History of the Grafton Estate
Perched above a private beach that curves in a picturesque crescent, the Grafton Estate offers wide, sweeping views of the Atlantic Ocean, nearby islands and Boston in the far distance. Granite stone walls and wide stairs, built in the early 1900’s, present an air of elegance and grandness that seamlessly blends the landscaped grounds with the rocks, trees and sea. Apart from the far-off skyscrapers of Boston, the views from Grafton take in a landscape that is little changed since the property was first owned by the Richard Henry Dana family in the mid 19th century.
The Grafton Estate, as it is now know, was originally part of the larger Dana estate that encompassed 110 acres of beach and woodland in 1845. A prominent colonial family, the Dana family included generations of writers, poets, lawyers and politicians. Richard Henry Dana, senior, was considered one of America’s greatest poets circa 1850. His son, Richard Henry Dana Jr., wrote the American classic Two Years before the Mast, a memoir of his voyage to and from California in the late 1830’s, and was a well-known lawyer who represented fugitive slaves and started the “Free-Soil” Party, a pre-cursor to the Republican party. Richard Henry Dana III, also a lawyer, inherited the Dana estate after his father died in 1882.
In 1900, large sections of the Dana Estate were sold, including the easterly section, which was bought by Mr. and Mrs. Charles Head of Boston and is the property we know now as Grafton. The Head family built a 55 room mansion, designed by Herbert D. Hale. As with all grand estates during this era, a garden was a requirement. Martha Brookes Hutcheson, a well-known landscape architect, was employed to design the garden out of stone and wilderness in 1902. Ms. Hutcheson lowered the ground by eighteen feet and created a retaining wall and an arbor at the far end to disguise the change in level. The formal garden was given its own axis “away from the drama of the ocean” in order to create a soothing space while providing choice vistas in which to fuse the ocean and the garden together. The house and grounds were named Undercliff. The arbor, stone walls, garden and even the original grapevine planted on the arbor, remain today.
In 1915, Undercliff was sold to Dr. and Mrs. J. Henry Lancashire, who changed the name to Graftonwood to commemorate the Vermont town where Mrs. Lancashire’s father lived. Shortly before Dr. Lancashire died, he asked another prominent landscape architect, Fletcher Steele, to furnish designs on the area between the formal garden and the sea. An octagonal building, known as the Summerhouse, was built where Fletcher Steel envisioned it.
Dr. Lancashire died in 1936 and the property was subsequently sold to Mr. and Mrs. Philip Gardner in 1940. In addition to shortening the estate’s name to Grafton, the Gardners also reduced the size of the house. Most of the 55 room mansion was demolished, with the exception of the conservatory and part of the service wing. A smaller house, designed in Regency style by Lincoln Boyden, was built and is the current structure you see today. Throughout these years, Grafton was used only as a summer residence.
By 1957, both of the Gardeners had died and their heirs rented the house out for the summers. Mr. Joseph P. Spang Jr. rented the property in 1957, and continued to rent it each summer until 1962 when he bought the estate from the Gardener heirs. In 1972, the estate was passed on to Thomas J. G. Spang and Joseph P. Spang, III, after the deaths of Joseph Peter Spang, Jr in 1969 and his sister, Marie Frances Spang in 1972. The house was modernized for year-round living, and Tom and his wife, Caroline, raised their three children there. Mr. and Mrs. Spang worked tirelessly to restore the garden and the grounds to what you see today. The estate is now managed by their three children, and their daughter-in-law, Betsy Spang, oversees the garden.