About Sherborn's Historic Districts

In Sherborn, we are lucky to have a wealth of historic houses, cemeteries, farms and landscapes. More than 200 historic properties throughout town have been identified as historic resources worthy of preservation. In the center of town, the Sherborn Center Historic District and the Edwards Plain-Dowse’s Corner District are both National Register districts that are rich in local history and well-preserved architecture. Sherborn also has a Local Historic District that encompasses 15 properties.

A National Register District is part of the National Register of Historic Places, the nation’s official list of individual buildings, sites, structures and objects, as well as districts, deemed important in American history, architecture, archaeology, engineering and culture. It is a federal designation that is administered by the Secretary of the Interior through the Massachusetts Historical Commission. Communities with National Register Districts take pride in this federal designation. There are over 900 National Register Districts in Massachusetts.

In Sherborn, more than 90 properties have been listed on the National Register. They include: 79 old structures such as houses and barns; two historic burying grounds, the Central and Plain Cemeteries; and three monuments.

In addition to recognition, National Register designation gives owners of income-producing properties certain federal tax incentives for rehabilitation. It provides limited protection from adverse effects by federal or state involved projects. If there is no state or federal involvement in a project (such as federal licenses, permits or funding) and no pertinent local or regional regulations (such as a local historic district) then listing in the National Register of Historic Places does not limit an owner’s handling of the property at all.

Local Historic Districts in Massachusetts were first established on Beacon Hill and Nantucket in 1955. There are now over 200 local historic districts in Massachusetts.

Local Historic Districts are established individually by town council, or a two-thirds majority town meeting vote.

By establishing a local historic district, a community recognizes the importance of its architectural heritage and how vulnerable it is to incompatible alterations without this local regulation. In general, local historic districts are far more effective at preserving the integrity of an historic neighborhood and preventing changes that erode the neighborhood’s historic character than a National Register District.

One of the most important functions of a Historic District Commission is to guide home owners toward alterations that maintain the historic integrity of their property. In a local historic district, proposed changes to exterior architectural features that are visible from a public way are reviewed by a locally appointed Historic District Commission. For instance, if a building addition were proposed in a local historic district, the property owner would submit an application to the Historic District Commission. The Historic District Commission would make a determination on whether the new addition was appropriate, and hold a public hearing if necessary. If the addition were appropriate, the Historic District

Commission would issue a Certificate of Appropriateness, allowing the work to progress.

Many proposed changes are exempt from review. There is no review of interior features. In addition, a variety of exterior features are exempt, such as storm windows, storm doors, screen doors, window air conditioners, solar panels, greenhouses and windmills.

A local historic district is not a zoning ordinance, although the map of the historic district is based on an overlay of the zoning map, to simplify reference to the district boundaries.

It is not a limit on the use of property. Any business allowed by our zoning by-laws could be conducted on property within the district. It is not a prohibition or a limitation to a certain style for new construction within the district. The Sherborn Library is an excellent example of contemporary design compatibility.

Historic Districts in Sherborn


The Sherborn National Register Multiple Resource Area includes two districts and 24 individual properties within the incorporated town limits of Sherborn.

The Sherborn Center Historic District


Bounded by Sawin, Washington, North Main, South Main and Farm Streets, this district consists of 35 resources. This National Register District is part of the Sherborn National Register Multiple Resource Area.

Edwards Plain-Dowse’s Corner Historic District


Located along North Main Street, consisting of 35 resources. This National Register District is part of the Sherborn National Register Multiple Resource Area.

Sherborn Center Local Historic District


Bounded by North Main, South Main and Washington Streets, including all lots or parts of lots that lie within 175 feet of those boundaries, consisting of 15 properties. Sherborn Center Local Historic District was established in 1983 at Town Meeting (articles 22, 23 and 24). The Sherborn Historic District Commission administers the local district under Section 8 “Historic Districts” Town of Sherborn Zoning By-Laws.

