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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)




Another family name which has lingered on in Burlington but only as the name of a street is that of Frothingham. That once large and influential family of this Common- wealth can trace its ancestry to the first William Frothingham who came to New England with Gov. Winthrop’s fleet. In 1672 he owned 60 acres of land in the new town of Woburn, 60 acres which later went to James Thompson.

Most of the family lived in Boston where, during the early 18th century, a Nathaniel Frothingham operated a coach-making shop in which, at one period, there were four of the family bearing the name Nathaniel, each designated by some “peculiar significant term” or nickname.

About 1853, after having bought 20 or more acres of the old Jotham Johnson farm on Lexington Street from his son, Ward, who had preceded him here, another Nathaniel Frothingham built, on the small rise of land on his property, what Mrs. Dunham said later “was considered the finest home in Burlington at one time.” that gentleman was an eminent theologian and German scholar and was connected by marriage to a number of other well-known and influential families.

In the Education of Henry Adams the author names some of those connections. “Peter Chardon Brooks… died Jan. 1, 1849, bequeathing what was supposed to be the largest estate in Boston, about two million dollars, to his seven surviving children: four sons – Edward, Peter Chardon, Gorham and Sydney; three daughters – Charlotte, married to Edward Everett; Ann, married to Nathaniel Frothingham, minister of the First Church; and Abigail Brown, born April 25, 1808, married September 3, 1829, to Charles Francis Adams, hardly a year older than herself.”

Henry Brooks Adams was one issue of that marriage. Henry Brooks Adams, who wrote some of the finest English prose ever written by an American, goes on to say, “One might have sought long in much larger and older societies for three brothers-in-law more distinguished or more scholarly than Edward Everett, Dr. Frothingham, and Mr. Adams.” Any one of these and other distinguished people could very well have been guests in the palatial home that Nathaniel Frothingham build for himself and his wife here in Burlington.

Nathaniel Langdon Frothingham was born 1793 in Boston, the seventh of the nine children of Ebenezer and Joanna Langdon Frothingham. Although the first William founded a line of furniture makers and carriage builders, Ebenezer became a dealer in crockery. His fellow townspeople had enough confidence in him to elect him Assessor for many years.

Nathaniel was sent to Harvard from which school he graduated in 1811. Then he 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, a society founded in 1630, as the fifth minister to occupy that pulpit, in 1815, by all standards still a very young man. He was to hold that position for 35 years.

In 1818 he married Ann Gorham Brooks and to them were born Thomas Brooks, 1819; Ocatvius Brooks, 1823; Edward, 1825; Ward Brooks, 1828; and Ellen, 1835. Octavius became a famous and rather radical theologian following the footsteps of his friend and mentor Theodore Parker, Thomas became a well-respected Boston merchant, Ellen was known for her writing, and Ward came to Burlington in 1851 and bought the large Jotham Johnson farm. He became the only man enlisted from Burlington to hold a line officer’s commission during the Civil War.

The mansion Dr. Frothingham began to build two years after buying his land here was truly a magnificent building. 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 that property carried the highest assessment in town, the house at the unheard-of valuation of $7,000 with a barn valued at $500, a sum more than that assessed to half the town’s dwellings. In that year he is still assessed as being of Boston.

The Frothinghams did not enjoy it too 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 Cemetery, 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 that he bought the property on Lexington Street he bought a large burial plot in Chestnut Hill Cemetary, for both he and his wife had fallen in love with Burlington’s pastoral beauty and wished to be buried here. They were, and the family has continued to use that plot for over 100 years, the last of some 17 Frothingham burials having taken place there as late as 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 and moved to Concord, where she felt the townspeople would be more in sympathy with her views.

The Rupprechts lived there for many years and made it economically attractive for some years by operating a day camp there which became known as the Spruce Hill Nursery and Kindergarten. 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 are unknown.

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