Brownleigh Hall as it appeared around 1900. The roof shingles were reddish, the timbering was painted dark green and the plastering was a cream/pink.
Sometimes I come across things that just don’t fit right, which makes me curious. So I pull at the trailing thread until I find another, and then another – and eventually I find at least some of what I wanted to learn. Brownleigh Hall, later known as the Purdy house, is one such thread.
Once upon a time, in 1883, there was a beautiful and very large mansion on the corner of Charles River and Grove Street, called Brownleigh Hall after its owner, James Wentworth Brown. But wait! (I hear you say), isn’t that corner part of the Baker Estate? Why? (I hear you say further) did Brown build his mansion on someone else’s land? Good for you! (I reply) – my question exactly.
William Emerson Baker purchased his nearly 800 acres in the southwest corner of Needham around 1868, after he retired from the sewing machine business. In 1874 he wrote and published a guidebook to the estate (at that time, still a work in progress) that included a map. In his map, that corner is empty, but clearly a part of his property. However, in the next-available detailed map (1909), there is a carve-out at that corner, labelled as belonging to the Brown family. The timing may be the clue – by 1881, Baker was in a dispute with Needham and Wellesley over his request to incorporate his estate into an independent “hygienic village” to be called Hygeria. He wanted Hygeria to be tax-exempt on the grounds that it would return the benefits in public health discoveries. Neither town was interested, and fought to defeat the proposal in the MA General Court. The Hygeria fight cost Baker a lot in both money and social capital, and he was depleting his fortune. By the time of his death in 1888, he was heavily into debt to his father-in-law. He may have sold some land off to Brown at the time because he needed the money.
James Wentworth Brown was a Boston businessman, who made his money in dry goods (furnishings, clothing, textiles, etc). According to Clark’s Boston Blue Book (“The Elite Private Address, Carriage, and Club Directory”) he was also a member of the Boston Art Club and the Bostonian Society. Around 1881, he bought his land from Baker and set about building himself an English-style country mansion, which he named Brownleigh (“brown-lee”) Hall, after himself. In the Boston Directory this is listed as his primary home, and not just a summer residence.
The house was designed in the Tudor Revival style by the Boston architectural firm of Allen and Kenway. Francis Richmond Allen and Herbert P. Kenway worked as partners from 1878 until Kenway’s death in 1890. Together they designed private residences, notably numerous townhouses in the new Back Bay. Their designs typically hearkened back to earlier periods – Romanesque, Gothic, Tudor.
In American Country Houses of the Gilded Age (A. Lewis, 2013), the house gets mixed reviews: “The Brown house was distinctive in several respects. The plan looked as though the architects had shaped individual rooms and then pushed them together to form an interior… The large, symmetrically-shaped hall was based on the great halls of late medieval England. Two stories high and brightly illuminated by banks of windows on the west and east, its main features were the wide fireplace on the north and the stairway-balcony complex opposite it. Despite the evidence of piecemeal planning, the architects preserved long but narrow perspectives… A mixture of derivative and contemporary tendencies was also evident on the exterior. To the main block of early English half-timbering, its solidity compromised by many square feet of glass, the architects appended an impermanent-looking American verandah of wood.”
When The British Architect published the design in September 1883, it was with a somewhat more complimentary description: “Brownliegh Hall affords evidence of a recoil from some of the worst features of American work, which are a too great exuberance and boisterousness of detail, too much of the doing things without apparent need or motif, and too little regard for the virtues of quietness and breadth. There is some feeling for these qualities in the long broad lines of the roofing and tall unbroken chimney-stalks which may augur favourably for the work of this firm…. On the whole, our view shows that this large house may act very agreeable part in the composition of the landscape, and it is clearly free from vulgarity and coarseness…”
Sometime after 1909, the house came into the possession of Orville N. Purdy, and later to his son, Orville Jr. Purdy Sr. was also a Boston businessman, and (according to Clarks’ Blue Book) a member of the Boston Athletic Club.
In 1926, the Purdy house burned to the ground. Interestingly, someone took pictures of the fire, and we have two in our collection. The family rebuilt the house, but struggled to maintain it after the Depression hit. An article in the Needham Chronicle for July 31, 1942 reported that the Purdy house had been left unoccupied for several years, and had been extensively vandalized. Valued at $100,000 (yes – a lot in those days), it was to be demolished. The land was sold off, and is today the site of newer (mc)mansions.
Gloria Polizzotti Greis is the Executive Director of the Needham History Center & Museum. For more information, please see our website at www.needhamhistory.org.
The fire at the Purdy house. At the time of the picture, the main façade and the chimneys were still standing, but the roof had fallen in. Eventually not much would be left standing apart from a couple of the chimneys and parts of the façade.