The Biggest, Busiest and Best Suburban Municipality in New England

GFW talk.001By Heather S. Cole, presented at the Morrill Memorial Library in October 2006.

At the beginning of the 20th century, local industrialist and philanthropist George F. Willett nearly single-handedly reshaped the civic and physical landscape of Norwood. His vision was to transform what was then a small, industrial town into what he described as “the biggest, busiest and best suburban municipality in New England,” and a model for other cities and towns. Between 1908 and 1918, George Willett led the reformation of Norwood’s municipal government, established the Norwood Civic Association, founded the town’s first public hospital, served as the first chair of Norwood’s Planning Board, crafted a master plan for the future development of the town and came up with an innovative scheme to finance all of these things without raising taxes. This evening I’ll be talking about George Willett, his vision and the changes he brought about in Norwood, many which continue to exist today.

GFW talk.003In order to understand the changes George Willett brought about in Norwood in the early 20th century, it is useful to first get a picture of what the town was like before.  The land that now comprises Norwood had originally been part of the town of Dedham. Primarily agricultural until the mid-19th century, Norwood didn’t become an independent municipality until 1872. During the first few decades of independence, Norwood went through huge changes as a number of new industries—including the Norwood Press, Plimpton Press and Bird & Son—set up shop in Norwood and established industries—including the tanneries and the Morrill Ink Works—expanded their factories.

GFW talk.004Norwood welcomed many of these changes: the town founded the Norwood Business Association in 1892 for the express purpose of promoting industrial development in town. The Norwood Business Association was generally successful and by the turn of the 20th century, Norwood was home to two tanneries, two printing conglomerates, a lumber mill, a paper mill, an ink factory and railroad car shops. But Norwood had not had the time to develop some of the infrastructure needed to support such rapid changes. As a result, parts of town had been haphazardly developed with hastily-built housing and poor roads, isolated from the rest of town. Norwood also had few public services, understaffed police and fire departments, no recreational facilities and only a small private hospital in town.

GFW talk.005Along with the expanding industry, Norwood also saw a rapid increase in her population from just 1,800 residents in 1872 to nearly 5,500 residents in 1900 to more than 8,000 residents by 1910 and 12,000 residents by 1920. Many of these new residents were immigrants, their children and grandchildren. Foreign residents were not new to Norwood; the town had seen a steady stream of Irish immigration since the 1840s. In fact, by 1905, 40 percent of the residents of Norwood were Irish or the children of Irish immigrants. But the new immigrants who came to Norwood in the early 1900s were different: they came from the politically tumultuous countries in southern and eastern Europe including Lithuania, Syria, Italy, Poland and Portugal. The foreign-born population of Norwood would reach a high of 40 percent by 1913. Many of these immigrants left their home countries with limited education, limited resources and without speaking or reading English. They also tended to settle (by choice or because they were restricted from other parts of town), in hastily-built, overcrowded triple-deckers in what came to be known as The Flats, or South Norwood. Electricity, sewer systems and trash removal were slower to reach the southern part of town, and some residents were concerned about the impact that the conditions in South Norwood would have on the rest of the town and feared that an outbreak of typhoid or other diseases in The Flats would spread to the rest of town.

GFW talk.006Norwood was not alone in facing these problems. Many industrial cities and towns experienced post-Civil War industrialization, urbanization and immigration. These municipalities, like Norwood, struggled to find ways to facilitate industrial and residential development while mitigating the problems that often came with it: overcrowded and unsanitary tenements, additional demands for public services, shoddy building construction, and exploitation of workers. In places like Boston and New York City, muckraking journalists like Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine documented the negative aspects of urbanization and industrialization, inspiring reformers to advocate for government intervention. By the 1920s and 30s, these reformers would succeed in getting federal regulations passed on things like child labor laws, and building codes. But before then, hundreds of local reformers across the country experimented with ways to improve their own cities and towns through civic and municipal government reform. In Norwood, the leading reformer was a man by the name of George F. Willett.

