The Cheney-Baltzell Manor House sits on a piece of land, which the Norfolk County Courthouse in Dedham documents with deeds dating back to 1732. The first recorded owner is Thomas Fuller, a weaver of Dedham. His tract sat on land known as the Natick Plain and was sold to John Jones in 1740. He held it for sixty-four years and built the first house thereon. The estate passed through several owners until Benjamin Pierce Cheney, a businessman in the transportation industry and a member of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society’s Financial Committee, bought it for $10,000 in 1874.
He built a rambling Victorian style house in the midst of ancient elms and renovated the greenhouse, which Theodore Otis, a mayor of Roxbury, had established in 1846. Soon after Cheney died in 1895, his wife raised to his memory an elaborately adorned steel bridge which crossed the Charles River. When Mrs. Cheney died in 1907, her daughter Alice, who was married to Dr. William Baltzell, inherited the estate.
Alice Cheney Balzell had a grand vision for the property and it was transformed during the thirty years during which she resided there. Her first act was to demolish her parents’ wooden home and to commission architects John Marvin Carrere and Thomas Hastings to design a neo-Georgian house of forty rooms. Because her extreme makeover spared the famous elm trees, the showplace could continue to be called Elm Bank.
Carrere and Hastings worked in the Classical Revival style which was popular in the early twentieth century. Its hallmark was restraint in decoration and harmony among its parts. The architects’ legacy is a body of important monumental public buildings, among them, the New York Public Library; the Old Senate and House Office Building in D. C.; Portland, Maine’s City Hall, and William K. Vanderbilt’s house on Long Island.
The use of Italian marble at the entrances of the house lends an air of grandeur, but the Ionic columns are unfluted, so they tone down the opulence. The marble steps, set in a marble balustrade, in their turn, reinforce a mode of formality. The house has three stories with a full basement, outside of which plants were stored during winter. It has a slate roof with copper gutters; five chimneys and brick walls. The Carriage House, which faces the Manor across a long expanse of gardens, was set up as a complementary structure using the same materials.
Beginning in 1908, the Baltzells showed their enthusiasm for gardens. Until 1928 they employed the firm of Olmsted and Vaux of Brookline to interpret a variety of pleasure gardens. Among them were the Italianate Garden near the entrance of the house, and in a hidden corner of the property, they constructed a watery inlet. On its shore stands a boathouse from which small boats and canoes were launched. The inlet is graced by a Japanese bridge, so the collection of plants which border it is often called the Asian Garden. The glamour of early twentieth century social life is evoked by the presence of an arched wrought iron gate which leads onto a brick patio, where guests could have gathered on a summer evening and looked across at the lagoon.
When Alice Cheney Baltzell died in 1938, none of her relatives was willing or able to assume responsibility for the estate. By the terms of her will, it reverted to Dartmouth College, which had once given an honorary degree to her father. In 1940, the college sold it to the Stigmatine Fathers, who operated a school and camp for thirty-five years. Inside the Manor House, the students had the privilege of studying in the library, which had been modeled on that of Sir Walter Scott, and the grand staircase reminded them of a more elegant era.
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts purchased the property in the mid-seventies, and the M. D. C., now known as the Department of Conservation and Recreation, managed it. Under that jurisdiction, the last event staged in the Manor House was a Decorator’s Show House, sponsored by the Junior League of Boston in 1982. All was quiet until the renaissance of June 2006. At that time the Garden Club Federation of Massachusetts and the Massachusetts Horticultural Society threw open the doors of the house to present a Standard Flower Show and to show the public what improvements had been made since MHS relocated to Elm Bank.
The first sight on approaching the building is the lineup of Goddess statues, which Benjamin Pierce Cheney provided for the Society in 1861, when it was building its Second Horticultural Hall on Tremont Street in Boston, and which have now come home to stand in front of his daughter’s house on his own estate.
The Massachusetts Horticultural Society has had its headquarters at Elm Bank since June of 2001.