Sunday, September 20, 2015

I Seek Newton, Part II: Auburndale

From Dave Brigham:

This is the second installment of an occasional series about my adopted hometown, Newton, Mass. The first post covered Lower Falls, one of 13 villages in Newton (see May 21, 2015, "I Seek Newton, Part I: Lower Falls"). In this post, I wander through Auburndale, which lies on the city's western edge, bordering Weston and Waltham. Split by the Massachusetts Turnpike, the village is home to Lasell College, as well as numerous beautiful old homes and a small commercial district.

One hundred years ago Auburndale was arguably Newton's hottest recreation spot. I'm sure that on more than one occasion it was referred to as the bee's knees.

Opened in 1897 along the banks of the Charles River, Norumbega Park featured canoeing, picnic areas, an outdoor theater, a penny arcade, a restaurant, a zoo, a carousel and an electric fountain, according to Built by the Commonwealth Avenue Street Railway, the park was incredibly successful for decades before declining and closing in 1963. Norumbega and other nearby boathouses played host to thousands of canoeists in what was called the Lakes District of the Charles River.

Here's a Digital Commonwealth photo of the Norumbega Park restaurant. The awkwardly named Boston Marriott Newton now stands on much of the former amusement park site. There is also conservation land east of the former Norumbega Park.

Here's a picture I took a few years ago of an old light fixture that I presume once lit the walkways at the park.

Here's a shot of the conservation land. I have no idea if this rock wall and stairs were once part of the park, or if they are remnants of an estate.

A short distance up the Charles River once stood Partelow's boat house on the Newton side, and Riverside Recreation Grounds on the Weston side.

Here's a Digital Commonwealth photo of Partelow's boat house. The Riverside train station is in the background.

Here's the boat house site now, with the train bridge from the Digital Commonwealth photo in the background:

Here's the foundation of the train station, which was closed in the late 1950's:

The Riverside Recreation Grounds in Weston opened in the late 19th century and featured athletic fields, a swimming pool, tennis courts, a boat house and other facilities. In 1930 part of the grounds were turned into a golf course (now known as Leo J. Martin). Eventually other Riverside acreage was taken by the state for the building of Route 128.

My deeper appreciation for Newton was triggered by what was supposed to be a short excursion to Auburndale's portion of the Charles River Reservation. I'd been there once before to take some shots of the river and the train bridge. I wanted a closer look at the building that houses Newtron Inc., which for more than 50 years has manufactured high-tech machined parts.

Turns out this building is related to the one-time boating industry of Newton. According to Charles River Canoe & Kayak, a tenant in the building, this historic building "was once used to build Robertson Boats and Canoes. Robertson later merged with Old Town Canoe and for a short time the company was known as Robertson - Old Town Canoe."

In order to deliver canoes to the Partelow and Riverside boat houses, all employees had to do was walk through this tunnel under the railroad tracks.

After snapping a different shot of the Newtron building, I was shocked to see an entrance to this tunnel. Covered in graffiti and open for one and all to walk through, the tunnel leads to the former platform for the old Riverside train station. Back in the late '50s Riverside was moved to a different location, which I'll get to in a minute.

Off the back edge of the old platform I spied a path into the woods. This took me down along the river, where I founnd a restored foot bridge leading to the Weston side of the Charles.

This bridge was a lot rustier the first time I saw it, in 2011 (see October 12, 2011, "Troubled Bridges Over Water").

Ambling along the path I soon realized where I would end up, and I felt like Roald Amundsen discovering the long-elusive Northwest Passage. Honestly, although I knew people had obviously walked this path for decades -- who am I kidding? Centuries! -- I tingled with excitement as if I were the first to realize that there was a path leading under the (very active) railroad tracks, along the river and on to the new Riverside station, and from there, out to an access road along Route 128. If conservationists have their way, eventually old tracks crossing that bridge over the highway will be converted to a walking path leading to, wait for it, Lower Falls (see "I Seek Newton, Part I: Lower Falls").

My son was excited when I told him about this path, although for different reasons than I was. He knew at the far end of Riverside station, far from the public's prying eyes, there were wrecked Green Line trolleys. I took him there.

While there are no longer any boat houses or amusement parks, there is still at least one place where locals can be entertained. Well, there was, and depending on a developer's plans, may yet be again.

This is the former Turtle Lane Playhouse. Built in 1890 as a private residence, the building served as a boarding house and then the Auburndale Club took over in 1920. There was reportedly a bowling alley in the basement at one point. Turtle Lane took over in 1978.

In 2013, however, the playhouse closed. A developer acquired the property and has announced plans to revive the theater and add housing to the site. Stay tuned....

One of the first elements of the backside of Auburndale I noticed is this mural along the Massachusetts Turnpike:

When it was painted in the late '60s or early '70s, some people were concerned drivers on the Pike would get distracted and crash (see December 26, 2010, "Where the Sun Never Sets"). The building once housed a store that sold "hippy stuff," according to one Backside reader.

There are numerous other spots around this village, and perhaps I'll get to more of them some time in the future. The last two places I want to mention hint at somewhat of a new direction for me on this blog, and beyond. In recent months, as I pondered this project, I pored over old maps of Newton and reviewed other historical documents on the city's web site, and got a feel for what my adopted hometown was like 100 years ago. I envisioned covering the backside and the history of each of Newton's 13 villages, which is what I'm doing here. But I also decided to expand that vision and write a book incorporating historic photos and information about historical sites in Newton that still stand, as well as buildings and locations that have changed use over the years, or no longer exist.

Directly across from the Turtle Lane Playhouse is The Melrose.

I believe it's just an apartment house, but I suspect this place has some interesting history. I've been unable to find anything so far. Stay tuned....

Finally, there's this wonderful house:

Currently housing condos, this building was once known as the Nye Park Inn. I believe it was popular with students at and visitors to nearby Lasell College, which was founded in 1851 as Auburndale Female Seminary.


  1. Hi David - Enjoying your blog of Auburndale as I research the two historic homes that I grew up in there. Your question about a bowling alley in the Auburndale Club. Yes, there was one there and I was a pin setter as a kid (born 1942). I can tell you much more about the Melrose Inn as I went to school with the kids that grew up there.

  2. I would love to learn more about the Melrose Inn. Feel free to share here.

  3. I grew up in West Newton, and my Dad lived in Auburndale. Over the years I remembered a tunnel under railroad tracks, but I could not, in adult years place where I had found that, or whether it still exists. Super fun that you solved that riddle for me. Although I moved to California, I lived in Newton as an adult and still think of it as one of the best places, ever. Thanks for sharing your explorations!

    1. Hi Garen -- thanks for your comment! I didn't grow up in Newton, but over the last 14 years I've had a great time exploring. Glad I could help bring back a memory for you.