GFW talk.007

George Willett was born in Walpole in 1870, the only son of a laborer at a local twine factory and the grandson of a Walpole farmer. Although from modest means, his parents had instilled in him both aspirations for a grander future and a sense of civic obligation. After high school, George Willett won a scholarship to study industrial chemistry at Boston University. But he dropped out after his junior year in order to go to work—first at a bank in Boston and then selling wool for the Winslow Brothers tannery in Norwood.

GFW talk.008In 1891, when George Willett went to work there, Winslow Brothers was one of two tanneries in Norwood and one of the largest employers in town. The sounds and smells of the tanneries dominated the town, and had done so for more than a century. But by the 1890s, the Winslow Brothers tannery was struggling to keep up with the changes in technology and business development. George Willett advised the family on the reorganization of the tannery and helped modernize and streamline factory operations.

GFW talk.009In 1893, George Willett married Francis Winslow’s youngest daughter, Edith, and built a house on Walpole Street in Norwood. Two years later, George Willett bought the Winslow Brothers tannery from the family. Over the next decade, George Willett bought the other tannery in town, consolidated and modernized both of them and began investing in other industries throughout New England. George Willett was very successful as a businessman and became a millionaire by the age of 35. 

GFW talk.010Like other successful businessmen of his era, George Willett believed there was an opportunity to take some of the business management skills he had developed in the corporate world and apply them to the world of public affairs. Beginning around 1908, George Willett began spending large amounts of his own time and money investing in the improvement of his adopted home town, Norwood.

GFW talk.011Then, as today, one of the biggest complaints of Norwood’s residents was taxes. And then, also as now, people did their best to try to find ways to pay as little in taxes as possible. But the result was tax inflation and by 1908, Norwood’s tax rate was the highest in the state: $25 in taxes for each $1000 worth of real estate or personal property. There was a general feeling in town that some wealthy individuals and businesses weren’t paying their fare share of taxes. Town meeting had just voted to build a new fire station, a town-wide sewer system and were working on the town’s first electric light plant. In this time, prior to the introduction of federal income tax or sales tax, almost all the money in municipal budgets came from property tax. Norwood needed all the tax revenue she could get.

GFW talk.012In 1908, George Willett chaired a Committee on Taxation that reformed Norwood’s tax system and reassessed all the property in town, resulting in a rise in the valuation of property by a reduction in the tax rate. For the first time property was valued based on its potential use, rather than its actual use. In this way, undeveloped land near the railroad or along main streets in town was taxed at a higher rate, in effect encouraging the property owners to develop real estate in prime locations for business or residential use. Norwood’s tax rate dropped 67 percent in 1909, but within a few short years it began to creep up again, and George Willett came to believe that more drastic measures needed to be taken.

GFW talk.013Beginning in 1911, George Willett joined a group of local businessmen (known as the Committee of Five) in advocating for a new form of municipal government in Norwood. From its incorporation in 1872, Norwood had been run by a salaried Board of Selectmen and a battery of elected committees that handled everything from property assessment to licensing to budgeting in between Town Meetings. The Committee of Five believed that Norwood’s local government could be run more efficiently, saving money, increasing public services and keeping taxes low. Initially the Committee of Five advocated for Norwood to adopt a new city charter, eliminating Town Meeting and placing a mayor at the head of local government. Under state law, however, Norwood had too small of a population. So their alternative was a new form of town government that had been introduced in just a few other towns in the country: the town manager. Under this system, Norwood retained Town Meeting and the Board of Selectmen, but reduced the number of other committees, gave increased power to the town Finance Committee and placed the day-to-day management of the town in the hands of a paid professional manager. It also eliminated the salaries for elected officials.

GFW talk.014It took three years of advocacy before the new government system came before Norwood’s voters. In October 1914, it passed by a narrow margin of 660 to 403 voters. Clarence Bingham, a civil engineer from Elisabeth, New Jersey, became Norwood’s first Town Manager in 1915.

Supporters of the town manager system (generally industrial leaders and local businessmen) said that the changes saved the town money and reduced taxes. Those in opposition (generally local workers) said that the new system made it more difficult for the average person to get involved in local government and reduced the number of municipal jobs. Historical evidence suggests that both sides were correct.

