A few years ago William LeMessurier died. That may not mean much to many, but he was a mighty structural engineer. Among the construction world he was a magician; the man who developed the tuned mass damper that stopped
Boston’s John Hancock Tower from swaying so much its windows kept popping out, the genius who supported New York’s Citicorp Building on four legs, none located at a corner of the building. To me, he was a teacher of renown. He taught an advanced structural engineering course at MIT, the ultimate structural design course I attempted, during which I admitted the limits of my mathematical ability. He also taught a watered down, but far more useful, class in structural design for architects, in which I learned everything I need to know to ask the right questions when the engineers start drifting into arcane lingo.
For years he lived at 157 Brattle Street in Cambridge, a forbidding dark brown heap of shingles and tiny paned windows hiding behind evergreen shrubs the size of elephants. I never knew he lived there,
I never even noticed the house, until he died; his address was in the Obit and within a few months a for sale sign went up on the corner of Brattle and Appleton.
Brattle Street is Cambridge’s local Park Avenue, the toniest address in town. It used to be called Tory Row, in reference to the many British loyalists who lived in the stately mansions along the street. Some date back to the 1600’s. George Washington used one abandoned by Tories as his headquarters during the siege of Boston, that same house later became the home of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and his family.
157 Brattle was built in 1897, the same year as my own house, but it has a different scale – eight bedrooms, ten fireplaces, a 35 foot long living room. The estate sold the house for $3.6 million in 2008, at which time the new owners gutted it. Gutting million dollar houses is a Brattle Street tradition. The mansions change hands; the new owners retain the shell and transform the interior to their particular tastes. In the case of 157 Brattle the transformation
was complete. Out went the evergreens, the cupped shingles, the wobbly paned glass, in went a geothermal heating system, a new roof, new shingles, glistening glass, a new carriage house, granite and teak fence, etched house numbers, a fresh lawn and a seasonally spectacular landscape. The new house is taupe instead of dark brown, in three subtle shades; the carved gable boards have
been sharpened, the immense Tudor front door refinished and shellacked to new life. What had been a dark hole of spindly needles and shakes is now the showpiece of the street. A more beautiful house would be tough to find.
People pause at 157 Brattle; it is not uncommon to see groups standing outside the low slung hundred thousand dollar fence pointing out features of particular interest. The house is gorgeous yet accessible beyond compare, for the new owners did not hide their treasure behind tall walls or dense plantings, as many Brattle Street residents do, they opened their house and invited anyone walking along the street to enjoy. For some time the buzz was that Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner live there, but alas they have renovated another equally impressive house in town, with a good deal more privacy in mind. I do not know who the owners are – I have never seen them, even though I ride by the house almost every day and have seen the dining room, the upstairs gallery, and many other rooms that are open for the world to see.
The unique thing about 157 Brattle is how it displays the owner’s wealth without being ostentatious. Many people in town talk about the house, yet never once have I heard a disparaging remark. It is simply too elegant, too well done, too much a gift to the people to be considered crass. In this period of the Occupy movement,
someone firmly entrenched in the 1% we are supposed to despise has charmed us with his good taste; we are putty in his hands.
The truth is that humans like wealth, even vicariously. We like to envision ourselves sitting at that mahogany table in the dining room, snipping the peonies outside the kitchen window. For all I know the owner is a fat cat banker, a mortgage magnate. Then
again, he could be a brilliant structural engineer who bought the house and refurbished it with such love in memory of Bill LeMessurier. I will probably never know. But that doesn’t stop me from enjoying his gift to the public.