The country house of philanthropists Robert Treat and Lydia Lyman Paine, Stonehurst crowns the career-long collaboration between Olmsted and the renowned American architect Henry Hobson Richardson. The innovative work of these visionary 19th-century designers continues to shape the way Americans interact with their environment, from dense cities to unspoiled wilderness.
By seamlessly integrating architecture with the native landscape, Olmsted and Richardson created an art-form that was distinctly American. Olmsted had been experimenting with the concept of “a forest lodge for the summer…bold, rustic and weather-proof…set high…supported by a terrace boldly projected…highly picturesque in its outlines and material.” That vision found its ultimate expression at Stonehurst, in his collaboration with Richardson, whom he considered “the most potent stimulus that has ever come into my artistic life.”
Olmsted and Richardson selected a glaciated hilltop site affording southern exposure with a view to the drumlins of Newton far beyond downtown Waltham, a center of innovation since the industrial revolution. Using massive glacial boulders sourced from the site to construct the house and terrace, they were inspired by the unique genius of place to create their final collaborative experiment in great rockwork.
The curvature of the terrace Olmsted designed is as complex in its ever-changing sinuosity as a shoreline or riverbed. He complements the bulging asymmetrical towers of Richardson’s horizontally-massed house with the swirling lines at either end of his stone terrace. Its ground-hugging parapet of boulders and brick paving defines an outdoor living room that fully complements Richardson’s flowing interior spaces.
During construction of the terrace, perfectionist Olmsted insisted that the first attempt at stonework be removed. To achieve a look of solidity, equipoise, and unity with the house, he insisted that the retaining wall be distinctly sloped into the earth behind it, with giant boulders placed below and the fieldstones above carefully selected for shape and color.
The stones of both terrace and house were sourced from the walls that crisscrossed the estate. The removal of stone walls from the south field gave it the idealized and soothing contours of an arcadian meadow. The prominent and smoothly scoured expanse of ledge called Glacier Rock anchors the east end of the terrace, while clumps of variegated boulders meld the west end of the terrace to a less prominent outcrop that dissolves into the grass.
“I have never done any of the kind that I liked as much,” Olmsted wrote of his terrace. He went on to give Paine lessons in forestry on the 100-plus acres of the estate. Richardson, long ailing, died in early 1886 just before the project was completed.
Paine descendant Theodore Storer donated the estate to the City of Waltham in 1974, to remain “in a predominantly natural, scenic, green and open condition forever.” In keeping with Olmsted’s vision for public parks as social institutions essential to democracy, this now publicly-owned National Historic Landmark and conservation area provides meaning, nourishment, inspiration, and exercise to thousands of visitors annually.
With thanks to Curator Ann Clifford and Tom Paine, great-great nephew of Mr. Paine, for this spotlight. Learn more about Stonehurst here: https://www.stonehurstwaltham.org.
“Forest lodge for the summer.” Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr. to John C. Phillips regarding Moraine Farm, Beverly, MA, May 11, 1880. Papers of FLO, 7:492.
“Most potent stimulus.” Mariana Griswold Van Rensselear, Henry Hobson Richardson and his Works (1888, reprint ed., New York, 1969), p. 40.
“Liked as much.” Olmsted to Paine, November 5, 1885, Olmsted Papers, Library of Congress.