Exploring Waltham, Massachusetts
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.