'This could be lost' Place of honor: In the woods of Concord, Henry David Thoreau became the patron saint of conservationists. Now they must fight to save his birthplace.

April 14, 1996|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SUN STAFF

CONCORD, Mass. -- The old house rises stark on a small hill over Virginia Road, a thoroughfare with a long life if a short run. It was the first road into Concord when the town was established in 1635, three miles of curves and plunging hills bordered by alder and birch.

The house stands empty and silent. Conifers embrace its front corners. Rhododendron crawls by the porch. A small American flag decal is fading in a window above the door.

A weather-worn Adirondack chair remains outside the back door. It affords a view of the fields and swamps of Concord, celebrated by Henry David Thoreau throughout the 44 years of his life in and around this town. Just a short walk away is the field where James Breen fell down dead last May 26.

It was a death he himself foretold, and it raised a challenge to this town's idea of itself. For over 85 years, the Breen family lived on and farmed their 18 acres at 341 Virginia Road. Incidental to their lives, but not unimportant, they also served as stewards of the house in which Thoreau was born and lived the first eight months of his life.

Mr. Breen was 84 when he died without a will. The house and land are in probate. When they emerge from the courts, everything could wind up in the hands of developers. If they get it, they will do what developers do.

A new subdivision could emerge along Virginia Road, already growing dense with contemporary houses and corporate parks farther down and an airfield nearby. A "Thoreau Acres" or "Walden Gardens" might come into being, with split-levels and cute Colonials spreading their placid lawns through all the intimate wild places where gorse now runs and the native Concord grape spills over low stone walls.

Naturally there is some alarm in Concord over this, and the withering prospect of Thoreau's birthplace being converted willy-nilly into splinters.

"I call it an emergency," said Louise Fadiman, a local author. "It would seem such a travesty to lose not only the house but the lands."

Doris Smith, a neighbor of the Breen family for 20 years, has organized the Save the Thoreau Birthplace Foundation. The group is trying to get the house on the National Register of Historic Buildings. They fish for state or federal money. They put out brochures, contact philanthropists, foundations, corporations -- anybody or any organization with money enough, and the inclination, to rescue the house.

"We're afraid this could be lost. It could really be lost forever," says Mrs. Smith.

The threat to Thoreau's birthplace puts in doubt the image Concord has carefully cultivated: of a historical community, preservationist-minded and respectful of its literary traditions.

Two things assure Concord national importance. The American Revolution began here -- set off by a musket barrage on Old North Bridge on April 19, 1775. Then, about 50 years later, it became the seat of the American Transcendentalist philosophical and literary movement. Ralph Waldo Emerson was its godfather, Thoreau its saint.

Everywhere in and around Concord are markers and shrines to the events of the Revolution. A million tourists a year pour in to contemplate the Old North Bridge, the Paul Revere sites, to walk through Minute Man Park.

Literary pilgrims visit the homes of Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Louisa May Alcott, and their graves in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. They wander reverentially around Walden Pond. They visit a replica of Thoreau's cabin. They buy books and T-shirts in a shop.

But of them all, only Thoreau -- whose work inspired Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. and who has become a saint of the American conservation movement -- was a native of the town. Which makes the question brought forth by Mr. Breen's death so pertinent: Is Concord prepared to allow the birthplace of Henry Thoreau, its son, to be bulldozed?

The answer is -- well, probably yes. But only reluctantly.

Judy Walpole, head of Concord's Board of Selectmen, said the board will endorse a motion at a town meeting next month that the Thoreau house be preserved.

But there is no suggestion to be entertained that the town buy the property. It doesn't have the $1 million or more it is thought to be worth. If it did, would the people of Concord agree to spend it for such a purpose?

Christopher Whelan, Concord's city manager, concedes they probably would not.

The town doesn't have an unblemished record for swift action when it comes to rescuing things related to Thoreau. Tom Blanding, a Thoreau scholar, recalls an opportunity lost four years back to have a feasibility study done on how best to conserve the house. He and a group of interested people visited Mr. Breen, got his approval for such a study and applied for a grant of about $10,000 from the Architectural Conservation Trust for Massachusetts.

But the town of Concord failed to chip in the necessary matching funds, a couple of thousand dollars. The grant was lost.

Now Official Concord seems to be waiting for Private Concord to take the lead.

The house itself

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