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Exploring Waltham, Massachusetts

Exploring Waltham, Massachusetts
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Waltham, Massachusetts, may be a bustling city today, but in the late 1700s and into the next century, it was a whole lot of country. Wealthy businessmen saw its large tracts of undeveloped land within close proximity to Boston and dreamt of splendid summer retreats. The payoff for us today? Three historic and stately properties—The Lyman Estate and Greenhouses, Stonehurst, and Gore Place—that still have a rural feel, with grounds that are open for public enjoyment each day. If you time it right, you can tour the impressive interiors of these homes and learn more of their history as well.

Theodore Lyman, a Bostonian, had enjoyed success in his trade and shipbuilding businesses, and was looking to spend some of that hard-earned cash on a grand Federal-style summer home. By 1793 he’d secured enough acreage in Waltham to build “The Vale,” known around town as simply “The Lyman Estate.” The estate encompassed 400 acres at one point, but just 37 acres remain today.

Waltham's Lyman Estate
The Lyman Estate is open for tours on the third Saturday of each month.

Lyman, like many men of means in this time period, was enthusiastic about gardening and horticulture, so he built greenhouses along with the mansion. To have fresh produce in winter—very chic. The Lyman greenhouses were expanded over the years and housed rare and exotic plants as well as roses and other flowers meant for cutting arrangements.  Today, these are believed to be the oldest working greenhouses in the country. Indeed, the staff still grows grapes obtained from cuttings acquired in the 1800s, hundreds of varieties of orchids, and a mix of citrus plants. Come winter, the century-old camellia blooms in shades of red, white, and pink, providing much-needed color. Pop in here to feel the warmth of the sun-baked bricks and see the flowering displays. The greenhouses are open year-round and are chock-full of plants for sale.

Lyman Estate Greenhouses The bougainvillea, housed in the Grapery section of the greenhouses, offers bright blooms much of the year.
Waltham Greenhouses and Fruit Wall The peach wall extends beyond the end of the greenhouses and was used for growing fruit tress in the espalier style. The brick absorbed the sun’s heat, which was transferred to the plants for added warmth.

Lyman Estate Greenhouses
The Lyman Estate was enlarged and renovated through the years. The changes were influenced by what was popular in the moment, so the 1882 expansion was done in the Victorian style, while the 1917 renovation is indicative of Colonial Revival influence. The Lyman family and descendants enjoyed the property up until 1952, when it was then entrusted to Historic New England. It’s become an event venue while in the organization’s care. With wide hallways (you could walk four abreast), elaborate moldings and chandeliers, and a ballroom with tall windows overlooking the lush grounds, it’s built for entertaining. Take note of the then-trendy “Oval Parlor” when you visit. The closet doors were steamed in order to make them pliable enough to mold into a seamless fit with the bowed wall. In fact, both the parlor and the ballroom remain true to the home’s original Federal style.

By all accounts, the Lymans were a close family, and when the second generation came into ownership, the land was sectioned off to let the children build homes in Waltham, too.  Lydia Lyman married social reformer Robert Treat Paine, and the home they built, Stonehurst, is less than a mile farther up the road. Though now owned by the city, it still feels remote, with no other homes in view. Completed in 1886, Stonehurst boasts the design collaboration of architect Henry Hobson Richardson and famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. The wooded trails throughout the 109-acre property are exceptionally well maintained, with some so wide and level that they’re even wheelchair accessible. The trails are pet-friendly, too—on the day we visited, most hikers had a leashed dog in tow.

Home of Lydia Lyman and Robert Treat Paine Stonehurst is open for guided tours by appointment.
Grounds of Stonehurst The grounds of Stonehurst offer wooded trails, distant views, and an expansive lawn.

The next stop before dusk was Gore Place. The brick estate of former governor Christopher Gore, also from Boston, served as his family’s rural retreat and working farm when it was built in 1806 (this home sports a fashionable “Oval Room” as well). The place continues to house goats, sheep, chickens, and pigs as would’ve been found in the early 19th century. To protect the flock, there’s one modern addition to the farm: a llama.  It’s a beauty (though it eluded my camera) and very protective of the smaller animals.

Scenes around historic Gore Place of Waltham, Massachusetts Scenes from the farm and lush grounds of historic Gore Place.

If you make the rounds to all three of these historic properties and still have energy to spare, download maps of the six walking paths downtown. The maps were developed by Let’s Move Waltham in an effort to promote good health in the community, and pathways are well-marked and often scenic.  For each city trek, the distance and even the estimated calorie burn are noted.

Walking trails in Waltham, MA The Granite Pillar marks the entrance to the Riverwalk Downstream which takes you along the Charles River.

All this activity is sure to work up an appetite. With the number of restaurants along Moody and Main Streets, you won’t go hungry. In a Pickle gets rave reviews for lunch (if you’re willing to wait for a table), as does Tom Can Cook. But it was the sun-filled Café on the Corner that drew us in with a wide selection of coffee, teas, pastries, and sandwiches.

So, there you have it: Country retreats, exotic plants, walking trails, and natural beauty aren’t lost to Waltham’s past. They’re all still here awaiting your exploration.

Please Note: This information was accurate at the time of publication. When planning a trip, please confirm details by directly contacting any company or establishment you intend to visit.

Debbie Despres


Debbie Despres


Debbie Despres is an associate editor for the magazine. Deb is the primary fact checker for Yankee Magazine and also contributes content to each issue. A member of YPI’s corporate staff since 2000, Deb joined Yankee’s editorial team in 2011. A native of New Hampshire, with a work history that includes several years in the travel industry, she enjoys discovering new destinations, and the myriad of road trip opportunities unique to New England.
Updated Friday, December 7th, 2012

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