The Emery Grover Building ~
an Italian Palazzo in the center of Needham

Hurry! Seating is limited - Ticket sales ending soon!

Hollywood Starlet Hedy Lamarr -- Inventor of WIFI?
Needham History Center Presents History At PlayTM, LLC’s
Critically Acclaimed One-Woman Event Chronicling
the Sensational Life of the Inventor of Spread Spectrum Technology

September 29th at 12:00 pm
at the MIT Endicott House, 80 Haven Street, Dedham
Tickets are $35 - Seating is limited!
She was a Hollywood goddess, celebrated as "The Most Beautiful Woman in the World." But behind that exquisite face lay a formidable brain.

The Needham History Center will present History At PlayTM, LLC’s Tinseltown Inventor: The Most Beautiful Woman in the World, an acclaimed one-woman performance chronicling the life of Hollywood icon and inventor Hedy Lamarr.
 
A skilled electrical engineer when off the Hollywood lot, Hedy Lamarr patented in 1942 a "spread-spectrum communication system” that allowed radios to hop between frequencies, thereby avoiding detection and jamming. Her invention was the basis for what would later become wireless communications. Experience this Immersive Living History Experience and watch a young Austrian refugee transform to become the most beautiful woman in the world, while inventing technology that would forever change society.
 
The Needham High School / Emery Grover Building, probably taken c. 1900, shortly after it was completed. The clock face above the entrance is now at the Needham History Center.

An Italian Palazzo in the Center of Needham
 
There will be much discussion in Needham in the next few weeks about the possibility of renovating the Emery Grover Building (1330 Highland Avenue, currently the School Department offices). The Select Board, School Committee, and other town boards have been reviewing the feasibility study, and are considering an article in the October Special Town Meeting warrant to seek design funds. That being the case, I thought some background might be interesting. (Full disclosure – I was a member of the most recent feasibility study committee).
 
 
Discussions in Needham about the need to expand education in by establishing a high school first began 1853, but it was not until 1864 that Town Meeting appointed a committee to look into the question. What the committee found was that state law already required each town to provide a high school, and that Needham was in default. Therefore, in March 1865 Town Meeting appropriated $2500 to establish two high schools, one in the eastern half of town and one in the western half (now Wellesley).
 
The new East High School opened in May 1865, in an upstairs room of the Kimball Primary School on School Street, sharing space with the fledgling Free Public Library; in the fall it moved to a rented room in Village Hall, above the general store and post office on Great Plain Avenue. In 1868, a committee was chosen by Town Meeting to look into the question of dedicated buildings for the two high schools, but the effort rapidly dwindled.
 
Finally, in 1896, the question became urgent, as the number of students was becoming much larger than the town’s makeshift arrangements could accommodate. Town Meeting appropriated $30,000 to purchase land and build a school. There was immediate disagreement in town over the school’s location. Residents of the Heights wanted the new high school to be in or at least near the Heights, while residents of the Center wanted it in the Great Plain. The town proposed either replacing the Kimball School on School Street to better accommodate both the grammar school and the high school, or adding a high school building to the site alongside the Kimball School. Neither faction liked this plan, since the Kimball was already deteriorating and possibly unsafe, and the growing high school classes needed more space.
 
Despite the disagreement over location, Town Meeting’s high school planning committee moved forward, contracting with architect Charles Bingham for a design of the building. Bingham was an important Boston-area architect, known for numerous private and public buildings, including townhouses on Beacon Hill and the Back Bay, railway stations, churches, and commercial blocks – most notably the State House Annex, the old YMCA Building on Boylston Street, the original Museum of Fine Arts in Copley Square, residential and commercial properties for the Hunnewell family, and several homes for John and Isabella Stewart Gardner.
 
Brigham’s design was unique for Needham. The town was just making a (slow) transition away from Colonial architectural styles. The new high school was a Renaissance-Revival palazzo, with arched windows, decorative ironwork, and busts of philosophers over the arched doorways.
 
