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A "Rare and Unusual Gem"

For half a century, MIT’s Endicott House has provided visitors with utility and beauty.
December 15, 2005

The long, sinuous driveway leads uphill, shrouded in trees and lined by a rock wall. After one last curve, a beautiful French manor appears. No, it’s not Provence. It’s Dedham, MA, home of MIT’s Endicott House. The Endicott estate was bequeathed to MIT in 1954 by Henry Wendell Endicott, and soon afterward the Institute began using it as a conference center.

The estate’s original owner, Stephen Minot Weld, was a Civil War veteran who founded a lucrative cotton brokerage business in Boston. Weld acquired more than 1,000 acres of land in Dedham and in 1884 built a mansion, Rockweld, on a craggy hill with a dramatic view of the Charles River valley. Outcrops, boulders, woodlands, and ponds dotted the surrounding property, offering endless opportunities to satisfy Weld’s passion for horticulture.

Renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted sited the house and planned the driveway and west terrace. Weld designed the grounds, pathways, and an extensive rock garden. He brought plants from around the world to embellish his designs; at its peak, the estate had 500 varieties of flowering plants. Although Weld was not trained in landscape design, “his aesthetic sense was so intuitive,” says landscape historian Elizabeth Hope Cushing. She wrote a report in 2003 for MIT documenting the property’s history, calling it a “rare and unusual gem” because it boasts what is considered the first great rock garden in America.

After Weld’s death, Henry Wendell Endicott, son of the founder of Endicott-Johnson Shoes, bought the estate. He razed Rockweld and built a new mansion in its place. Designed by noted architect Charles Platt and completed in 1934, the mansion had 50 rooms and 17 bathrooms and, according to Cushing’s report, cost $250,000. Endicott commissioned Italian painters to create the intricate designs on the living room’s beamed ceiling, and he imported marble fireplaces from Europe.

An avid horticulturalist himself, Endicott preserved Weld’s gardens, with some changes. He loved azaleas, rhododendrons, and spring-flowering bulbs, adding them liberally to the property. Bradford Endicott ‘49, who grew up in the house, estimates that his father planted 30,000 bulbs annually. But in the 1940s, the rock garden was let go and became overgrown.

Before his death in 1954, Endicott decided to donate the mansion and 25 acres to an educational institution, to be chosen by his executors. They selected MIT, and in 1955 the Institute opened the house as a conference center. Today the house retains much of its original charm, and in it are displayed artworks, antiques, oriental rugs, and Flemish tapestries donated by Endicott’s family. The gardens, although less extensive than their predecessors, are spectacular. Michael Fitzgerald, Endicott House’s general manager, says that MIT is “chipping away” at reclaiming part of the rock garden.

Several events are planned this year to celebrate the 50th anniversary of MIT’s acquisition of the property, including a gathering of Weld’s and Endicott’s descendants (who have never met), a party for the MIT community, and a commemorative book. Bradford Endicott – who has helped steward the property, serving on the board of the estate since 1955 – is pleased that under MIT’s ownership, Endicott House has maintained the feel of a private home. “It’s been very enjoyable for me,” he says. “I can’t think of a better partner [than MIT].”

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