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Uniquely Medfield: A Unique Landmark on West Main Street

A look at the "Tannery Farm" at 663 Main Street.

 

Its location is 663 Main Street, just west of historic Vine Lake Cemetery and just before the vast open meadows of the Charles River.  It sits on a small knoll, surrounded by trees and protected by the Metcalf Historic District, which includes all of West Main Street.

The historic dwelling is known as the Tannery Farm and the house itself dates to 1785.

When the Tannery was first built, the ratification of the U.S. Constitution and the presidency of George Washington were still two years away, our victory over the British in the Revolutionary War was still fresh in everyone’s mind, our country was governed under the Articles of Confederation and the dollar had just been unanimously chosen for the first time as the money unit for the United States.

The Tannery was built by Adam Peters, a Revolutionary War veteran, who was a tanner and a captain in the militia. The house remains an extraordinary example of a Federal style house, especially in view that it was located in a rural farming village. After Adam’s death, the Tannery went to Adam’s son, William and then to William’s daughter, Amy. It was Amy who married Reverend Charles Sewall in 1823 and in 1843 the Sewell family moved into the Tannery.

In 1887, Rev. Sewell’s daughter, Alice, took over the Tannery and turned it into a boarding house, entertaining artist Dennis Miller Bunker and composer Charles Martin Loeffler among others.  Alice Sewall was good friends with Boston patron and socialite Isabella Stewart Gardner. It was Gardner who introduced both Loeffler and Bunker to Sewell and her West Main Street boarding house.

Professor Charles Martin Loeffler was the distinguished composer and concertmaster with the Boston Sympathy Orchestra, who hobnobbed with the cream of Boston Society and was considered one of the music world’s greatest composers. He sought seclusion away from the hustle and bustle of Boston society and retreated to Sewell’s quiet boarding house. Here the famous concertmaster found the privacy of a simpler life. He was esteemed an eminent intellectual as well as artist; who counted among his friends, John Singer Sargent, who painted his portrait, and other artists and intellectuals, as well as Boston’s most notable patrons. 

Loeffler so fell in love with Medfield that he would later purchased a decaying old farm house in the 273 South Street area, which he remodeled and enlarged into a working farm. The house no longer stands today, burning to the ground in May of 1940. He also purchased the house across the street at 274 South Street which he remodeled into a music studio. In Medfield, Loeffler led the life of a gentleman farmer with his wife Elise Fay, whom he married in 1910. Loeffler shared his time between his working farm, thoroughbred horses and his musical activities. He continued to teach and to coach chamber ensembles and in 1908 founded the all-woman American String Quartette. 

When Loeffler was at the Tannery boarding house, he brought out friend and noted impressionist painter Dennis Miller Bunker. Here, Bunker stayed in 1889 and 1890. Not only were the summers of 1889 and 1890 in Medfield his most productive, but the artist developed such a close relationship with Loeffler that Loeffler later served as best man at Bunker’s wedding.

In Medfield, Bunker found his stride. According to Bunker, “no other place had affected him like Medfield.” He felt an immediate emotional tie for the land and the light. The Medfield landscape inspired him to do his best work. He could hardly contain his excitement when he wrote to Gardner,

“You should see the Charles River, it has dwindled almost to a brook—and has lost all its Boston character. It is very charming—like a little English river—or rather a little like an English river. It runs here through the most lovely meadows, very properly framed in pine forests and low familiar looking hills—all very much the reverse of striking or wonderful or marvelous, but very quietly winning and all wearing so very well that I wonder what more one needs in any country….The calmness of everything here—its roughness and simplicity is to me most charming and restful—and I feel more happy and in better courage.” 

When he returned to Medfield in the summer of 1890, Bunker wrote, “I have been going about recognizing every bush and field and all the things about the place."

The Medfield landscape provided Bunker with endless opportunities to explore techniques and subjects. He produced serious paintings of Medfield marshes, capturing changes in the light at different times of the day, much like Monet. Bunker painted a portrait of Loeffler, which today hangs in the Isabella Steward Gardner Museum in Boston. [The museum, by the way, has recently re-opened with a beautiful new addition.] He also painted Loeffler’s violin.