Whereas most of Norwood’s business community was satisfied with lower taxes and a more efficient local government, George Willett had much larger aspirations for Norwood. He believed that the town could serve as a model community for clean, efficient, neighborly 20th century living. And his approach was to focus on the physical layout of the town.

GFW talk.015Until this point, development in town had happened rather haphazardly, with local developers subdividing land and building roads with no real master plan. As a result, many of the roads were poorly laid-out, with no sidewalks and ineffective drainage. The town had developed into disconnected ethnic neighborhoods, and Norwood’s historic town center, known as “The Hook,” had become run down. George Willett wanted to change all that.

GFW talk.016Willett had a very particular vision for the physical layout he wanted for a 20th century Norwood: modern roads, a retail district, a “traditional” town square, a new town hall and schools, parks and playgrounds. But his plan was not just beautification for its intrinsic value. Ever the businessman, Willett believed that formal planning and beautification of the town would attract new residents to town, bringing in additional tax dollars that would more than pay for the improvements. Willett wanted Norwood to be “so beautiful and attractive that it would come to be recognized throughout Metropolitan Boston as a suburb which offered unusual attractions as a place in which to live and bring up one’s family.”

GFW talk.017This focus on transforming Norwood into a suburb is particularly interesting. Willett was not interested in having Norwood grow into a large industrial city like Waltham, Lowell or Lynn. Instead, George Willett saw Norwood’s future as a bedroom community for middle class businessmen and professionals.

Thus, George Willett’s focus was on developing middle-class residential housing and the various public services that would support such residents. He wanted the immigrants crowded into multifamily homes to instead become property owners. And he wanted new residents who would commute into Boston on the new parkways he was arranging to be built to connect with surrounding towns. In order to attract these residents, George Willett believed Norwood needed to transform itself into the “biggest, busiest and best suburban municipality in New England.”

GFW talk.020On the top of George Willett’s agenda for town planning in Norwood was improving the condition and layout of the town’s roads. George Willett believed that for the wealthy and middle-class, the automobile would replace the streetcar and trains, Norwood’s main roads needed to be redesigned to facilitate auto traffic. Washington Street was the main north-south thoroughfare through town and, until 1915, was still a dirt road, often muddy and potholed, with trolley tracks running down the center. In 1915, Washington Street was widened, paved and sidewalks were installed. Other roads in town were straightened, widened and paved in order to better manage the growing traffic through Norwood.

George Willett and the Planning Board also gave a great deal of attention to the growing retail business district in the center of town. Several brick and concrete business blocks had been constructed along Washington Street between 1900 and 1913. The business blocks had retail stores on the ground floor and apartments or offices upstairs. The Planning Board wanted to replace the remaining 19th century residential housing with more business buildings. George Willett bought and tore down several wooden buildings on Washington Street that he thought were eyesores. George Willett paid to have four large Victorian homes moved from Washington Street onto side streets, completing the transformation of Washington Street.

GFW talk.021But George Willett had much bigger plans than improving just one road in Norwood. By 1917, George Willett had recruited noted landscape designer Arthur Shurtcliff, a protégé of Frederick Law Olmstead, to draw up formal plans for the town. The “Plan for Vicinity of Center of Town” showed a tree-lined Washington Street connecting the downtown business district to a new hospital, community center and high school complexes. Along Washington and nearby Walpole Streets were churches, banks and the Morrill Memorial Library, donated to the town by the Morrill Ink Works family. The New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad, with two Norwood stations, ran parallel to Washington Street to the east. The rest of the streets from there east to the railroad would be used for business or factory sites. It was a grand plan and although George Willett expected (and at first received) town support, he knew taxes along could not pay for the changes he envisioned. Thus entered George Willett’s plan for the Norwood Housing Association.

GFW talk.023In 1913, George Willett created the Norwood Housing Association, a public real estate holding company. The purpose of the Norwood Housing Association was to purchase land throughout Norwood—both undeveloped land on the outskirts of town and developed lots in the residential and business parts of town—and hold it for future development. The idea was that the Norwood Housing Association would sell the land only to those who would develop the land along the lines laid out by George Willett and the Planning Board. He also developed plans for the Norwood Housing Association to get involved in building new houses, with the idea being that they would purchase supplies in bulk and build houses at a cost that was affordable to the working man.