A Stroll Through Time in Sherborn

Sherborn’s historic districts qualify for National Register designation because they embody a distinctive characteristic of a type, period or method of construction. Let’s take an imaginary stroll through Sherborn’s historic districts and look at the historic buildings there. Many are fine examples of a specific period or architecture, with unique features that have been carefully preserved by their owners.  

Settlement in Sherborn began in 1652, a generation before the town was incorporated in 1674. The first settlers bought land along the Charles River flood plains, at the southeastern edge of the present Sherborn-Millis town line. After 1674, settlers established individual farms throughout town. The land included in the National Register districts was laid out about 1681, following the exchange of 4000 acres of land with the Natick Indians, with Sherborn receiving the area of the town center to the present Natick line. In 1685, settlers established their first church on the town common. This simple building was replaced in 1724 by a larger church, which in turn was enlarged in 1769.

The current First Parish Church is the third meeting-house built on the town green, the historic, civic and spiritual center of Sherborn. Erected in 1830, it is a very fine example of New England church architecture of this period with its graceful steeple and Doric pillars. The First Parish Church is not only architecturally significant, but its setting on the town green is also significant, representing the classic New England village form of the period. The surrounding green space and nearby dwellings remain much as they appeared in the 1850's.

The 1858 Town House functioned as the town’s first high school and town hall. Carefully restored in recent years for use as a community center, it is located next to the Church. Across Washington Street are three architecturally and historically significant residences. Together with the First Parish Church and 1858 Town House, this cluster of buildings presents a harmonious picture of 19th century village architecture.

At 8 Washington Street stands the Colonel Calvin Sanger House. Built in 1819, it is a superb example of late federal architecture, with beautiful, intact details including elongated entry columns and lead glass fan light. From an architectural perspective, this is a significant and rare property. Moreover, its history is intertwined with that of the town. Built by Ebenezer Mann, one of Sherborn’s master builders, it replaced a parsonage for the First Parish from 1711. Two wings were moved from this grand house to become separate homes on Maple Street and Zion’s Lane.

Colonel Sanger was an industrialist, Sherborn’s first Postmaster and the town’s representative to the Massachusetts state legislature in the early 1800s. Next to his home, at 12 Washington Street, he moved his store and the town’s first post office about 1819. It was also the first site of Sherborn Academy, a private high school, in 1825. The original simple structure was expanded in the New England Federal vernacular style and an Italianate portion was added in the late 1860s. This elegantly simple structure is characteristic of New England villages with its siting close to the road.

The next house at 22 Washington Street, across Maple, the Hill-Brown-Flagg House, was originally built in the second period (around 1740), then substantially rebuilt in 1780. Its history begins in the 1700s when William Hill built a house here, which he then sold in about 1747 to Caleb Greenwood. In 1772, Rev. Elijah Brown purchased the house and enlarged it.  Rev. Brown was pastor of the First Parish for 46 years until 1816. He taught a classical high school in his home. This twin-chimney, center entrance Colonial is reflective of the best of New England’s second period. It has seven fireplaces and the exposed beams and corner posts typical of the 18th century provenance. The low roof slope reflects the influence of Georgian architecture.

The present day Sherborn Town Hall, the historic Center School at 19 Washington Street, was originally built in 1910, replacing a previous two-storyy wooden school building. One of the few brick, Georgian Revival building in town, it is sited next to the town common, separated only by narrow Sanger Street from the Church green. The modern but harmonious Sherborn Town library (1971) took the place of an earlier Victorian style edifice, the Sawin Academy and Dowse High School, constructed in 1874 and later demolished.

Together, these contiguous green spaces, with their gently rolling landscape, represent Sherborn’s historic town common, where churches, schools and municipal buildings have been sited over the centuries, surrounded by nineteenth and eighteenth century dwellings.

Just east of the First Parish Church at 5 Washington Street stands the George Fleming House, an example of the Eastlake vernacular style built around 1870. Between the Fleming House and church stands the Leland Monument, erected in 1847 by his many Sherborn descendants to remember Henry Lealand, a Puritan who settled in Sherborn about 1660.

