Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Where In The World Is Benjanim Bussey(s house)?

Bromley, 1896 (BPL)

Benjamin Bussey was born in 1757. After serving as a soldier in the Revolutionary army, he settled down to the life as a Boston merchant. In time, he would use his wealth to invest in local industry, developing state of the art woolen mills on Mother Brook in the town of Dedham, where Bussey street still crosses a mill pond. As was common at the time, he retired from business and bought a farm from Eleazer Weld in Jamaica Plain, on the grounds of today's Arnold Arboretum. Over time, he added to his holdings, and Woodland Hills came to occupy over 300 acres of land. There, he occupied himself in scientific farming and landscape gardening. There were hay fields, barley, and fruit trees,including plums, apricots and cherries.

Of particular interest for this article is the house he built stood on the side of Weld Hill, what we now call Bussey Hill, in his honor. The house (which can be seen in the article linked below) was somewhere on the south side of the hill, and stood until it was demolished in the 1940s. So where was the house? The map above shows the buildings of the Bussey Institute, with one house and an outbuilding on Bussey Hill within the current Arboretum (see the red arrow). The picture of the front of the house in the Arnoldia article shows a driveway similar to that shown in the map, so I think we can be confidant that the map does show the original Bussey house.

The Arnoldia article linked below says that remnants of the Bussy outbuilding remained until the 1990: there is picture in the article showing a low wall section. I do remember some low walls in that part of the Arboretum, so I took a walk to see if I could find the location I remembered. I parked at the South street entrance to the Arboretum and walked up towards Bussey hill. After a bit of poking around, I came upon the site of the top two photos. A small foundation of about 23'x32' remains at the site, and matches the location shown on the map above. A massive European Beech tree overlooks the site - could it be a remnant of the Bussey estate? Down the exposed hill. the third photo above shows a row stones exposed in the turf. Based on the map view, these would perhaps have been at the front of the house, or perhaps part of the driveway.

The house in the Arnoldia photo seems to have a mansard roof, which would make it too late to be the original Bussey house. The house that was under construction in 1816 was decades before the craze for the French roof style that is still commonly seen in Jamaica Plain. Perhaps the house was modified over time. Or perhaps it's a different house altogether, and something has been lost from the story. In any case, something is still there, serving as a reminder for those who know what to look for. What could an archeological dig find at the site? There must be traces left in the ground of the lives lived at the old farm - the Welds and the Busseys both. I'd love to put a team of grad students on the job and see what we could find.

Source: Benjamin Bussey, Woodland Hills and the Origin of the Arnold Arboretum. Arnoldia, 64/1.

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