The Spruce Hill Area was documented by the Weston Historical Commission in 2003 and includes the following properties: 7 and 8 Bay State Rd; 1, 7, 10, 15, 20, 25, 26, 33, 36, 44, 52, 55, 64, 65, 72, 73, 79, and 80 Spruce Hill Rd.
To see the original Area form including data sheets and photographs, click here: Spruce Hill Road Area Form
Spruce Hill Road is a dead-end subdivision road within the “King’s Grant” neighborhood off North Avenue (Route 117) on the north side of Weston. The area delineated by this form includes 20 houses, 16 of which were constructed between 1955 and 1959 by the Techbuilt Corporation of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Techbuilt houses exemplify many of the principals of the Modern movement including flexible design, open floor plans, use of new technology, openness to the outside, and minimal impact on the land. The company utilized pre-fabrication and modular systems to reduce costs. The Techbuilts on Spruce Hill Road are two stories high and range in size from 1000 to 2900 square feet. The original houses were simple rectangular boxes with a maximum of about 1225 square feet, but most have had additions, resulting in a variety of sizes and shapes. They are set on 1 1/2 to 2 1/2-acre wooded lots, most of which slope down toward North Avenue. The gable roofs have the characteristic Techbuilt forty-five degree slope. The exterior walls are covered with wood clapboards, wood shingles, or brick. Some have Techbuilt garages or carports built about the same time as the house. Within the boundaries of the Spruce Hill Road Area are four newer houses, two in contemporary style (built in 1983 and 1997) and two new Colonials (built in 2000 and 2001) the latter with more formal landscaping and lawns. These replaced the original Techbuilts, which were torn down. Nearby but not included in this area form are five more Techbuilt houses (307, 313, 319 and 336 North Avenue and 3 King’s Grant Road) which were also part of the 1950s development.
The prototype Techbuilt house, built in 1953, reflected a decade of concentrated work and experimentation by Carl Koch, one of the leading modern architects of the postwar period. Koch received his undergraduate and architectural degrees from Harvard and set up an office practice in 1939. His interest in new housing types led to his work from 1946 to 1949 on the Acorn House, a factory-fabricated home delivered to the site from the company headquarters in Concord, Massachusetts. Beginning in 1952, he designed a series of low-cost, semi-factory-built, one- and two-story house plans for Techbuilt Inc. In the mid-1950s, when the Weston houses were being built, Koch was president of Techbuilt, Inc. Beginning in 1951, Koch was involved in the planning, design and construction of 100 houses on a 190-acre site in Concord called Conantum.
Techbuilt, Inc. was one of the first companies to combine Modern architecture with pre-fabricated construction techniques. The company described its house as “a design for living” that “frees the family from the confines of space designed for the statistically average family and affords instead an opportunity to enjoy an expression of individual living requirements.” Because of the post-and beam construction, interior partitions could be placed to suit the needs of each family. Houses had wide expanses of glass. The “pleasant, sun-filled rooms” often had sliding glass doors, which added to the experience of indoor-outdoor living. Emphasis was on family needs– not just physical and social needs but also the needs of the “mind and spirit.” The goal was a house which would encourage a comfortable and enjoyable family life as well as accommodate the changing needs of the family over time.
The company touted the “freshness of design” offered by the new modernist aesthetic. The stark white surfaces of the earlier International Style were replaced by combinations of wood clapboards, shingles, or brick, allowing houses to be better integrated into the landscape rather than standing out as pieces of scupture. Company literature described the two-story Techbuilt House as a “completely new kind of two-level house” which utilized every cubic foot of space and thus provided more space for less money. Techbuilt houses were built on concrete slabs and have no basement. The “space wasting attic” was eliminated by using a post-and-beam design. All space below the roof was utilized and no costly attic dormers were needed. Brochures pointed out that Techbuilt houses combined the economies of a two-story house with the low silhouette of a one story house. This low silhouette conveyed the feeling of “belonging to the land” that was part of the modernist aesthetic.