The NHA, however, was neither a non-profit nor a government agency. The NHA was like any other real estate holding corporation, except that all the real estate was located in Norwood. George Willett turned over personal real estate he had in town to the Norwood Housing Association, taking stock in return. The Norwood Housing Association issued stock in order to fund the purchase of other parcels of land in town, identified by George Willett and the Planning Board as essential to their plans for Norwood. George Willett believed that as the town continued to develop businesses, schools, recreational facilities, etc. that the value of the property would continue to grow.

George Willett deflected some of the criticism that he was reaping personal benefit from his position on the Planning Board (as well as his position as president of the Norwood Trust Company, which worked in cooperation with the NHA to issue mortgages), by explaining that he was doing this work to benefit the town. Like single tax advocate Henry George, George Willett believed the capital gains on property should benefit the entire municipality, rather than individual property holders. But instead of a tax on property that would go into the town’s general operating fund, George Willett wanted to control the development and the spending.

With the town government reform and the town planning well underway, George Willett decided that the stock proceeds from the NHA would be deposited in an account to fund the third piece of his reform efforts in Norwood: the Norwood Civic Association.

GFW talk.024In 1905, George Willett bought a five-acre plot of land at a prime location between the railroad and Washington Street. At the request of a local minister, George Willett converted an old barn on the property into a basketball court for local boys to use. After an article in the local newspaper bemoaned the fact that there was no place that teenagers could go for recreation so they were getting into trouble on the streets, George Willett realized that there was an opportunity to build a larger facility that could meet the recreational needs of more of Norwood’s residents.

GFW talk.025The Norwood Civic Association officially opened in 1911 and was described by The Sunday (Boston) Herald as the “finest civic plant in the world.” George Willett poured thousands of dollars of his own money into the Civic and by 1915 the Civic was a 30,000-square-foot complex with an auditorium that sat 700, a clubhouse, gymnasium, swimming pool, tennis courts, bowling alleys, billiard room, social hall and meeting rooms for government and town organizations. On the land surrounding the Civic were athletic fields, tennis courts and a grandstand. The Civic regularly hosted lectures, concerts and socials; gymnasium classes and athletic demonstrations; Civic-sponsored sports teams and military drilling brigades. The Civic also had meeting rooms that could be rented by town organizations.

Attached to the Civic was a Model House which was “modestly furnished as an example and illustration of an attractive home” where lessons were offered in sewing, millinery, cooking and housekeeping.

GFW talk.027In 1913, on land adjacent to the Civic, George Willett opened the Corner House Hospital with 23 beds, an operating room, dental clinic and eye clinic. The Corner House was Norwood’s first public hospital and served as the housing and headquarters for local and school nurses. Prior to participation in any of the sports or gymnasium activities at the Civic, children and young adults underwent a physical examination by an on-site nurse. Young people needing dental or other work were referred to the Corner House for free or reduced-cost treatment. The hospital included a state-of-the-art operating room and a maternity wing, which were utilized by the entire community

George Willett had promised that his Civic would not be a drain on the town’s resources. Once the Civic was running, George Willett continued to finance many of its activities, but wanted to find a way to insure long-term viability of the organization. He solicited donations from local industrialists, but when that was not as successful as he had hoped, George Willett looked to the Norwood Housing Association. His plan was to have the stock proceeds from the Norwood Housing Association support the activities at the Civic.

GFW talk.028George Willett believed that all these various entities—the Civic, the Corner House Hospital, the Norwood Housing Association and the Planning Board—needed to work together for a comprehensive civic program for the town. Each was to support the other, and he argued that they needed to have centralized and coordinated control. George Willett drew a map of how the various boards of directors would work in cooperation with town officials and community groups, including the NBA. Not everyone agreed with his vision of a centralized civic program, but George Willett spoke publicly and frequently about it, both in Norwood and elsewhere.

