Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Cabots Only Talk to God.

This elegant Colonial Revival mansion, called Cherry Hill, was completed in 1902 for Dr. Arthur Tracy Cabot (1852-1912), a preeminent surgeon and textbook Boston Brahmin. Architect Charles A. Platt (1861-1933) infused restrained grandeur into a composition of massive chimneys, prominent dormers, an overscaled porch topped with a delicious sunroom, formal lawn terraces and perfectly proportioned elevations detailed with quoins, keystones, columns, bullseye windows and grand moldings. Cherry Hill is a classic example of Upper Class America meets the American Renaissance.

The garden facade overlooks a signature element of CAP (as he was called) designs: the formal lawn terrace. In 1894, well established in his original career as a painter, Platt published "Italian Gardens," an architectural survey of outdoor adjuncts to Baroque and Renaissance villas. This book, together with Edith Wharton's and Ogden Codman's 1904 "Italian Villas and Their Gardens," had a huge impact on upper class American taste. Naturalistic Capability-Brown-type greenswards and Victorian "bedding out" were suddenly outre. Gravel forecourts, lawn terraces, stone balustrades, garden stairs and planned geometrical axes became de rigeur. Among Platt's many fine country houses is Maxwell Court, a mill baron's former mansion, now in mufti as the clubhouse of the Rockville, CT. Elks.

For this is good old Boston
The home of the bean and the cod
Where the Lowells talk only to Cabots
And the Cabots talk only to God

John Collins Bossidy, a man about whom I know absolutely nothing, made this famous toast at a dinner in 1910 - and we're still quoting him today. The Boston Cabots were immensely rich, enormously influential, hugely distinguished and intimidatingly elite. Not surprisingly, they started out as 18th century privateers, engaged in the usual traffic of slaves, rum and opium. They're not alone among our great families in illustrating Balzac's famous observation that behind every great fortune lies a great crime. By the 20th century, having prospered and multiplied exponentially, the family had produced senators, ambassadors, a chairman of the Federal Reserve, the founder of America's first mutual fund, philanthropists, judges, a bar association president, Richard Nixon's 1960 running mate, Harvard professors, pioneer manufacturers, a co-founder of the Boston Opera, the inventor of Valspar stains, numerous physicians and a cutting edge surgeon.

This fierce looking fellow is Dr. Arthur Tracy Cabot, the aforementioned cutting edge surgeon who, having inherited 60 acres in rural Canton from his surgeon father Samuel, hired Platt to build today's big old house. Dr. Cabot was a pioneer in antiseptic surgery, which we now take for granted, but wasn't such a given in the 1880s. He also invented Cabot's Splint, the bone-setter's standard for 30 years and, according to his bio in the "Bone and Joint Journal" of August, 1952, "achieved international fame in the field of genito-urinary surgery." OK. When Cherry Hill was built, Cabot was 50 years old, married to the former Susan Shattuck, and childless. The many bedrooms in his country house presumably were intended for visiting family and house guests. Cabot died in 1912, his widow in 1944, by which time Cherry Hill had become quite run down.

This is Dr. Cabot's brother, Godfrey Lowell Cabot (1861-1962), philanthropist, MIT benefactor, and founder of the Cabot Corporation. This mighty enterprise, according to its 2011 Annual Report, produces rubber and specialty grade carbon blacks, fumed silica, aerogels and, for those of you who have no idea what any of these things are, surely you will recognize cesium formate drilling fluids. Cabot Corp operates 36 plants in 20 different countries and, besides the product roster above, produces printer inkjet colorants. Considering what I spend for ink cartridges on my humble printer at Daheim, it is obvious why these people are so rich. Unlike brother Arthur, Godfrey Cabot had 5 children. When Arthur's wife died, Cherry Hill was left to brother Godfrey's daughter Eleanor (1893-1990), married since 1919 to a Cabot Corp exec named Ralph Bradley. A little devil on my shoulder won't let me leave the subject of Godfrey Cabot without noting his membership in the Watch and Ward Society, a group of self-appointed Boston moralists who, with methods ranging from heavy handed to barely legal, succeeded in suppressing sales of a great deal of modern literature. Books they managed to "ban in Boston" included works by Ernest Hemingway, Aldous Huxley, James Joyce, Sinclair Lewis, Upton Sinclair, H.G. Wells and Bertrand Russell.

The subject of the glamorous Fabian Bachrach portrait below is Eleanor Cabot's husband, Ralph Bradley (1888-1970). My late father had that same suit, which I think he bought at Saks in 1938. I still have it. In 1948, Ralph and Eleanor Bradley began to spend weekends at Cherry Hill, living with her father in Boston during the week. They moved to the house full time in 1962, after Godfrey Cabot's death. By this time the Boston beltline, a.k.a. Route 128, had been constructed on the estate's northern border, which doomed rural silence but simplified the Boston commute.

Nope, that's not Spencer and Kate, it's Ralph and Eleanor posing alongside their tractor at Cherry Hill in 1951. The Bradleys reworked the kitchen suite, installed an elevator in the service stairwell and, unfortunately, tore out all the old bathrooms and replaced them with very un-wonderful 1960s tiles and fixtures. My parents were afflicted with the same bug; everything had to be "modern" for them too. Mrs. Bradley was an educated, hands-on gardener, active in numerous Boston area horticulture undertakings, and president of the Noanett Garden Club. She improved the grounds at Cherry Hill with a sunken camelia house (why sunken escapes me), ornamental ponds and a series of "horticultural vignettes" installed along picturesque woodland walks.