Loeffler was busy too at the time, composing a string quartet; Bunker wrote to Mrs. Gardner, “I even hear Loeffler working downstairs on the same phrase that he began two months ago.” 

Bunker titled his painting of the caretaker’s cottage by Sewell’s boarding house that Loeffler had earlier rented “Roadside Cottage,” which today hangs in the Museum of Fine Arts.  Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts collection also includes Bunker’s Medfield paintings of “The Pool” and “The Brook at Medfield.”  No one knows for sure where the exact place where these paintings were made. The best guess is that they were probably not far from the area of the Tannery. 

Although the Tannery Drive housing development has changed the immediate area around the house, much of the area across the street and along the neighboring Charles River is wetlands and remains undeveloped and has changed little over the years. 

Bunker completed more paintings in Medfield than anywhere else. As canvases piled up in his room, he was unhappy at the prospect of returning to Boston to teach. He confided to Gardner that summer was slipping away too fast. The public saw the first of Bunker’s Medfield paintings in 1890.

That summer of 1890 was an especially happy one for Bunker. He was in love and his work was going well. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City had offered him a teaching post, so at summer’s end, he left Medfield for New York. In October, he married Eleanor Hardy, daughter of a prominent Boston family. The couple moved to New York City. There, on Christmas Day, Bunker suddenly became ill. He died of the influenza three days later. He was just 29 years old.

Bunker was called the most promising Boston artist of his generation. The "what if’s" that surround Bunker’s life are limitless.  But this we know: He loved his time in Medfield and his stay at the Tannery and from that time came his best and most successful work.

In 1923, socialite George Dabney purchased the property and, in 1926, he moved the house away from Main Street, back into the lot for more privacy. A new kitchen and servant’s quarters were added. Dabney renovated the barn on the property which he later moved across the street and up into the then-open fields, where it is still in use today as a private residence.

In 1989, Davna Corporation purchased the property, subdivided the land for a housing development and moved the house back to its approximate original location at 663 West Main Street. The addition created by Dabney was torn down but the 1785 home built by Adam Peters is what remains today, complete with original moldings, mantels and hardware. It survived a recent fire, underwent careful restoration, and still proclaims the presence of Loeffler and Bunker, while holding on to its long and valued history.

John OLeary September 12, 2012 at 04:39 AM
In the very late 1940's, early '50's, the "barn" was a rental property inhabited by Nancy Whittier. I visited frequently. It was a memorable house. Half of the second floor was left as loft, and served as the living room. There was a massive stone fireplace and perhaps three different seating/conversation areas. The deep, cushioned window seats provided a cozy place to read and enjoy views across Vine Lake. I recall a grand piano, and a big wrought iron (I think) chandelier, suspended from the ridgepole, presided over the entire space. Although very large, it felt to be private and homey.
John OLeary September 12, 2012 at 04:40 AM
In the summer, with the windows open, across the beautifully groomed lawn which separated Mrs. Dabney's house from the "barn," the altercations between Mrs. D and her maid, Edith(?) could be clearly heard in every detail. Edith vehemently disapproved of Mrs. D's tobacco habit, her use of breath mints to mask it, and the gardener's complicity in the whole matter. Mrs. D, would enlist George, the gardener, driver, and general dog's body to drive to Alley's store to buy the newspaper (The Herald, no doubt) cigarettes, candies, etc. He would deliver the paper and, carefully, surreptitiously, the cigarettes and breath mints.
John OLeary September 12, 2012 at 04:41 AM
Mrs. D was apparently in the habit of locking herself in the bathroom with the cigarettes, and Edith was onto the ploy. She would stand outside the bathroom door and announce to the world what exactly was going on in there. "I know that you're in there! I know what you're doing in there! And don't think for a minute that those candies fool me. You reek of tobacco, you do, and anyone with half a nose can tell. And George, you make him sneak and skulk around me to keep you in the habit. Lord have mercy!"

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