George Willett believed he could teach current and aspiring municipal managers how to bring about civic reform like he was doing in Norwood. In 1916, George Willett partnered with his alma mater Boston University to begin plans for a School of Social and Political Sciences to train students in civic leadership and municipal management. George Willett, a university trustee from 1911-1933, spent $60,000 to renovate a building at 525 Boylston Street for what Boston University termed a “College for Mayors.” Although the College for Mayors never came to pass, the building was used by Boston University’s newly-formed business school and a history of the university credited George Willett’s financial contributions as “a vital factor in the early days of the college.”

On January 27, 1918, the Providence Journal published a glowing full-page spread congratulating George Willett on the civic reforms he was bringing about in Norwood: “The Norwood idea is undoubtedly the most progressive of its kind in New England.”  Yet just as Norwood’s reforms seemed to be at their height, the financial basis of the Civic Association, the Corner House Hospital and the Norwood Housing Association began to crumble.

GFW talk.029When America entered World War I, life in Norwood changed abruptly. There was less interest in civic and municipal activities and more focus on military preparedness. In early 1918, George Willett was asked to come to Washington, D.C. to advise the Quartermaster General of the Army on the reorganization of the War Department.  Unfortunately, while he was away his business interests suffered some serious setbacks and by September 1918, George Willett had lost controlling interest of the Norwood Housing Association to his creditors and understood that he no longer had the funds to support either the Civic Association or the Corner House Hospital. He would later file a $10 million lawsuit against a group of Boston banks for allegedly conspiring to take over his businesses. He won the lawsuit, but it was reversed on a technicality and George Willett was never able to regain the money and business success he lost.

After the crisis had passed, in January 1919, a group of local businessmen purchased the Corner House Hospital from George Willett and applied for a state charter of incorporation for a new hospital in Norwood, renamed the Norwood Hospital. Norwood Hospital was eventually able to overcome its financial difficulties, with a few injections of capital from wealthy trustees and fundraising canvasses in Norwood and surrounding towns that made use of the hospital facilities. Norwood Hospital still exists today as part of the Caritas Christi Health Care system.

GFW talk.031After George Willett’s creditors gained control of the Norwood Housing Association and the hospital was incorporated as a separate entity, George Willett and a few remaining supporters made several gallant efforts to keep the Civic up and running. But the financial troubles of the Civic were complicated by two fires at the complex in February 1924 and November 1927. After a third fire in April 1930 destroyed the Civic buildings beyond repair, George Willett reluctantly sold the Civic property to the town, which decades later sold it to the Norwood Hospital for the expansion of their physical plant.

Throughout the 1930s, even as the country was in the midst of the Great Depression and George Willett’s pocketbook was “even flatter than the day he started,” as one newspaper reporter described it, George Willett continued to work at his plans for Norwood. If he couldn’t persuade town officials to support his plan for turning Norwood into a model community, then he would create a model community within Norwood.

GFW talk.032George Willett still owned several hundred acres of undeveloped land around a manmade pond on the outskirts of Norwood—property that George Willett purchased back from the creditors of the Norwood Housing Association in the early 1920s. George Willett refocused his plans on developing this area into a new residential housing development, modeled after garden villages he saw on a trip to England in 1906, but built using the latest scientific methods. Westover, as he named it, was to be a middle-class residential neighborhood with high-quality, mass-produced housing, surrounded by beautiful scenery and landscaping and within a short driving distance of all the advantages of downtown Norwood and Boston.

George Willett spent the next 20 years trying to find investors for Westover, trying to persuade town officials to support new roads that would connect Westover to the rest of town and batting with the Board of Selectman over taxes on his Westover properties. But b1953, Westover was in bankruptcy and the following year outside developers purchased the property. George Willett died on April 13, 1962 at the age of 91, never having seen his plans for Westover come to fruition.

In 1936, a local newspaper reporter described what may have been the general consensus in Norwood towards George Willett’s master plan for the town: “[it is] an ideal so vast and daring that many in our midst have merely shrugged it off as a dream—‘George Willett’s Dream.’”

When people in surrounding towns think of Norwood today, what likely comes to mind is Ernie Boch, Jr. and the Route One auto mile that greets visitors with car showrooms, gas stations, fast food and an assortment of chain and big box stores. Yet one need only take a short walk across town to the historic downtown district to see the lasting impact of George Willett’s reform efforts in town.