The small, triangular park at the split once housed a 19th century carriage painting shop and later the town post office. Early 20th century photographs of that building show the two tall oak trees, already mature, standing in their present locations. The town purchased the land to honor Sherborn’s men and women who served in World War II. The simple memorial statue was installed in 1969.  

Opposite the triangle on Main Street is Central Burying Ground, where many headstones of Sherborn settlers dating to the 17th and 18th centuries still remain. The Memory Statueand memorial, which stands close to the street in front of the old cemetery, were donated to the town in 1924 in honor of the Sherborn’s 250th anniversary. The memorial is dedicated to Sherborn’s heroes in conflicts from 1676 to 1918. Their names are engraved in bronze tablets set into the stone work. The statue itself, named “Memory,” was sculpted by Cyrus Dallin, who also created “Appeal to the Great Spirit,” the sculpture of an Indian on horseback in front of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Sherborn’s memorial was a gift to the town from native son William Bradford Home Dowse (1852-1928).

The same William B.H. Dowse who donated the Memory Statue had previously purchased the adjacent Sanger property. In 1914, he donated to the town the Dowse Memorial Library, a handsome Jacobian Revival building designed by Pray, Hubbard and White of Boston, in honor of his parents, the Reverend Edmund and Elizabeth Bowditch Dowse. He built the adjacent Edwardian style house for his sister.

The Everett House at 1 North Main Street was built in 1833 for Dr. Oliver Everett, who had been called to be the town physician. This simple, federal-style house boasts a fine and rare fan-topped central doorway with Greek meander fret work, flanked by pilasters, which anticipated the coming Greek Revival style.

The buildings and monuments I’ve described thus far all belong to Sherborn’s Local Historic District, along with others along South Main Street to its intersection with Farm Road and on Washington Street next to the town hall.

The residences that line North Main Street between the split and the commercial center of town date primarily from the early 19th to early 20th centuries. They contribute to the Sherborn Center National Register Historic District, which overlaps the Local Historic District and also extends further down South Main Street. Next week, we’ll conclude our stroll through Sherborn’s historic districts by heading North into the Edwards Plain-Dowse’s Corner National Register District.

Carol McGarry is chair of Sherborn Historical Commission. She thanks fellow Commissioner Julie Mott and Town Historian Betsy Johnson for historic research and fact checking for this article.


PART II:

Sherborn is rich in historic buildings, barns and landscapes.  The historic districts along Main and Washington Streets in the center of town are filled with fine examples of period architecture and historic detail. In this article, we “stroll” through Sherborn’s two National Register Districts. We start at “the split” where Washington Street and South Main meet and travel north toward the commercial center of town. The properties here are part of the Sherborn Center Historic District, which is listed on the National Register, the nation’s official list of individual buildings, sites, structures and objects, as well as districts, deemed important in American history, architecture, archaeology, engineering and culture.

The block of houses on North Main Street between the split and the commercial district date primarily from the 19th century. Many still retain period carriage houses in good condition. The house at 3 & 5 North Main is an 1870s Victorian residence, located on the site of the 18th century Sanger Tavern. The residence at 7 North Main is an example of late 19thcentury vernacular Gothic Revival with a superb period barn.

The Onion House at 9 North Main, built about 1835 for Captain Jacob Pratt, is a fine example of vernacular federal Cape style with a very rare, fretted, "see through" Eastlake doorway roof addition, circa 1870. Mrs. Onion lived here in this little, one-story house for many years as a widow. Although cape houses like this were once common around town, they are now rare.

The Amos Bigelow House at 15 North Main is a well-preserved, vernacular style Greek Revival house dating to circa 1850. The ornate Gothic Revival style carriage barn is an excellent example of a 19th century barn. Leonard Bullard purchased the building in 1865 from Rev. Theodore Dorr, fifth pastor of the First Parish Church. The farmer Amos Bigelow occupied the house in 1875. He pastured his herd of cows on 40 acres of land and grew cranberries.

