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200 Years of History Echo in this House

Whittemores Ensure Prosperity of West Cambridge

Arlington was still called Menotomy when Amos, Samuel and William Whittemore acquired two and three-fourths acres of land in the center of town from Thomas Russell for $500. In September 1799, the brothers established their business in Menotomy under the name of William Whittemore & Co. At the same time, they mortgaged the land for $3,000, presumably to gain capital to build their factory.

Amos Whittemore held an important patent on a machine to mass-produce the cards used for straightening the fibers of cotton and wool before they are spun into yarn. This invention made both the Whittemores and West Cambridge prosperous. The factory provided jobs for "forty persons, male and female," according to Dr. Holmes' History of Cambridge (1801) and boosted the town's economy.

William Whittemore lived in the Federal-style mansion built around 1800, near the factory. The house was the most prestigious address on the avenue and it suited Whittemore and his family perfectly. Then, as today, the house featured a floor plan and design elements found in popular builders' manuals of the day.

The Whittemores were active in business, state politics and local affairs for many years. William was known locally as "Squire Whittemore." He was a selectman of Cambridge from 1803-05, state representative from 1804-06 and state senator from 1820-21. His grandfather Samuel is memorialized in an inscription in the town center in front of the Cutter House. It records his feats during the Revolutionary War. Samuel, nearly 80, withstood the assault of several British soldiers on their retreat from Lexington on April, 19, 1775. He is said to have killed two British soldiers; he was shot and bayoneted six or seven times by the enemy. Terribly wounded and left for dead, he survived to live 18 more years.

By 1840, William Whittemore was in poor health and his fortune had been wiped out by failed investments. When he died in 1842, the house was rented out as a girls' school. One of his sons continued to live on the third floor.

Nathan Robbins Family Become Second Owners

The second of the two families to occupy the house was of more humble origins. Hardworking, energetic and penurious, Nathan Robbins had slowly built up a business empire based on buying and selling chickens raised in Menotomy. He was one of the first to hold a stall at the newly opened Faneuil Hall Market in Boston, in 1826, and he was on hand to celebrate its 50th anniversary. His fine business methods and strictly honorable dealing won the respect of his fellows. For many years he served as the president of the Old Faneuil Hall Bank.

Nathan Robbins became the wealthiest citizen of Arlington, and the proud owner of its finest house. Nathan bought the house in 1847. He and his wife, Eliza, updated the interior of the house, added the Italianate dormers to the roof, the sidelights at the front door, and the urns on the balustrade around the cupola.

In 1879, by then a widower living alone in his yellow mansion on Massachusetts Avenue, Nathan was joined by the four children of his late son Orrin. The young children -- Ida, Olney, Eliza and Caira -- brought life and laughter back to the big house. Olney joined his grandfather at Faneuil Hall Market while his sisters became popular figures about town and the new mistresses of the mansion.

When Nathan died in 1888, his four grandchildren became the owners the house. One of the first things they did was to update and redecorate the house. The sisters built a new stairway in the front hall, completely redecorated the back parlor, added the pineapple-finial wrought iron railings, and entirely new formal landscaping.

In 1890, they had the house moved back from the avenue to its present site so that the street could be widened and the library could be built. It was also reoriented at that time so that the front faced Massachusetts Avenue.

Heritage of the Robbins Sisters

Civic-minded and very generous, the Robbins grandchildren sought creative means to use their fortune for the benefit of Arlington. When Nathans brother Eli died in New York, he left a large fortune to his wife, Maria Farmer Robbins. A native of Arlington, she gave the Robbins Library in her husband's memory. Olney and his sisters oversaw the building of the library, taking care in every detail. Later, the sisters donated the granite watering trough at "Foot of the Rocks" in memory of Olney.

When their cousin, Winfield (son of Nathan's brother Amos) died, he left a legacy to build the Town Hall in memory of his father. The sisters asked the renowned architect R. Clipston Sturgis to design the building. The Town Hall was dedicated in 1913, at the same time as the Winfield-Robbins Memorial Garden, with Cyrus Dallin's statue of the Menotomy Hunter. In 1939, the sisters had the garden landscaped by the Olmsted Brothers firm.

In 1931, Ida and Caira gave their beloved house to the town in memory of Nathan and Eliza Robbins. The building was to be used as offices, and an auction disposed of all the furnishings.

Since then, the house has held many town departments. In the 1930s, the Board of Health occupied the dining room and kitchen, and the Welfare Council used the parlors, second floor and basement. During World War II, the Draft Board moved in.

In 1976, The Arlington Historical Commission, trustees of the Whittemore-Robbins House, began a project to restore the main public rooms of the house as a museum. Completed in 1993, the parlors, dining room, central stair hall and cupola were restored to reflect the Federal and Colonial Revival heritage of the house.

Today, the Arlington Youth Consultation Center (AYCC) shares the house with the offices of the Arlington Historical Commission. The commission, the Department of Human Services (DHS) and Town Planning Department began the renovation of the entire house in 1996, including long-needed structural work, updated systems, handicap accessibility, a catering kitchen and landscaping. The house has been refurbished for office use and as a function facility, marking a new era for the Whittemore-Robbins House.