A client chooses an architect for what he has to offer, but the architect will ultimately give the client what he wants. Platt's sumptuous reinterpretation of colonial America seen on Cherry Hill's exteriors, cools by a good 20 degrees the minute you walk indoors. The aforementioned Maxwell Court features a double height oval stairhall decorated with Pompeian grotesques (amazingly still intact), tooled leather walls under gilded coffers in the dining room, and bois d'ore sconces in the ornately paneled library. Cherry Hill may be a country house where the living was intentionally informal, but one yearns for a bit more flash and originality, and less WASPy "good taste." Or at least I do. Evidently, the client didn't.

In 1991 The Trustees of Reservations, the oldest regional land trust in the world established in Boston in 1891, inherited Cherry Hill from the estate of Eleanor Cabot Bradley. The Trustees own mansions, gardens, wetlands, farms, woods, waterfalls, etc, etc. on 25,000 protected Massachusetts acres. They made minor institutional alterations to the house to accommodate meetings, weddings and other revenue-raising events. The plans below show the first floor before and after the Trustees' arrival. Aside from these changes Cherry Hill's interiors are in practically original - if highly buttoned down - condition.

The hall is distinguished, but even when furnished it felt a little spare.

The beautifully proportioned drawing room lets onto a porch that's more sumptuous in concept than the drawing room itself. I look at the painted woodwork in this room and imagine Dr. Cabot rejecting some elaborate plan of Platt's, with a well bred, but immoveable, "No." His reasons might have been both philosophical and economic. Rich people may have the funds, but oftentimes they just don't want to spend them.

Let's recross the hall, make a right turn, and peek in at the library.

The paneled dining room is less of an architectural statement than a backdrop for family silver and linen. That's Mr. Bradley on the wall.

A swing door in the paneling leads to the kitchen, which connects to the laundry and the back stair, and is adjacent to a new corridor connecting the front hall to a pair of new public restrooms.

The main stair is a quality production, but not one with a lot of verve. I love Cherry Hill, but it's like a too-pretty young girl whose disapproving father has insisted she take off her makeup.

The bedrooms are, well, pleasant and the bathrooms are, well, the less said the better.

There's a linen room at the top of the stairs...

...and servants' rooms at the other end of the landing. Note the interesting insertion of an elevator shaft into the middle of the back stair.

The third floor has 5 more bedrooms and a single bath, the latter unaltered but too buried in old house junk to photograph. The Bradleys had 4 children, but the youngest would have been 30 years old in 1962, and unlikely to still be living at home. So what did they do with all those 3rd floor bedrooms? Probably not much.

I climbed out on the roof, not because there was much to see, but just because I could.

I think we've seen Cherry Hill, a great house, on the outside.

Before leaving, I visited the farm complex with its barn, greenhouse, former squash court, mysteriously sunken camelia house, studio and cottage, all looking as though Mrs. Bradley might buzz down from the big house at any moment. The Trustees of Reservations is worried about Cherry Hill, known these days as the Eleanor Cabot Bradley Estate. The main house doesn't really lend itself to regular tours and there aren't enough weddings to cover the bills. Everything continues to be well maintained, at least as far as I could tell, and while the house isn't open to the public, the grounds are, free of charge. My thanks to the Trustees of Reservations' Archives & Research Center for the photos of Ralph and Eleanor Bradley. The link to all the Trustees' properties is

A SHORT APOLOGY: In my post last week on Belcourt, I stated incorrectly that Alva Belmont hired John Russell Pope to alter her new husband's house. Actually, she hired Richard Morris Hunt's son, Richard Howland Hunt. Even worse, I credited Pope with designing the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, when 4 posts ago I correctly attributed the Memorial to Henry Bacon. In my continued state of historical insanity, I also asserted that Belcourt cost $3.2 million bucks to build, when the cost was actually $500,000. According to Federal Reserve conversion tables, that would equal $13,655,000 today. SORRRRY!


  1. Well built, well proportioned, comfortable. Tasteful. Dull. Maybe all those caricatures of "Boston Brahmins" in the old movies weren't so far off the mark. Lovely grounds. I've seen a 100 variations on this type of house (usually on a smaller scale) in places like Darien, CT and Morristown, NJ.

    John, have you ever been to the Swan House in Atlanta? This house put me in mind of it for some reason. It too is tasteful, comfortable and well proportioned but with rather more verve going for it.

  2. To err is human, to admit it: divine.

  3. i'm going to hazard a guess that the camellia house was partially underground in an effort to reduce the amount of fuel it would take to heat it over the winter....

  4. I know there are several online references to that famous quote that say "talk", but it's actually "speak". Brahmins talked to a great many people, perhaps most often from lecterns or at political conventions, but the line refers to the fact that the higher one is on the social scale, the less one needs to approach people; one lets others do the approaching. But it took them a while to ascend to such a pinnacle. The family's seafaring history began in the Age of Exploration, before privateering and the Triangle Trade were making fortunes. They came from Genoa, Italy to Bristol, England where Giovanni Caboto became plain John Cabot. Plus ca change.

  5. I've got a novel idea for the Trustees... Lower your damn facility rental fees and have more them more frequently. Do you have any idea how much this place charges!?

  6. It's hard to tell what the wallcovering in the entrance/living hall was in that vintage photo. Whatever it was, it looks a lot snazzier than all that red paint. Are those roll-up screens on the porch a modern insertion? I'm guessing so, along with the plate glass panels above them. With all the pictures devoted to that porch I rather wish the author had been able to spare time for a sentence or two in the text.

  7. Not a bad idea, but it could also be leased. I'm guessing there were restrictions placed on the gift. Breaking them could set a bad precedent.

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