by Helen Breen
The impending demolition of the White Court mansion on Little’s Point in Swampscott, and its conversion into condominiums, have been carefully detailed in the local press. Built in 1895, with sweeping views of the Atlantic, the property served as the “Summer White House” to President Calvin A. Coolidge and his family in 1925. The edifice also functioned as the main building for Marian Court College, run by the Sisters of Mercy from 1964 to 2015.
While traditionalists mourn the loss of White Court as “the end of an era,”let us look back to the heyday of the numerous summer estates in Swampcott. Their imposing stone pillars throughout the coastal area stand as silent reminders of their former grandeur.
Settled in 1629 and incorporated in 1852, this three square mile town lacked a navigable river or an abundant water supply necessary for industrialization. Its rocky “points” were considered uninhabitable. Fishing was its major enterprise. Yet, it was these very features that attracted wealthy professionals and businessmen who chose to construct lavish summer homes there for themselves and their families to enjoy its sea breezes and ocean views. In 1873 Eastern Railways provided service to Phillips Beach and Beach Bluff stations which made commuting to Boston possible for the newly arrived “captains of industry” and their ilk.
As the end of the 19th century approached, the manor houses of the estates became more extravagant. A retinue of maids, butlers, gardeners, grooms, chauffeurs, and handymen were needed to maintain these establishments. At first most of the domestic staffs were of Irish or Scandanvian descent. They also served the same families when they wintered in Boston or Brookline. A large number of Italian immigrants (many from Avellino) settled permanently in Swampcott where their masonary and gardening skills sustained them in year round occupations.
WHO WERE THESE “ESTATE SEEKERS?”
In 1985 Dorothy M. Anderson, a local retired educator, published The Era of Summer Estates, Swampscott, Massachusetts 1870-1940 , a brief history of this opulent chapter in the town’s history. The writer knew the period well having been raised on two of the largest estates where her father had been employed. In a well researched index she lists some 130 prominent residents and their professions during the time who “summered” in style in Swampscott. She also included the names of over sixty estates with descriptive monikers. Many impressive ones that still survive line the left hand side of Atlantic Avenue as one drives toward Marblehead. When built orginally, these homes had direct views across the marshes to the ocean.
A sampling of these summer estates include:
- AT GALLOUPE’S POINT – Edwin P. Brown, founder of the United Shoe Machinery Company of Beverly
- AT LITTLE’S POINT – Arthur Little, directed the Little and Brown architectual firm, interested in the preservation of the Point, later he introduced the “shingle style” to summer residences
- “THE ARCHES” ON PHILLIPS BEACH – Andrew W. Preston, first president of the United Fruit Company with extensive holdings in the Carribean.
- “RED GABLES” ON LITTLE’S POINT – Frank W. Stearns, a close friend of President Coolidge, owner of R. H. Stearns Department Store
- “HILLHURST” – “Ex-Mayor” of Boston Thomas N. Hart (formerly of Reading) who later became president of the Mount Vernon National Bank
- “GRASSHEAD” ON LITTLE’S POINT – built by the Mitton family, owners of Jordan Marsh Co.
- “GREYSTONE HALL” ON PURITAN ROAD – Herbert E. Gale, treasurer of Gale Shoe Manufacturing Company
- “THE FARM” ON BEACH BLUFF AVENUE – William A. Paine, stock broker at Paine Weber & Co.
- “BEACHHURST” ON PURITAN ROAD – Israel A. Ratchesky, treasurer United States Trust Company
- “CEDAR LODGE” ON TUPELO ROAD” – Henry W. Forbes, A. B. Leach Company, bond brokers
- “GREEN GATE” ON PURITAN ROAD – Simon Vorenberg, owner of Gilchrist’s Department Store
Other affluent families chose to reside in chic hotels for the season including the Preston, Lincoln House, and New Ocean House. This experience led to many deciding to build their own summer estates in Swampscott.
According to Ms. Anderson, “Like the passage of time, the estate era slipped away gradually without fanfare.” Most original owners lived out their days on their lovely properties. For succeeding generations, the appeal of a full season by the sea began to fade. The automobile had provided a wider range of venues for summer fun. Few young women saw domestic service as an attractive calling. Many young men entered the armed services, then went to work in industries (like the General Electric Co. in nearby Lynn) that offered fewer hours and more benefits. The passing of the career gardeners “ruined the estates” according to some observers. The new breed of “landscapers” with all their mechanized equipment did not possess the same knowledge of choice plantings, “the hand trimmed shrubbery, and the perfect edging” once demanded by the career gardeners.
By the third generation, most heirs to the summer estates had to sell off “the old place” which was then divided into house lots. For example, in the 1930s one expanse on the Preston Phillips Avenue garden area required a 10,000 square foot lot on which a house would be build for a minimum of $10,000. No multiple family dwellings were allowed. On the whole these arrangements “reflected underlying integrity in the effort to adjust to changing times.”
The demise of White Court invites us to reflect on the gracious lifestyle of the estate living of yesteryear. Much survives in the design of the town’s streets and byways, “the aging grandeur of trees and flowering shrubs…and the architectural styling of the older homes still remaining.”Most would agree that the community handled the transition well and enjoys pride in its storied past. Swampscott’s greatest asset abides – its magnificent Atlantic coastline that attracted the “estate seekers” to its shores a century and a half ago.
The Prestons, prominent members of the summer estate community, returning to “The Cottage” on Orient Street in 1903. (The Era of Summer Estates, Swampscott, Massachusetts 1870-1940 by Dorothy M. Anderson)