However, the ongoing disagreement over the location of the school held the project up. Then in 1897, local businessman John Moseley offered to resolve the location issue by giving the town a plot of land that he owned on Highland Avenue, between May Street and Oakland Avenue next to St. Joseph’s Church. The town accepted the offer, and a new committee was formed to carry the project forward. 
 

 
The rendering of the accepted design for the Needham High School, made by Charles Bingham in 1896. This view shows the façade facing Oakland Avenue (now the rear). Comparison of this image with the finished building shows how closely Whitman and Hood adhered to (even borrowed) Brigham’s design. The Brigham design had numerous decorative embellishments that were not included in the final Whitman and Hood building, significantly lowering the cost of construction.

This new committee hired another architectural firm, Richard Percival Hood and Edward Payson Whitman, a brief partnership known mainly for Gothic-style school buildings in the Boston area. This led to a breach-of-contract suit by Bingham for $1000, who had not yet been paid for his work and design and the town ended up settling with Bingham for about $600 (Boston Globe, 7 December 1897, page 9). Bingham had a legitimate beef – though they claimed it as their own, a comparison of the Brigham design with the finished building shows that Whitman and Hood essentially commandeered Brigham’s design, simplifying the façade by reducing the decorative elements (and, presumably, the cost). When finished, it was praised as “unexcelled by any other high school building erected in Massachusetts for an equal amount of money."
 
The new high school opened in 1898. It served three grades of about 15 students each, with five classrooms, an auditorium, a laboratory, and a darkroom. However, it rapidly became too small as the student population continued to grow. By 1924, a companion building was built next to it (the Highland Avenue School), and by 1930, and new building was built on a new site – the current Needham High School.
 
The Italianate building was renamed the Emery Grover Building in 1935, in honor of a man who was a prominent MA judge, Town Moderator for 20 years, and a member of the School Committee for 20 years. For many years it served as overflow space for the Highland Avenue School and the High School. In the 1970s, it became the offices of the School Department, as it remains today.
 
The Emery Grover Building is Needham’s oldest public building and an iconic structure at the gateway to the downtown. It is listed in the Needham Historic Inventory, and the MA Register of Historic Places. It was accepted to the National Register of Historic Places in August 1987 on the basis of its characteristic architecture and the integrity of its original design. (It is noted, by the way, that the National Register document credits both Charles Bingham and Whitman and Hood as the architects).
 
Time has not been kind to the Emery Grover Building. Structural damage in the 1930s led to the closure of the top floor for public use. The space inside has been partitioned beyond recognition to accommodate the staff needs of a modern school system. And subsequent aging, deferred maintenance, and ill-advised replacements have diminished the appearance and safety of this once-beautiful structure.
 
So why consider renovating? Because, this is in fact the best option for the town. Despite the challenges, the Emery Grover is still usable and useful. Its location is ideal – in the center of town and near the other town offices – facilitating access for the public and the necessary communication between town officials. This location, just steps from both the bus and the commuter rail, is also important for families who might need to reach the building by public transportation. Renovation is also a cost-effective solution – especially since historic renovations are eligible to apply for Community Preservation funding. Renovating the Emery Grover is less expensive than trying to build on an alternate site like Hillside School (and dealing with its potential toxic groundwater issues), and even slightly less expensive (really!) than tearing it down and rebuilding. The possibility of selling the site has also been considered, but since the site is encumbered by a number of zoning and practical constraints (mixed-use zoning, insufficient parking, etc), it does not have a market value that would contribute significantly to reducing the cost of the project. 
 
The most recent summary of the feasibility report is available online at http://www.needhamma.gov/documentcenter/view/24123. The report, though not the last word, reviews the issues mentioned above, as well as others that I did not address, like remote vs in-person services, project scope, and renovation vs rental.
 
