H.H. Hunnewell was a gardening nut who financed railroads and contributed so much to West Needham, Mass., that the town voted to rename itself Wellesley after the estate he lovingly cultivated for six decades.
Wellesley, the estate, was named after the family of Hunnewell’s wife, Isabella Pratt Welles.
Hunnewell was born July 27, 1810, in Watertown, Mass. At 25 he became a partner in the Paris investment firm of Welles & Co. Fifteen years later he returned to the United States and started H.H. Hunnewell & Sons in Boston. The firm financed and directed several railroads, including the Illinois Central Gulf, the Kansas City, Fort Scott and Gulf Railroad, and the Kansas City, Lawrence and Southern Railroad.
He began landscaping the estate in the late 1840s. He then built large country houses for seven of his nine children nearby, and his descendants also developed estates. The estates now comprise the Hunnewell Estates Historic District. At one point during the early 20th century Wellesley had 20 contiguous Hunnewell estates.
Hunnewell spent decades planning, designing and cultivating his gardens. He was especially interested in evergreens and rhododendrons, which he is credited with introducing and popularizing in the United States. A rhododendron from China, Rhododendron hunnewellianum, was named after him and his son Walter. His estate had a pinetum, specialty greenhouses and the first topiary garden in the country.
He kept a diary, in which he recorded family events, visits with friends and details about his gardening. “Commenced watering rhododendrons with weak liquid manure. Isabella gone to West Chop to see about accommodations there,” is a typical entry. Or, “Commenced removing azaleas from tent.’ “Very busy at work on my specimen rhododendrons.” “The grubs very abundant on the lawn.”
Hunnewell funded the conifer collection at Arnold Arboretum, in Boston, and donated the Arboretum’s administration building. He donated Eliot Dormitory to Wellesley College in 1887, and endowed its Botany chair in 1901. He also donated Wellesley’s Town Hall and Free Library buildings. The Wellesley College Botanic Gardens has an arboretum named for him.
H.H. Hunnewell died on May 20, 1902 at the age of 92. In his obituary, American Florist described him as “one of the most unassuming of men.”
This story last updated in 2023.
Images: Arnold Arboretum By Daderot at the English-language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18516091.