While company literature tended to emphasize style and liveability, the Techbuilt house was developed as a way to provide housing that could be built quickly and cheaply during the immediate post-war period, when housing was scarce. The price of the houses was lower, per square foot, than traditional houses because the modules were pre-fabricated and materials and interior finishes were simple and inexpensive.
According to company literature, the Techbuilt house achieved instant recognition as a signficant advance in housing. The American Institute of Architects designated it as the “Best Development House” and the New York Times called it “The People’s Choice.” The construction method was televised on the Ford Foundation’s TV Radio Workshop over its nationwide “Excursion” and “Omnibus” programs and featured in leading magazines.
The basic Techbuilt module was 8 feet long and 4 feet wide. Modules were delivered on large trucks and put together on site, block by block. Only four columns were needed for interior support. These columns are located 12 feet apart on the long side and 8 feet apart on the short side. Since interior partitions are not supporting, original owners were able to customize the interior floorplan around the four columns and also to determine the location of windows. Some of the large plate-glass windows span the full eight foot width of a module and are fixed in place, while others are four-feet wide and paired. The paired windows open by sliding horizontally on aluminum tracks. Spandrals between windows were constructed of plywood, and owners sometimes chose a bright color for these spandrals. Part of the visual interest of the Techbuilt houses derives from the relationship between the clapboard, shingle, or brick surfaces, the fixed or paired window modules and the painted spandrals. The asphalt-shingled roofs have wide overhangs that block direct sun in summer.
Inside, a brick fireplace was located on an interior wall near the center hallway. Floors were covered with asphalt tiles over concrete. Perimeter walls were covered with beveled-edge cedar siding. In the earliest Techbuilts, rather than using drywall, interior partition walls were made with 2 X 4’s covered with plywood, which was then painted. Ceilings were also covered with plywood rather than drywall. Opaque glass was used in the entry halls. The modern-style light fixtures were stainless steel. In the earliest houses, kitchen cabinets were metal. The houses had hot water baseboard heat around the perimeter but no baseboard heating on the interior walls. The second floor ceilings slope down at an angle from the center ridge line. The large roof beams, measuring about 4” X 12”, are meant to be visible on the interior. They were originally left unfinished and were often later boxed in. The beams pierce the outside walls at the gable ends and continue outside, where they support the roof overhang. The earliest Techbuilt houses were designed without built-in closets. Techbuilt sold prefabricated wardrobes that have been described as “good looking but somewhat unstable.”
A sample Techbuilt floorplan shows a living room/dining room area, kitchen, entry hall, future lavatory and laundry, and storage space on the lower floor, and four bedrooms and a bath on the second floor, with space designated for a future bath. Specifying a location for “future” laundry and bathrooms was a way that young families could add amenities as families grew and finances allowed. By 1960, many owners were doing additions.
Problems mentioned by long-time owners include the need for insulation. Many owners have replaced fixed glass panels with insulated glass and/or added storm windows. Kitchen pipes, which were embedded in the concrete slabs, froze and burst.
The modernist philosophy emphasized minimizing impact on the land. In the Spruce Hill Road Area, trees were cleared only where needed to provide room for the house, and there is little lawn area around any of the original Techbuilts.
The largest model in the Spruce Hill Road Area, the James and Gay Fay House at 36 Spruce Hill Road (1956, Map #24, MHC 766, Photo #1 & 2), is six modules wide at the gable ends by 12 modules long (24 feet by 48 feet). In the Fay house, windows are located in the center of each elevation, grouped in modular units of two (north gable end), four (south gable end), and six (east and west sides).This house is notable because it has never been enlarged and has remained largely unchanged on the exterior. The exterior material is clapboard, and the house is painted or stained a dark brown and has dark brown painted plywood spandrals. The 1225-square-foot house was the largest size available when it was constructed in the mid-1950s. The Fay family customized their floorplan to accomodate an entry, kitchen, dining room/alcove, two bedrooms and a full bath on the first floor and two bedrooms, a bathroom, and large living area on the second floor. Floor plans are included with this area form.
