Horace Wadlin: Reading’s Renaissance man of the late 19th & early 20th century

This article is part of a series in the Daily Times Chronicle for Reading’s 375th Anniversary Historical Essay Project.

By Peggy White

In proper parlance, Horace Greely Wadlin might be called a professional polymath, but in the late19th and early 20th centuries, he was known as Reading’s Renaissance Man. His list of titles, activities, and accomplishments is truly amazing.

Born in Wakefield in 1851, he moved with his family to Reading and was raised in a farmhouse at the intersection Washington and Prescott Streets. The house is still there, though no longer a farmstead, and the block has been filled in with other homes, including one of Wadlin’s own design.

Horace G. Wadlin

Horace attended and graduated from the Reading school system (with additional private tutoring), then went on to work for a few – very few – years at architectural firms in Salem and Boston. In 1875, with no apparent degree in architecture, he opened, at 24, an architectural firm in Boston and Reading. He soon after married Ella Butterfield of Wilmington, then got an early start as a Town Father with his election to the School Committee. This was the beginning of a career in public life which would span the next 50 years.

Wadlin’s early architectural commissions were for Queen Anne and Stick style homes near the center of town. He also designed the Union St. and Prospect St. schools which have since been demolished. The Prospect St. School has an especially interesting history. An early photo shows a substantial one-story building with an opulent outhouse, two entrances, of course. When additional room was needed, Wadlin devised a way to raise the building and install a new floor underneath.

An important early commission was what is now known as the Pleasant Street Center. Called the Town Building, the structure originally housed police (jails), fire (trucks) and municipal services in a single structure, a daunting task for any architect. It serves today, a spacious, light-filled gift from the past from a long-passed Reading genius.

While tending to business as an architect, Wadlin was developing a solid reputation as an author, lecturer, historian, lay preacher, theologian and effective member of Town boards and local organizations. One thing led to another, and he took on additional roles as a statistician and library director.

Looking at Wadlin’s life, some have assumed that he strayed from one interest to the next, dropping one job to start another. Not so! He did it all, and all at once, without having a college diploma. No wonder a prestigious university elected to award him an honorary doctorate.

Got the Water Running

By the 1880s, Reading was developing quickly as a suburb of Boston (excellent train service), and a committee had been formed to address the need for public water supply. Despite the obvious inadequacies of hand pumps, fire buckets, cisterns, wells, and windmills, it took most of a decade and several Articles before Town Meeting came around.

Finally, Article 40, stressing “the extinguishment of fires” was passed in 1888, a good beginning. The Selectmen then needed to contract with the newly formed Reading Water Company, and following that, have the contract be approved by Massachusetts House of Representatives. And who had recently been elected to the legislature and be posited to shepherd the proposal through? None other than Horace Greely Wadlin. Water lines were quickly installed in the village, the “Highlands” and the “new westside.”

When Wadlin retired from the Great & General Court in 1888 (after securing Reading’s water supply), the Boston Evening Transcript had this to say: “Mr. Wadlin is possessed of remarkable energy and quick intelligence, and at the last session of the Legislature he was one of the most influential members of the House.” He chaired committees on woman suffrage, education, and railroads.

Excelled as a Statistician

Mission accomplished, yes, but Wadlin hardly let up on his schedule. He immediately became the Chief of the Massachusetts Bureau of Labor and Statistics, succeeding fellow Readingite Col. Carrol D. Wright, to whom Horace had served as an assistant over the previous ten years. Wright had moved on to become the first Commissioner of Labor in Washington, D.C., appointed by President Chester A. Arthur.

When Wadlin was nominated to fill the State post, the Executive Council seemed to have no doubts as to his abilities, as they suspended their own rules and immediately confirmed the appointment. The position also put Wadlin in charge of the 1895 Massachusetts Census as well as the state portion of the 1890 federal census on top of the routine duties of the Bureau Chief.

Horace Greeley, an editor of the New York Tribune and presidential candidate, famously encouraged his readership to “Go West”, and his Reading namesake took his advice, albeit on a smaller scale. Our Horace had concentrated his architectural activities at the intersection of Woburn and Linden Streets, designing half a dozen houses in that vicinity. With the installation of the new waterlines, however, he went West a little over half a mile to where Woburn Street crosses Summer Avenue. Back in the day, we called it “Mr. Wadlin’s Neighborhood.” Here he designed more than a dozen homes, including his own at the corner of Woburn and Pratt. Curvature and stained glass are hallmarks of Wadlin’s hand.

