History of the Dawson House

Lowcroft: a Historic Craftsman House in an Olmsted Landscape

Around the turn of the last century, several Craftsman style houses were built throughout Sherborn. The style seems just right for Sherborn's rural ambiance. Influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement, the houses emphasized a naturalistic look with overhanging eaves, exposed rafters, shingled exteriors and fieldstone foundations. One of the most historic of these is the Dawson House at 37 Ash Lane. In the most recent update to Sherborn's Historic Asset Survey, the house was designated eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. The house and its beautifully landscaped grounds are considered historic both for their style and the history of the family that lived there.

The house was built in 1913 as a summer residence for James Frederick Dawson, a senior partner in the Olmsted landscape design firm. He inherited his love of plants from his father, Jackson Thornton Dawson, who was head plant propagator and superintendent at the Arnold Arboretum for 43 years. Frederick Dawson grew up with six brothers and sisters in a house on the grounds of the Arboretum. His father traveled throughout New England, searching for seeds and plants to add to the collection. In a single year, he planted more than 50,000 bushes. In fact, Dawson put in fifteen to twenty % of the plants in the Arboretum. Widely respected for his knowledge of plants, Jackson Thornton Dawson received the George Robert White medal of honor for distinguished service to horticulture in 1910. It was awarded only once before, to the director of the Arboretum, Charles Singer.

It's no surprise, then, that Jackson's children shared his passion for horticulture. James Frederick Dawson, the fourth son, studied at the Roxbury Latin School and Harvard University's Bussey Institute (the predecessor to the Arboretum) and at European schools before joining the prestigious Olmsted firm as an apprentice landscape architect in 1896. He became a full partner in 1922 and eventually was named senior partner.

Fred Dawson worked on many Olmsted projects in Seattle and Spokane, Washington, starting in 1910. During this time, he was invited to a dance. He took one look at lively, pretty Hazel Belle Lease and told his brother-in-law, Harold Blossom, "That's the woman I'm going to marry." Hazel's dance card was already full but she allowed him the last dance. They married in June 1913 in Spokane, when he was 39 and she was 29.

Hazel was a free spirit and an accomplished artist in her own right. Before meeting James Frederick Dawson, Hazel had lived in Paris for five years with an aunt, then moved to Spokane where she lived with another aunt and was a symphony violinist with the Spokane Orchestra.

The house in Sherborn, called Lowcroft, became their summer retreat where they raised four children. They built the house on an esker, with a wonderful view of apple orchards and the 72-acre farm. The landscaping around the house is classic Olmsted, with mounting levels of vegetation between the drive and the house. A single tall tree at one side was a common element in landscapes influenced by Olmsted. The azalea path is breathtaking in the spring and includes the Hazel Dawson azalea, a pink variety propagated by Fred Dawson and named for his wife. The extraordinary variety of plants surrounding the house, some of which are quite rare, mark this as a significant garden design of this period.

A friend (possibly a student of Frank Lloyd Wright) designed the Arts and Crafts-influenced house. The most striking feature is its enormous great room with big, stone fireplace and a huge screened porch overlooking the sprawling grounds. Frederick Dawson's granddaughter, Jane Wood, recalls that the walls were papered with gold foil. Her grandmother's collections of pewter, local crockery and German drinking steins lined the walls. A red "Indian blanket" draped over the balcony and Chinese lanterns hung from the ceiling. She also vividly remembers her Grandmother Hazel climbing up to the balcony to play the organ there.

With the help of a resident farmer, Mr. Dawson grew apples and corn, raised hens, cows, horses and hogs. There was a packing house for crating the produce, and his granddaughter remembers a farm stand where the produce was sold. Two orchards and pasture land are shown on a WPA map of Sherborn from 1939.

Every summer, the Dawsons hosted a Fourth of July party. The entire town went to see the fireworks. In 1929, a spark started in the fireworks supply, which was stored in the house across the way, where John O'Neill, the resident farmer, lived. Everything exploded and the house caught fire.

Madame Lemoin, a rare double white lilac, was planted around the barn. When Frederick and Hazel saw the glow in the sky as they came over "the flats," Dawson said "I hope the lilacs don't go." The house and barn burned to the ground but the lilacs survived. Dawson rebuilt the house with timber shipped from Washington State.

Dawson founded the Redondo Beach office of the Olmsted firm. While there, he designed the Washington State Capitol grounds, Palos Verdes Estates, golf courses, parkways and arboreta. His work in Redondo Beach was so time-consuming that Fred took the entire family to California by train every year from October to May, returning to Sherborn for the summer. He was also responsible for plans of the landscapes at the Alabama State Capitol, Russell Sage College and other schools in Troy, New York. He managed the Brookline office at the time of his death.

Fred Dawson's brother and sisters, meanwhile, founded Eastern Nurseries in Holliston, and many of the cousins in the next generation spent their summers working there, passing on the family's plant lore.

Mr. Dawson died in 1941 and all three of his sons, Jackson, James and Robert, were called to serve as officers in the Navy. Hazel Dawson continued to run the farm during the war years with her daughter, Jane. Hazel died in 1959, ending a remarkable era in the house called Lowcroft.

The property at 37 Ash Lane has recently been sold. The original guest house that belonged to the property was previously sold and that house and the landscaping were leveled for a new house. We hope that Lowcroft will remain intact so that the house, landscape and garden plan will survive as Mr. Dawson imagined and created them nearly a century ago.

By Carol McGarry, chair, Sherborn Historical Commission

This article draws on historical research by Town Historian Elizabeth Johnson, the research and recollections of Faith Tiberio, and extensive reminiscences of Frederick and Hazel Dawson's granddaughter, Jane Wood. I'd like to thank all of them for sharing their memories and history of the Dawson family.