The Herbert and Nancy Baer House at 26 Spruce Hill Road (1958, Map #18, MHC 767) has also retained many original exterior features and is an example of a slightly smaller Techbuilt (24’ X 40’) with some updated features and extras available by 1958. These included built-in closets with louver doors, drywall on ceilings and interior walls, metal kitchen cabinets with wood rather than metal doors, and better insulation. Over the years, the Baers added a large two-story screened porch, storage areas, and front and back entry halls. They enlarged the kitchen and bedroom above.
Spruce Hill Road was the first complete new road to be laid out and developed within the large post-World War II subdivision known as King’s Grant. The 20 original houses were constructed in the mid- to late-1950s by Techbuilt Inc, a Cambridge-based corporation that created the Modern style “Techbuilt” prototype house under the direction of architect Carl Koch. Techbuilt Inc. was a manifestation of a larger movement in the Boston metropolitan area, led by Koch and others, to create affordable communities which were modern not only in architecture but also in spirit. (see also Kendal Common Area Form.) Techbuilt Inc. purchased the 250-acre north-side property in 1954 and sold it three years later after developing only a small fraction of the land. Spruce Hill Road was the only new street that had been completed and for this reason is the only “all Techbuilt” street in Weston. The houses were originally purchased by young couples interested in contemporary architecture and affordable prices. Early residents included academics, scientists, artists and professionals who created a lively, politically-liberal community.
When Techbuilt bought the land in late 1954, the 250 acres of fields and woodland was one of the largest undeveloped parcel of land in Weston. It had been passed from generation to generation of Fiske family farmers until 1912, when it was sold to candy-maker William F. Schrafft. He sold the farm to Charles J.R. Cahill and Joseph H. Beale in 1923, and the two partners established the largest dairy farm in Weston, known as Cedar Hill Dairy. After World War II, the now-defunct dairy was sold to Kendal Green Realty Trust, which kept the farm buildings intact. They rented the barns to Watertown Dairy, which kept cows there until the end of the decade.
Kendal Green Realty Trust held the land until November 1954, when they sold it to Techbuilt. The company laid out 40 lots along North Avenue, the lower end of Cahill Road, (now King’s Grant Road), and Spruce Hill Road. Techbuilt Inc. had a mortgage agreement with Cambridge Savings bank for $80,000, and a requirement that the money be paid back in three years. Since the company conveyed the land to the Watts Realty Corp exactly three years later, it can be assumed that it was unable to pay off the mortgage without selling the property. Reasons cited by local residents for the failure of the development include high costs of infrastructure, particularly roads and water supply. Because Techbuilt sold the land before any more streets could be developed, Spruce Hill Road is the only street in Weston where all the houses–at least until recent teardowns–were Techbuilts. Watts Realty Corp owned the property for only two months before conveying it to Weston Land Company, a group of local investors. Over the next decades, the new owners gradually subdivided it into more than 100 lots on King’s Grant, Myles Standish, Bradford, Indian Hill, Hancock, and Bay State Roads. Buyers purchased the land and hired their own architects or builders. It is interesting to note that many subsequent buyers of land in the King’s Grant neighborhood selected contemporary designs. Techbuilt continued to build modular houses in Weston, but prospective buyers had to find their own land.