The George Clark house at 16 North Main was built circa 1863 for a prosperous businessman and local store owner in the High Italianate style. His daughter lived there until her death at age 104 in 1962. The Italianate style barn was constructed as a carriage house. Along the street, the original heavy, granite stone work still defines the property’s edge. His federal period store, originally owned by the Sangers, once stood near the split next to the Central Burying Ground.

While most of Sherborn’s commercial buildings do not contribute to the National Register district, they add to the small-town feel of Sherborn center and many are listed on Sherborn’s comprehensive survey of historic assets. The commercial block includes the Rose’s garage building dating from the 1920s that has been added to the town’s historic assets survey as a typical commercial building of this period and usage.

The Greek Revival Andrew Bullard residence next door  at 24 North Main Street was built around 1840. It was used for many years after 1946 as the Catholic Church rectory. Recently renovated for commercial use, it still retains the overall symmetry and character of its period. The Justin Bullard House at 27 North Main, currently in commercial use, is a vernacular Federal style house with two chimneys that dates from about 1850. The Col. Samuel Bullard House at 33 North Main is a vernacular Federal house, originally built around 1760, that was extensively renovated in recent years as the Sherborn Inn but it retains its historic dimensions.

The Edwards Plain-Dowse’s Corner district begins with the residence at 30 North Main, the Dowse-Mann house. A vernacular Greek Revival, dating from the late 18th century, the Dowse-Mann house is a simple but excellent example of domestic New England architecture of the period.  The Benjamin Bullard House at 32 North Main (circa 1840) is built in the Greek revival style, along with its barn before 1875. Built about 1840, the house at 36 North Main, where Main and Eliot Streets converge, shows both Greek Revival detailing and Italianate influences.

Located at the crossroads, the Whitney-Paul House at 41 North Main is probably the oldest standing house in Sherborn Center. The recorded history of the house begins in 1679, when Jonathan Whitney of Watertown was granted a farm of 30 acres that stretched West up toward the present Brush Hill and across North Main to include part or all of the lower ball field along Pine Hill Lane. Like other early town founders, he later received additional grants throughout town, greatly expanding his farmland.

There are a number of organizations in Sherborn, both public and private, whose missions include the preservation of aspects of the town’s history:

Sherborn Historical Commission


An agent of local government, its role is to identify and document the town’s important historical and cultural resources; educate the general public on issues of preservation; and advise the Board of Selectmen and other town boards on matters of public concern. It is the local historical commission’s mandate to be the local municipal watchdog for state and federal preservation agencies, alerting them to local preservation issues.

Sherborn Historic District Commission


Oversees the Sherborn Center Local Historic District by reviewing applications for proposed alterations to properties within the district to evaluate the appropriateness of the work and its impact on the district.
 

Sherborn Historical Society


A private, non-profit society dedicated to preserving the artifacts and documents of Sherborn’s heritage. Its museum is housed at the Sherborn Town Offices. However, the society is not funded by the town and has no role in town administration.

Sherborn Community Center Foundation


A non-profit organization formed in 1985, their efforts support restoration, maintenance, and continued improvements to the 1858 Town House, which houses the Community Center, a social and cultural center for the benefit of the people of Sherborn.

The first part of the main house was built about 1716 and may have incorporated Jonathan’s original house from the 1680s. The Whitney-Paul House was later home to the Hon. Daniel Whitney, a member of the Provincial Congress of 1775 and the state convention that ratified the U.S. Constitution in 1797. In 1824, it became the home of Capt. Daniel Paul, a retired sea captain who was an early agent for the Middlesex Fire Insurance Co. and a popular inn-keeper who added the south wing in 1824. The carriage barn also dates from the 19thcentury.

The Inn became a popular stopover on the way to Boston, about 22 miles to the east. The door in its huge barn is tall enough to allow the stage coach to pass in and out. The Paul family owned the inn for 122 years, operating it as a lodging house and insurance agency. In its long history, stretching across nearly three centuries, it was home for two families, passing from one generation to the next, until it left the Paul family’s ownership in the 1970s.

