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The Frothingham mansion


The Daily Times and Chronicle, Tuesday, February 3, 1981

Burlington Past and Present, by John E. Fogelberg
(Article # 085)

The Frothingham Mansion


About 1853, Nathaniel Langdon Frothingham bought some 20 acres from the Jotham Johnson estate and built one of the finest homes in Burlington at the time. It has since served as a private home to many families, but also a day camp, a YWCA and a mental health facility.

Nathaniel descended from a large and influential family which owned some 60 acres in a brand new town called Woburn in the late 1600s. He was born 1793 in Boston, the seventh of the nine children of Ebenezer and Joanna Langdon Frothingham. He graduated Harvard in 1811, then became an associate in the Boston Latin School and later a private tutor. In 1812, when only 19, he was appointed instructor in rhetoric and oratory at Harvard, being the first incumbent of that office. At the same time he studied theology. He was ordained Pastor of the First Church of Boston, only the fifth minister to occupy that pulpit. He stayed there for 35 years.

His Burlington mansion is truly magnificent. The main house was a full two-story with more rooms above under the roof. It measured 43 by 47 feet with an eight foot porch on three sides. To the rear was an ell which measured 18 by 33 feet with a one-story attached shed. The two front parlors could be combined into one huge room by opening the sliding doors separating them. Those rooms had 15-foot ceilings, marble fireplace mantles, and full length windows opening onto the porches which were fitted with interior shutters which folded back against the wall.

The central hall had a monumental stairway which was the centerpiece for the whole house. In its finer days, climbing roses and wisteria grew by the porch and rhododendron and magnolia blossomed in the yard. The lawn, which sloped away from the house in all directions, was kept trim and neat even under the huge trees which Nathaniel left standing. The barn housed his horses, the carriage shed his buggy and carryall, the ice-house kept the winter’s harvest of ice throughout the summer, and the windmill, pool and pump kept a supply of good clear water always on hand.

In 1860, the property carried the highest tax assessment in town. The house was valued at an unheard-of $7,000. The barn alone was valued at $500, a higher valuation than half of the homes in town.

Alas, the Frothinghams did not enjoy paradise for long. Mrs. Frothingham, who loved the country setting and could look from her bedroom windows out over the valley to the rise which was Chestnut Hill Cemetary, fell ill and was in poor health for some time before her death in 1863. Nathaniel continued his study, research and writing even though he was slowly going blind. Certainly he was familiar with Milton’s great sonnet and probably felt the same way. He finally suffered the complete loss of his eyesight in 1864 but continued his work as best he could until be died in 1870.

At the same time he bought the property on Lexington Street, he bought a large burial plot in Chestnut Hill Cemetery, for both he and his wife had fallen in love with Burlington’s pastoral beauty and wished to be buried here. They were indeed, and the family has continued to use that plot for over 100 years, the last of some 17 Frothinghams added in 1971.

  • After Dr. Frothingham’s death, the mansion was sold first to a Samuel R. Rodman and then to Edward S. Barker.
  • Shortly after the turn of the century the estate was bought by a Mr. Langmaid who gave it to his granddaughter, Mabel Harrington, as a wedding present when she became Mrs. Cox. She later became Mrs. Buckminster and then in 1913 Mrs. Harry P. Henderson. During the next 30 years Mrs. Henderson became the leading socialite on the Burlington scene. She was active in the Ladies Benevolent Society, in the Band of Mercy, a humane society for the care of lost and hurt animals, in the local chapter of the Red Cross whose efforts during the first World War were commendable, and in the organization and operation of the first Girl Scout troop here.
  • Then, quite suddenly, she sold the place to George Rupprecht in 1946 and moved to Concord, where she felt the townspeople would be more in sympathy with her views.
  • The Rupprechts lived there for many years. George was a physical education teacher in Belmont. He started the Spruce Hill Day Camp in the late 1940s for summer income. In the late 1950s it became a kindergarten. He built a big pool on the property, the first one in Burlington.

Spruce Hill Day Camp, Burlington, MA

  • When they decided to retire in 1967, the estate, now minus much of its acreage, became the property of the Cambridge YWCA.
  • The Burlington Area Unit ran a Day Camp and Tiny Tots Camp and also offered workshops and courses for adults.
  • But that became a losing proposition a few years ago and the property, now, pretty much rundown, the beautiful main staircase, for instance, had been torn out, was once again sold, this time to Edward and Josephine Donovan in 1979. Their plans for the once beautiful house is unknown.

On his wife’s tombstone, Nathaniel Frothingham had inscribed the following: “Always Precious, Now Hallowed, To Better Things, Our Beloved.”Maybe the old house can look forward to better things as well.