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.

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A Reading Woman Who Stepped Up and Out


By Virginia Adams

As Reading was being settled in the mid-1600s, women’s roles were clearly defined by the mores of the time. Women were denied the right to own property and sometimes were considered property themselves. The right to vote was more than 200 years into the future. Women were generally bound to the household by multiple pregnancies, child rearing, and innumerable household chores.

The most common causes of death for women were childbirth and fatal burns resulting from fire igniting their clothing. Women tended fires within the typical huge cooking fireplaces found in early central chimney houses. Their clothing reached the floor and was subject to ignition from the coals that lay on the firebox floor when they reached into the cooking area. The “home fires” were often a death trap. 

The necessity of a large brood of children was driven by the need for a labor force to sustain a farm. Thomas Bancroft (the 4th) of West St. and his wife had eight children, which was typical for the mid – 1700’s. Although rarely acknowledged, the family’s survival and success was likely based on the lady of the house. 

In the 1790s, towns were obliged to provide schooling to be in compliance with a Legislative law. Reading voted to hold sessions of English school and grammar school at its two schoolhouses, simultaneously voting not to raise any funds to hire school dames. The male dominance of schoolmasters ended in 1793; women were employed and on the pay roles thereafter. (Eaton’s, Genealogical History) At last, women had found a source of paid employment.

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