The Jonathon Holbrook House at 44 North Main Street was built by one of the sons of Jonathon Holbrook, who was part owner of the “largest refined cider mill in the world,” located on Forest Street in Sherborn in the mid-19th century. It is one of the few Queen Ann style Victorian houses in town.

Many of the residences in the Edwards Plain-Dowse’s Corner National Register District were built in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when Sherborn was a farm town characterized by cottage industries such as leather dressing, gun-making, cider-making and willow basketry. Many of the cottage industries that developed in Sherborn in this period lined North Main Street from Hunting Lane to Dowse’s Corner. They included Henry Partridge’s Edge Tool Factory at 53 and 55 North Main; an adjacent knife shop; a carpenter and coffin shop at 54 North Main; shoe shops at 86, 91, 93 and 102 North Main; a carriage whip shop at 91 North Main; and leather tanning pits near 83 and 84 North Main. The only surviving District School in Sherborn is the house at 60 North Main Street.

To better understand this historic district, it may be helpful to learn something about the history of the Dowse family in Sherborn. Eleazer Dowse left Charlestown, Mass., on the eve of the Battle of Bunker Hill and settled in Sherborn on Everett Street. (That house no longer exists.) He used the boggy lowlands in the area to dig pits in which to soak hides for a tanning and leather-dressing business. After the Revolutionary War, Eleazer’s son, Joseph Dowse, built a cottage with a large ell at 100 North Main Street. The ell is still part of the existing building.

His son, Joseph Dowse, Jr., resided at 106 North Main, built in 1819. That house’s pleasing symmetry, compact form and well-crafted entrance suggest that it was built by one of Sherborn’s master builders of the period, Ebenezer Mann or Bowen Adams. The Dowses were related by marriage to both builders. The five-bay main façade shows a fusion of the Federal and then nascent Greek Revival style. Delicate pilasters frame the front door and support a relatively heavy Greek Revival entablature.

At one time, ten Dowse family dwellings stood near the intersections of Lake, Coolidge and North Main Streets, giving it the name Dowse’s Corner. The historic Dowse houses now in the National Register district include:

30 North Main: The Dowse-Mann House (late 18th century)
59 North Main: The Charles Dort Dowse House (ca 1890)
91 North Main: The Benjamin Dowse House (early and mid-19th century)
100 North Main: The Joseph Dowse Sr. House (late 18th century ell and 1844 main block)
102 North Main: The Nathaniel Henry Dowse House (1854)
106 North Main: The Joseph Dowse Jr. House (1819)
112 North Main: The Charles Dort Dowse House (1859)
115 North Main: The Perry Dowse House (1885)
1 Lake Street: Charles Arthur Dowse Sr. House (1907)
13 Lake Street: William Chamberlain Dowse House (1856)
3 Coolidge Street: Joseph Dowse III house

The Dowse family continued the leather-dressing tradition, making stagecoach whips before the advent of the railroad

Joseph Dowse, Jr., had a whip shop which stood close to the south of the house at 106 North Main, where customers could buy 20-foot whips made entirely by hand. His brothers Benjamin and Nathaniel also ran whip shops nearby. During this period, the stagecoach stopped at the Whitney-Paul Tavern. The last Dowse Brothers whips were made in 1876 and shipped to Minnesota where stage coaches were still in use.

In the mid-nineteenth century, Nathaniel Dowse, who then lived at 100 North Main, ran a good-size shoe manufacturing business with his brothers that employed 20 men, making heavy work shoes called Brogans. Located across the way on the corner of Main and Coolidge Streets, the shoe factory burned down in 1907.

This overview of Sherborn’s historic districts only scratches the surface of the history and architectural richness of Sherborn’s main streets. Town leaders and residents have worked hard to protect the sense of history and community that are literally embodied in these old houses, barns, streets, and roadside trees. Their preservation is our legacy to future generations.

Carol McGarry is chair of Sherborn Historical Commission. She thanks fellow Commissioner Julie Mott and Town Historian Betsy Johnson for historic research and fact checking of this article.