Horace was also busy with the building of the Highland School (now the Reading Public Library) on Middlesex Avenue, the Town’s most elaborate to date. He was Chairman of the School Committee, of course.

Library Legend – Without an MLS

Wadlin combined his expertise as a statistician with his experience as Treasurer of the Reading Library Trustees to garner a position on the staff of the Boston Public Library. Even Horace must have been impressed by the BPL’s beautiful new McKim, Meade & White building at Copley Square. Fortuitously for Wadlin, the first named department there was Statistics.

Mr. Wadlin continued up the ladder at the BPL, rising to Head Librarian and Director. He was chosen to write the official history of the Boston Public Library in 1911. Not surprisingly for a man too busy to indulge in self-aggrandizement, when he wrote of the Library’s growth and accomplishment under his leadership, he did not mention his name in the text. Wadlin wrote more than a dozen other books, including the Relation of the Liquor traffic to Pauperism, Crime, and Insanity (1896).

Reading Unitarians are rightfully proud of Dr. Wadlin and his many contributions to his church. He wrote extensively about current events and societal issues in both local and national publications. As a popular lay preacher, he accepted many invitations to lecture, “filling many a pulpit.” The Chronicle wrote at the time: “His sermons were models in thought, English and delivery.” Among his gifts of faith and wisdom to his home church was the recently restored Baptismal Font, a charming offering that was never used for the Wadlins as they were childless.

Local Wadlin buffs – you know who you are – refer to HGW’s work as “Victorian,” and he certainly executed most of it during the Victorian Era. He worked in many different styles, however: Queen Anne, Stick, and Shingle mostly, but later applied Colonial and Classic elements then being promoted at the Columbian Exposition (White City World’s Fair in Chicago) to houses restricted by long and narrow 19th-century house lot plotting. In only one local case did he execute a true Colonial Revival dwelling.

Later Years

The last house he designed, 47 Washington Street, was in the 20th century Arts &Crafts style, built for his sister. Alas, she may never have lived in it. With but one exception his plans have never been found, and there is no official list of properties he designed. We do know that his work spreads from Sterling, Massachusetts to Saco, Maine, where he designed the Stickney Mansion for the superintendent of a local mill.

Tufts University recognized Wadlin’s life of service to “church, community, Commonwealth, and country” with an honorary Doctorate of Laws in 1910. From 1921 to 1924, Dr. Wadlin wrote a deep and thoughtful column in the Chronicle called “Concerning the Past,” from which this essay series takes its name. He wrote striking prose about art, history, architecture and a host of other topics. Rather than title articles, Wadlin used the unusual format of successive Roman numerals.

Upon his death in November of 1925 (following complications from a “routine” kidney procedure), the Chronicle announced the passing of “Reading’s First Citizen.” Following paragraph after paragraph of accolades, accomplishments and professional and cultural society memberships, the paper remembered him this way:

“An interesting feature of Dr. Wadlin’s character was its symmetry. Great intellectual keenness without intellectual arrogance or pride, unusual independence of thought and firmness of conviction without dogmatism, tenacity of purpose, high respect and courage, crowned with modesty. Dr. Wadlin was endowed with a rare capacity for kindness and goodwill.”

Wadlin’s funeral was conducted from his stately home at 118 Woburn Street. He was survived by his wife of 52 years, Ella, and is interred with his immediate family in Laurel Hill Cemetery on the main path near the top of the hill, beneath a natural boulder simply marked Wadlin. Fred Friedman, a former member of the RPL staff, has written a beautiful tribute to Dr. Wadlin’s contributions to his town and its children. It can be found at the Library in the Barclay/Bishop History Room.

Peggy White, a local history buff and quilter of great renown, has lived in Reading for 64 years. A proud U. Maine graduate (Class of ’53), she owns a Wadlin house on Prospect Street. Her “Town Quilt” will be on display at the Library as part of the 375th Anniversary Paint the Town Art Walk.

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