GFW talk.034Today the Washington Street business district remains the center of social, recreational and cultural life in Norwood. The downtown business district, anchored at one end by Norwood’s Town Hall, conceptualized by George Willett and finally completed in 1928, and at the other end by the Morrill Memorial Library, celebrating its 108th anniversary this year, is much as it was in George Willett’s time.

GFW talk.036Most of the brick, stone and concrete business blocks remain, now with restaurants, bars and small, independently-owned stores on the ground floor and offices in the rooms above. For the past three years the Norwood Planning Board, organized more than 90 years ago under George Willett’s direction, has been working with the town Historical Commission to restore and rehabilitate several of these early 20th century storefronts.

GFW talk.037Although the original Civic Association buildings are long gone, the insurance settlement from the 1930 fire that destroyed it was placed in a fund “to be used for the benefit of the people of Norwood.” Part of that money eventually found its way to the town’s Recreation Department, established in the 1940s, and helped fund the renovation of department facilities. The Norwood Recreation Department, which serves hundreds of residents a year with sports and athletic programs, is now housed at a former state armory in town, affectionately known as the new “Civic.”

GFW talk.038The land where the original Civic Association once sat is now the heart of the complex of brick and concrete comprising Norwood Hospital, also founded by George Willett and now serving more than a dozen towns south of Boston.

George Willett’s great unfinished planned community in Norwood, Westover, never came to pass. Westover’s twisting streets laid undeveloped for several years after George Willett’s death. The beach on Willett Pond that was once part of the Civic Association was sold to the Boston Archdiocese and is now the parking lot for St. Timothy’s Roman Catholic Church, established in 1964. The rest of the Westover land was eventually sold in the 1950s and has been developed. There is no longer any public access to Willett Pond.

GFW talk.039As for George Willett himself… Remembered both for his grand vision and his dynamic personality, more than 40 years after his death, George Willett is now generally recognized as one of the town’s greatest philanthropists and credited for the founding of the hospital and the Civic, if not for the Washington Street business district. In January 1969, the town dedicated the Willett Elementary School in his memory. There is also a Willett Parkway and an auditorium in the Recreation Department named in his honor. Histories about the town published in 1972 and 2002 devoted entire chapters to detailing George Willett’s contributions to Norwood.

Yet the model George Willett created for a comprehensive civic program including recreation, education, health care and town planning could still serve as a model for planning communities today. As Americans seem to be further and further removed from a sense of place and have less commitment to community and neighborhood, a central community center—a place for recreational, educational and social programs as well as a place to encourage involvement in civic affairs—would be a welcome addition to Norwood or other cities and towns.

Acknowledgments

This talk is based on research that I did for my Masters thesis in history, a copy of which is available here at the library. I’d like to take a moment to thank some of the Norwood people who helped me with my research. First, thank you to Margo Sullivan, Judith Kontz, Mary Finney and the reference staff here at Morrill Memorial Library. Thank you to Patti Fanning, John Grove, Elisabeth McGregor and Ed Sweeney at the Norwood Historical Society. And thank you to Town Planner Steve Costello, Civil Engineer Sara Winthrop and Town Assessor Paul Waseck who helped me locate and interpret Norwood’s early 20th century municipal records. Photographs and other images in this presentation are from the collections of the Morrill Memorial Library, the Norwood Historical Society and the personal papers of the Willett Family.

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2 thoughts on “The Biggest, Busiest and Best Suburban Municipality in New England”

  1. Thank you for a fascinating piece. I learned so much, particularly about the major role played by George Willett in shaping the town where I was born.

    70 years later, young people are always amazed when I tell them that I was born in the Stone building that is pictured as Norwood Hospital. After all, that was Norwood Hospital in 1950!

    I remain proud to have been a part of this unique rich history.

    Monica Phillips Young

  2. Thanks for your comment. I don’t know if you are still local, but there are all sorts of things being planned for the town’s 150th anniversary next year. Keep your eye out on the town website and social media.

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