Parks and Preservation

Just north of Salem are two adjoining state parks, Bradley Palmer State Park and Willowdale State Forest, which spread over parts of the towns of Topsfield, Hamilton and Ipswich. I took advantage of a free afternoon and the return of the sun and headed up there yesterday, in search not only of woods and trails but also houses, of course. Nature is never enough for me!  These properties were named after their donor, Bradley Palmer (1866-1946), a prominent U.S. and corporate attorney who built a beautiful Arts and Crafts country house called Willow Dale in 1901 at which he entertained such splendid company as HRH King Edward VII and President William Howard Taft.  In 1937, Palmer began donating sections of his large estate to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and it was transformed into the parks.  All of the buildings on the Palmer estate, including Willow Dale and its outbuildings and the older Lamson and Dodge houses, have been leased by the state to long-term tenants who pay their “rent” in sweat equity through the Historic Curatorship Program, preserving these structures at minimal public cost.  The mansion has been transformed into the Willowdale Estate, a very elegant function facility, its coach house has just been completely renovated, and the older houses are in the process of being rehabilitated by their “resident curators”.

The Structures:  The Willowdale Estate  and its newly-restored coach house.

The Georgian Lamson House, considerably expanded by Bradley Palmer, and described as a “unique amalgam of Colonial and Colonial Revival styles” by the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation.  Images from 2008 –when its resident curators were chosen–and yesterday.

I have to admit that I couldn’t find the Dodge house, which was disappointing because I have been reading the great blog by its resident curators for the last several months.  If you’re interested in the Historic Curatorship Program (and Massachusetts has several other great properties it would like to lease) this record of the ongoing process is a must-read.  Lots of “restoration” blogs seem to be more about design and shopping, but not this one!  The Dodge house appears to date from the late eighteenth century, and Palmer made some “improvements” (including electricity) to this structure as well.

Dodge House exterior and wallpaper from

As you can see (read), the houses were the primary reason for my visit to the Palmer and Willowdale parks, but it was beautiful day, so I took a walk through the woods. Trails for people and horses (Palmer was an enthusiastic equestrian) are laid out through the Palmer park, and while it is possible to get off the beaten track, you’re never too far away from a steeplechase jump.  There is also a large meadow in the midst of the park, with the most luxurious moss edging I have ever seen. Willowdale is a bit less landscaped, but it also has laid-out trails:  this is Massachusetts, after all.

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