Old house has living history

November 3, 2006
By

JOHN RUCH

ARBORETUM—The vacant farmhouse at 1090 Centre St. in Arnold Arboretum, once threatened with demolition, may become a landmark for its 180-year-old origins.

But the house also has a more recent, but little-known, history as the home of notable plant collector Ernest Jesse Palmer (1875-1962), who moved in 75 years ago. Theodore and E. Macdougall “Mac” Palmer, Ernest’s sons, told the Gazette they strongly support preserving the house.

“Of course, Macdougall and I are very relieved to learn that the idea of tearing it down may be circumvented,” said Theodore Palmer, now living in Oregon, in an e-mail to the Gazette. “In the last couple of decades it has been horribly abused, but as far as I know the wonderful structure is still intact, just overlaid with lots of garbage.”

Another defender of the house’s living history is Centre Street resident Ruth Wagner, whose family worked as household help for the Palmers when she was young.

“It was lovely,” Wagner said of the house in the 1930s and ’40s. “We didn’t realize it was an antique.”

Harvard University, which runs the arboretum and owns the house, recently planned to tear it down to make way for an equipment barn. Now, it plans to “mothball” the house while the Boston Landmarks Commission (BLC) is considering it for official landmark status. [See related story.]

The house was built around 1822-27 by farmers Jabez and Lucretia Lewis. Harvard later leased the house and made it the home of renowned horticulturalist Jackson Dawson. Historical interest has focused on the house’s age (and related architectural detail) and the Dawson connection.

However, the Palmer connection may add to what BLC commissioner William Marchione has called the house’s standing as “an extraordinary landmark of American horticultural history.”

According to a Harvard biography, Ernest Jesse Palmer was born in England. His family moved to Missouri when he was young. When his father’s foray into mining failed, Ernest Jesse dropped out of high school. His knowledge of botany, Latin, literature, math and other subjects was apparently largely self-taught.

He carved out a niche collecting plant specimens to sell to research institutions. In 1915, he began collecting for Charles Sprague Sargent, Arnold Arboretum’s renowned first director as well as its co-designer with Frederick Law Olmsted.

In 1921, Ernest Jesse was hired by Harvard’s Herbarium, a research collection of plants at the arboretum. That began a long association with the arboretum, where his research publications included “Food Plants in Arnold Arboretum” (1944) and “Spontaneous Flora of the Arnold Arboretum” (1930). He was especially known as a hawthorn expert.

He also established the arboretum’s collection of Native American artifacts, plucking them from flowerbeds and preserving them.

After retirement, he returned to Missouri and published a book of poetry, “Gathered Leaves; Green, Gold and Sere.” The University of Missouri named its Herbarium partly after him and has an annual scholarship in his name. Several plant species are also named after him as “palmeri.”

Ernest Jesse was 55 when he married Elizabeth MacDougall, a bacteriologist at the Massachusetts State Laboratory. The marriage came “much to the surprise of those who knew him…[as] a presumed hard-bitten bachelor,” according to the biography.

The couple moved into the 1090 Centre St. house on June 15, 1931, according to Theodore Palmer, who has his mother’s daily diaries. He said the house was known as the “Dawson House” at the time. The Palmers may have been the first occupants after Dawson. The move-in was slow and conducted around extensive rehab work, which seems to match a fix-up Harvard conducted after buying the house outright in 1927.

All three of the couple’s children, including daughter Grace Elizabeth, were born during their time in the house. They moved out on Aug. 6, 1948. Theodore recalls a friend of his father’s moving in after that.

“We all loved the house,” Theodore said. “Daddy opened up a number of fireplaces, all of which had been bricked up. When we left I believe the one in the dining room was the only one in working order.”

“Daddy tried to find out about the history of the house but had limited success,” Theodore said. “I do visit the house when I am in Boston every few years. [Arboretum Director] Bob Cook has been willing to loan me a key.”

Theodore said he’s writing a biography of his father, whom he calls a “very remarkable man.” He’s also followed a bit in his father’s footsteps, having co-founded Oregon’s Mount Pisgah Arboretum. Mac Palmer said he volunteers there during visits.

“I’m pleased to have recent news and to learn that others are still working toward preservation of the 1090 Centre St. house,” said Mac, who now lives in Montana, in an e-mail to the Gazette.

The brothers learned of the possible landmarking of the house from Wagner, who contacted them after reading a Gazette article.

“She was my babysitter when I was little,” said Mac, who will be 75 this month. He recalled Wagner’s family, the Hammans, as “friends and helpers. When the Palmers were away for more than a day or two, the Hammans would often stay at 1090 to take care of pets and look after the place.”

Wagner remembers that well. She recalled one vivid memory of staying in the house one night when vibrations from Centre Street traffic knocked a huge, antique mirror off the wall, shattering it. More happily, she also recalls “coasting,” or sledding, at night down the arboretum’s hills.

Wagner also remembers hard, Depression-era work. Her family lived on Amory Street and she would walk all the way to 1090, a trip of at least 2 miles one way.

“I used to scrub the kitchen floor every Saturday morning for a dollar,” Wagner said. “We didn’t use a mop. We got on our hands and knees and scrubbed the floor.”

Vacant since 1993, the house hasn’t had that kind of care in years. Wagner said it should be preserved.

“It’s something like the Loring-Greenough House,” she said, referring to the historic Monument Square house. And she should know—she also worked there years ago, pouring tea for the Tuesday Club.