The Emery Grover Building has been the gateway to Needham Center for 123 years. It represents the progress, optimism, and aspirations of our town as it entered the new millennium. Whatever the disagreements that attended its conception, the town was united in its belief and desire that the building should represent the best Needham had to offer – to its students, to its residents, and to the world beyond our town borders. We were proud that it was “unexcelled.” This unique and beautiful building can (and should!) be preserved, its site landscaped, and its appearance once again made something for us to be proud of – a unique historic landmark –an Italianate palazzo in the center of Needham.



Color-lithograph postcard of the Needham High School / Emery Grover Building, photographed by Elizabeth Ladd in 1908. The cluster of students shows that the boys’ entrance was on the right, and the girls’ entrance was on the left.
We are Open - New Hours

The Needham History Center is again open to the public. Appointments not necessary – come see us! We’ve missed you, and will be so happy to see you here again. Our Fall schedule:
  • Mondays, 10 am to 4 pm
  • Tuesdays Closed.
  • Wednesdays and Thursdays, 12 to 4pm
  • Fridays by appointment

To make an appointment, to ask a question, or for any other information, please contact Gloria at 781-455-8860 or greis@needhamhistory.org.
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The Needham History Center's Members provide the support that makes our programs possible. From our 3d grade Schoolhouse Day to the Thursday News articles, everything we do in the community is Thanks to You!


Calendar and Events
All events are at the History Center (1147 Central Avenue) unless otherwise noted.
The full list is at needhamhistory.org/calendar-events.

  • September 29 at 12pm - Lunch at the MIT Endicott House and "Hedy Lamarr: Tinseltown Inventor" by History at Play (see highlight panel, above, for tickets and information)

  • October 24 (Sunday) at 2:00 pmExhibit Opening and Reception. Join us for the opening of two new exhibits. Free and open to all.
  • Deja View: a Look Backward at Needham through the Cartoons of Bob Larsen.  A witty and affectionate take on events in Needham, from Bob’s unique perspective.
  • The Game of Life. An interactive look at the changing perceptions of children’s play and leisure, using antique games in our collection. Made possible by a generous grant from BID-Needham.

  • November 17 (Wednesday) at 7:00 pmBrilliant Beacons: a History of the American Lighthouse. Eric Jay Dolin, author. Brilliant Beacons traces the evolution of America’s lighthouse system, highlighting the political, military, and technological battles fought to illuminate the nation’s hardscrabble coastlines. Free and open to all.

  • December 1 (Wednesday), 6-9 pm - Holiday reception, food, and live concert from the Tom Nutile Big Band. At Olin College's Milas Hall.

Missed any of our programs? Previous programs, when recorded, are posted on the Needham History Center's YouTube Channel

For more information about Programs, please call Gloria at 781-455-8860 or greis@needhamhistory.org, or see our website,

Community Events
Other events of interest from around the town.

September 19 at 1:00 pm, at the Needham History Center - Judy Weinberg and Jane Evans of the Quinobequin Quilters Guild.  They will bring an assortment of their work and materials, including quilt blocks that will be used to demonstrate the process of making a quilt using a design board. They will discuss how various techniques have evolved since the early days of quilt making in America, and Jane may even bring a family heirloom quilt from around the 1850s. We will follow Covid-19 precautions, face masks will be available or bring your own, distancing will be in place, hand sanitizer available. Individually-wrapped snacks and drinks will be served. Free and open to the public.

October 3, 12-4pm - Needham Harvest Fair. On the Common. Sponsored by the Charles River Regional Chamber.

The Needham Farmer's Market is open until October 31st. . Information at https://needhamfarmersmarket.org/contact/.


We thank our Corporate Sponsors 
for their generous and ongoing support!
.
Lead Sponsor - The Needham Bank 
Exhibits Sponsor - BID-Needham 

The Dedham Inst. for Savings . The Middlesex Bank 
Louise Condon Realty . Petrini Corporation . The Vita Needle Company
The Needham Women's Club . JC Timmerman, Inc.
The Needham History Center & Museum
781-455-8860 / www.needhamhistory.org