Lyman Estate Greenhouses History
In 1793 Theodore Lyman, a Boston merchant in the East India and China trades, began developing his country estate by acquiring thirty acres in Waltham, Massachusetts. He hired an English gardener, William Bell, to lay out the property in the English picturesque style, which included large specimen trees, open fields, a pond system, kitchen garden area, and greenhouse complex. Fascinated with agriculture and horticulture, Lyman began building a bark pit greenhouse in 1798, the earliest greenhouse on the property. It was constructed on the slope behind the mansion, adjacent to the original four-square kitchen garden, and was built into the side of the south-facing slope. It was heated with a firebox and flue system that ran the full length of the greenhouse. It is reputed to be one of the oldest greenhouses in the country, and the type of greenhouse often found in eighteenth-century English kitchen gardens.
Along a 425-foot-long brick peach wall, Lyman had fruit trees espaliered. At the western end of the peach wall he had his first lean-to style greenhouse erected. This three-part greenhouse was used to grow a variety of hard-to-obtain fruits such as pineapples, figs, lemons, limes, and bananas. During the 1870s, Theodore Lyman’s son George changed the 1804 greenhouse into a grapery. Three-and-a-half-foot-high ground beds were constructed of brick to hold soil for the root systems. Trellises were strung along the glass roof, and the walkways in the second and third sections were built up. Black Hamburg grape cuttings, still growing today, were obtained from the royal greenhouses at Hampton Court, the former palace of King Henry VIII in England. The Black Hamburg is a purple black variety that has a complex wine-like flavor and usually ripens in June. The second Mediterranean variety still growing here today is the Green Muscat of Alexandria, another popular table variety of the 1800s. The Green Muscat, which ripens a month later than the Black Hamburg, is a golden green color, sweet and rich in flavor.
Much care went into the cultivation of the grapes. The vines needed to be trained and pruned each year and monitored constantly for pests and diseases. Maintaining proper moisture levels was crucial; small fires were built to reduce excessive humidity, and the grapes would be syringed if the air became too dry. When the grapes ripened, they were carefully cut and brought to the mansion, where it is said they were so highly prized that only the adults were allowed to eat them.
The grape houses themselves were built using the latest technology of the time. They are lean-to in style, with the glass roof facing southeast to capture the maximum amount of sunlight. The brick wall on the north side is up to thirteen inches thick in places, and buffers the greenhouse from the cold north wind. In this brick wall, also known as a "hot wall," there is a series of original flues, whereby air heated by a large wood stove in the basement was drawn through the brick, heating it up and then radiating it out during the evening. There were originally thirteen arched passages leading from the basement into the main greenhouse, which bore the load of the wall and allowed heat to pass from the stove in the basement to the growing space on the other side.
The second greenhouse to be built off the brick peach wall at the east end was the camellia greenhouse. It was originally built to grow peach trees. In 1908 the camellia house was partially taken down, since it was out of plumb and bowing. It was rebuild wider and taller to house the camellia trees. Camellias were first introduced to America in the late eighteenth century by a French botanist, Andre Michaux. He brought them to Middleton Place, an estate in South Carolina. Boston soon became a center for camellia culture. Many large camellia collections were grown on local estates. Two camellia varieties were developed by a nurseryman in the Boston area. The Lyman Estate is one of the few collections still in existence today. From January to March the luscious camellia blooms burst forth in a profusion of color: reds, whites, pinks, and variegated.
The third greenhouse to be built was an infill structure between the grapery and the camellia house. Along the brick wall to the back of this structure is a great arch, which was originally constructed as a passage way from the "pleasure grounds" area to the kitchen garden. During this time, central heating was introduced and this structure allowed all three greenhouses to connect. Originally it was used to grow roses and other cut flowers to be used in the mansion. Today it houses the orchid collection, with hundreds of varieties from all over the world.
In 1930, the Lyman family built the fourth and final greenhouse on the estate. Originally, it was constructed to grow cut flowers, and contained a warm water reservoir that later became a goldfish pool.
During the final years of the Lyman occupancy, the greenhouses fell into neglect. In 1969, several years after Historic New England received the property as a gift from the Lyman family, the Massachusetts Horticultural Society helped restore the greenhouses to ensure that the important collections were safe. At that time, it was also used for classes and providing plants for Massachusetts Horticultural Society headquarters. Today it is a place to visit, enjoy, and learn. Exotic houseplants, orchids, pottery, and gifts are available for purchase so that visitors can take home a piece of living history.