the “UHF-Candelabra” tower, built in 1971. It is on Cabot Street, behind the Sheraton. This tower, which is 1200 feet tall, is also owner by American Tower (“American Tower Corp,. Needham”). It was used to broadcast the signals for local UHF stations WFXT, WSBK, WLVI, and WXNE. Most of those signals have been bought up by larger broadcasting companies, but the tower is still used for digital TV signals and FM radio transmission.

So many towers – but why here?  Because Needham Heights.  Needham is about 120-130 feet above sea level. Not Mt Everest, surely – but it is one of the highest points between the coast and Worcester.  Because it is possible to obtain a clear signal here, the area has been a transmitting/receiving site for decades, going back to the old London-to-Halifax-to-Needham news service links in the 1930s.  In addition to the towers themselves, other broadcasting facilities take advantage of the topography adjacent to the towers.  NESN and WUNI (Univision) have facilities on the same hill as the UHF-candelabra, and NECN is located on Wells Avenue.

Together, the four towers in our cluster carry the great majority of the TV and FM radio signals in the greater Boston area. A few take advantage of the tall city buildings, like the Pru, but for most the wide open heights of Needham provide a perfect location to reach their broad audiences.  This is of course a rapidly-changing market, and over the years, stations have come and gone, and equipment has been updated. But all this new equipment will still be mounted on these same old towers, by young latter-day Paul Hadleys.

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