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Hildreth House: A history of serving Harvard

At the Farewell to Hildreth House event hosted by the Harvard Council on Aging Tuesday, Jan. 9, the comment heard over and over again was that it will be a bittersweet parting when the COA moves to its new home on Lancaster County Road sometime in mid-March.

Many people, including outreach worker Maria Holland, who has served in that role for 18 years, said they will miss the comfortable, homey feeling and the many charms of the old house, a house that has served the older population in town since the 1980s. Debbie Thompson, in her 11th year as director of the COA, said she will miss being in the perfect location, right above the Common, where she could easily walk to Town Hall.

It was the location that appealed also to Stanley Hildreth when, after his marriage, he chose the very top of the hill on the Hildreth estate to build a summer home in 1900. He called it “Hillcrest,” and from it he could see clear down to Bare Hill Pond, east over the valley, and west to Wachusett Mountain. His obituary of 1941 stated that the home “was a joy to him and he was loath to leave it at the change of the summer season” to return to his residence in Cambridge.

“Hillcrest” was the summer home of Stanley Hildreth. (Courtesy photo)

History of the house

Hillcrest, completed in October 1900, was built in shingle style and reputed to be a copy of Rudyard Kipling’s home in Vermont. A local newspaper commented, “The situation is one of the best in town” and described grounds that included a small rose garden and open lawns, featuring plants in the naturalistic style of the period. A network of gravel paths connected the house to the Common and to other buildings on the estate. Flowering vines entwined the porches and a sweeping driveway with a broad turnaround ran along the length of the house. A secondary drive and a narrow path led from the main drive to the steps at the service end of the house. At its peak, Hillcrest housed eight servants on the top floor.

&Bare Hill Pond was visible from Hillcrest in the early 1900s. (Courtesy photo)

When Stanley died in Cambridge in 1941 at the age of 95, he left the house to his wife and to their only child, Dorothy. After her mother died, Dorothy continued to live in the house until 1974, when, according to her obituary, she was moved to “hospitalization.” She died in a nursing home in Acton in 1980. Before her death, Dorothy gave a little more than 5 acres, located beyond the acres surrounding the house, to the volunteer fire company to build a new station. The house sat empty while its fate was worked out between town officials and the Hildreth family. Finally an agreement was reached, and the March 1979 Town Meeting voted to buy the house and surrounding 5.66 acres for $147,500. There was no clear and immediate purpose for the property.

Meanwhile, a group of townspeople had formed a Sixty Plus Club, which had meetings at various locations in town, including a private home. In April 1981, with 100 members and now incorporated with registered bylaws, the club needed a regular meeting place. A group of what the late Phyllis Newman called “energetic elders” asked the Select Board to allow them to meet in the empty house for the summer. The town agreed, making sure the group knew that this might be only a temporary arrangement.

What the Sixty Plus Club found was a completely empty house that had been neglected for years. They rolled up their shirtsleeves and went to work cleaning and fixing up the building, and in June they held an open house for the public to see the beautiful old “cottage.” Much to be admired were the hand-carved detailing in the cherry-paneled walls, the gracious staircase, the butler’s pantry, the soapstone sink, and the swing-out bench in the cloak room at which the butler once shined the family’s shoes.

A COA is established

Hildreth House became an active senior center where the Sixty Plus Club held monthly meetings and weekly activities. Foreseeing the eventual need for a coordinator of senior services, the members set up an office in an upstairs room. But that office was not filled until 1996, when the town recognized an official Council on Aging, formed by six volunteers, each with a distinct expertise; they received $2,000 from the town that year. But even two years later there were few regular requests for outreach services and transportation.

A survey showed there was a real need for help, but without an official person in charge, those needing it had no clear means of access. In 2000 Mary Joy Boynton became the part-time director of the COA, with a nine-member board of directors. Ginger Quarles served for seven years as the next director, increasing staff and spearheading a drive to get the town to fund a full-time director, which it did in 2009.

As the older population increased in number and need, staffing continued to increase. The house itself went through a series of improvements, through the initiative of the COA, Friends of the COA, and other volunteers. An accessible bathroom, a new roof, landscaping, new siding, and interior lighting all made the house safer and more comfortable. A four-year struggle to get money approved for safer parking and greater accessibility ended in 2017 with the conclusion of Phase 1 of proposed construction. But in 2020 voters rejected a Phase 2 plan for a separate building adjacent to Hildreth House that would provide enough room for COA programs.

Despite its history, charms, and perfect location, Hildreth House is just that, a gracious home, not able to continue to serve Harvard’s growing number of older residents. In 2021 the town voted to purchase the building at 16 Lancaster County Road for COA services and activities. After more than 40 years of being a second home for older citizens, Hildreth House will serve the town in a new capacity, by housing municipal offices.

Virginia Hildreth, a great-granddaughter of Edwin, who lives down the hill to the north and remembers family gatherings at Hillcrest, playing with siblings and cousins on the porch, and running up and down the stairs, said at the farewell event that her head understands the move—but not her heart.

The Hildreth family: Harvard’s most generous benefactors

Stanley Hildreth. (Courtesy photo)

As young men, Stanley and his brother Edwin, both of whom graduated from the Lawrence Scientific School of Harvard University with engineering degrees, came to Harvard to work with their uncle, George Burt, in his machine shop. In 1880 the brothers separated from Burt to form Hildreth Brothers, a steam-driven factory on Ayer Road that burned in 1948. The factory was roughly across from Hillside Garage.

Over the years the brothers patented a number of inventions, among them several for saw tables and wood-splitting machines. For 20 years Stanley lived with his brother and his wife in their 1872 home just north of where he would build his own house.

The Hildreth family became the most generous benefactors in Harvard’s history. In 1906 Stanley built a reservoir on Bolton Road and ran pipes to his property for a water system that he shared with town buildings and residences around the Common. In 1936 he wrote to the selectmen that he proposed to give the reservoir and the water system to the town, and in 1942 the town accepted the gift as described in Stanley’s will. In the 1880s Stanley gave money for the beautification of the Common and in his will left money for its maintenance.

Stanley and Edwin’s sister Emily gave money for pipe connections and hydrants. Her summer home at 8 Ayer Road, which she called “Sunnyside,” was a haven for intellectual pursuits and cultural events. Edwin was a charter member of the Historical Society, and his wife provided money for a horse trough across from their home and a water connection to it. In 1905 the three siblings bought and gave land and money to the town for a grammar school on Mass. Ave., officially named Harvard Elementary School, but more often called the Brown Building after the color of the original structure.

Over the years, suggestions were made to rename the school in honor of its benefactors who had done so much for the town and had never had their name recognized, as had other philanthropists, like Warren Hapgood and Henry Warner. Finally, in 2010, longtime resident Dr. Jeff Harris succeeded in getting the town to acknowledge the vast generosity of the family, and the school became Hildreth Elementary School.

—C.P.

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