In the mid-1950s,Weston was growing rapidly. The town was at the intersection of two new major highways (Route 128 and the Mass Turnpike) Early owners of the Techbuilt houses on Spruce Hill Road settled there for two principal reasons: they wanted a contemporary house (in some cases they specifically wanted a Techbuilt house) and they had children and knew that the schools had an excellent reputation. Buyers were generally young. They recall that contemporary design didn’t usually attract older people used to traditional styles, and that many younger buyers also preferred traditional houses and wondered when the Spruce Hill residents were going to buy a “real house.” Nancy Baer, an original resident, summed up the attraction of Techbuilt: “We liked the price, the size, the “purity,” the idea of honest materials, and the contemporary feel. We were young…” Lorraine Balkin, another of the original builders, observed “We thought it was great– the house had all this glass… and the woods…”
Science, technology and education were heavily represented in the professions of original owners. Among the men, there were three professors, three attorneys, and one each of the following occupations: news director, “electronic,” manager consultant, advertising, physician, engineer, instrument worker, industrial designer, sales manager, insurance, and construction superintendent. Of the women, two were social workers, one woman is listed on poll-tax records as a “housewife writer” and the rest were listed as housewives. The Balkin family owned the Newbury Street store Decor International. As the children grew, the women branched out into teaching, creative arts and volunteerism, particularly in community service and social issues. Lorraine Balkin described the neighborhood as “a congenial, creative, imaginative group of people, everyone with little children. It was a real neighborhood, where eveyone knew everyone. It was a warm, close-knit community with a lot of unusual people.”
In the 1950s there was resistance in Weston to development in general and the Techbuilt development in particular. In 1954, the town adopted new zoning requiring 60,000 square foot lots on much of the remaining undeveloped land, and Spruce Hill Road lots had to meet the larger lot size requirements. The Techbuilt development was out of character with the way Weston had grown up to that point. People didn’t like the fact that all the houses looked basically the same. In addition to the unfamiliar style, the Techbuilts were perceived as poorly constructed, of inferior materials. People called them “chicken coops.” When Weston assessors created categories of construction as part of building records, the Techbuilts were low on the list of desirable house types. It is difficult to know how much of Techbuilt’s problems in Weston and ultimate sale of the remainder of the 250-acre parcel was related to sales or infrastructure issues and how much to town opposition. It is notable that architect Carl Koch was behind the successful development of Conantum in Concord, a community of 100 houses on approximately 190 acres which was begun in 1951 but was unsuccessful with the Techbuilt, Inc. project in Weston, which would have been of similar size.
The Spruce Hill Road Area developed a reputation as a liberal Democratic stronghold in a conservative Republican town. At some point the street acquired the nickname “Pink Hill.” According to James Fay, one of the residents, attorney Larry Locke, ran for school committee, which at that time was always a hotly-contested position. Someone raised questions about whether he had ever been associated with the Communist Party and he withdrew from the contest, which was “getting a little vicious,” according to Fay. This was not long after the McCarthy era.
Residents in the Spruce Hill neighborhood established a fair housing association to help make it possible for minorities to buy in Weston. They also supported fair housing legislation at the state level. Almost everyone on Spruce Hill Road joined the association, which also had support from elsewhere in the town. At that time, there were few if any black families in Weston. It was generally known that Jews were not welcome. Realtors were not required to show houses to everyone. The fair housing association tried to get people to sign up and say they would welcome people of all races in Weston.
Two Spruce Hill women, Nancy Baer and Imogene Fish, along with South Avenue resident Harriet Elliston, started the Roxbury-Weston program in the mid-1960s, after the assasination of Dr. Martin Luther King. Children from Roxbury joined Weston children for a summer day camp experience. Several years later, another Spruce Hill resident Gay Fay was instrumental in establishing the Roxbury-Weston nursery school. Mrs. Fay also taught part-time in the Roxbury schools. Deborah Ecker was head of the League of Women Voters, and many neighborhood women were active in the League.
1) Techbuilt brochures and letters, located in the Techbuilt vertical file at the Boston Public Library, Fine Arts Department, See Reference Librarian.
2) Interviews by Pamela W. Fox with James Fay, Lorraine Balkin, Grace Nichols and Herbert and Nancy Baer, spring, 2003.
3) Plans and elevations for the James and Gay Fay House, Weston Historical Commission files.
4) Fox, Pamela W., Farm Town to Suburb: The History and Architecture of Weston, Massachusetts, 1830-1980 (Peter Randall Publisher, 2003), Kendal Green chapter, pages 229-232.