Bridgewater Town Center, Bridgewater Center Historic District
Massachusetts Historical Commission Report
Encompassed by Central Square, the Bridgewater Common currently functions as both traffic rotary and ornamental park. Situated on level ground in the center of the commercial, governmental, educational, and ecclesiastical district, this elliptical "village green" is 425 feet long and 55 feet wide. Structures of considerable age, charm, and architectural distinction frame the common's eastern, southern, and western sides. Constructed primarily of wood, these buildings date from as early as c. 1700s to the 1930s. Parking areas and modern commercial buildings have obliterated the 19th-century character of the common's northern edge. A small park in front of the old Bridgewater Academy to the south and a small traffic island/park known as the "Little Common" to the north visually extend the common's "green space."
A two-rail, iron and granite fence encloses the Bridgewater Common. Cement paths trace Z-shaped patterns on this grassy, shrub-covered, tree-shaded area. Deciduous trees randomly dot the common, with a high concentration located in the wide, southern portion. Its more functional, manmade components include wood slat and cement benches and plastic and metal waste receptacles. At the northern edge of the common is a distinctive fountain, composed of a granite trough base supporting a pair of pink
marble Tuscan columns. The columns, in turn, support a classical entablature. The entablature's inscription reads "Bridgewater" and "Erected by Public Subscription, 1912." The common's most highly visible memorial is a tall, cement and bronze, three-panel screen. Its panels bear the names of Bridgewater's World War I dead. Erected
c. 1920, it is a product of T.F. McGann's Foundry, Boston, Massachusetts. In addition, the common's southern section is the site of two gravestone-like memorials to deceased firemen and soldiers of World War II and the Korean and Vietnam Wars.
Transformed from a cow pasture to a village green in 1822, the common's elliptical shape has been compared to that of Noah's Ark by local historians. Originally unfenced, the common was enclosed by a two-rail, iron and granite fence by the 1880s or 1890s. Apparently, a two-rail, log fence enclosed it in the 1840s. Initially criss-crossed with cartways, the present Z-shaped pattern of paths dates to at least the 1870s. Maple, linden, ash, and basswood trees were planted on the common and throughout the town by Colonel Abram Washburn in 1823. B.H. Hurd notes that Colonel Washburn "brought 200 of them [trees] from Vermont in his chaise box." Undoubtedly the decision to locate America's first Normal school in Bridgewater in 1840 was influenced by the landscape beautification efforts of Colonel Washburn.
The common was largely without manmade features until the early 20th century. While many New England towns erected stone memorials to their Civil War dead, Bridge- water citizens voted to build a Memorial Library, which still stands on South Street. Throughout the 19th century, a tall "liberty pole" was located at its northern terminus. By the mid 1880s, a frame bandstand was located in the common's center. Late 19th-century atlases indicate that this bandstand or "tribune" had a square plan. Postcards from the early 1900s show an octagonal bandstand structure. During the late 19th century, a stone watering trough for horses was located to the north of the common. During the 1920s and 1930s, the dirt roads around the common were paveid with asphalt to accommodate increased automobile traffic. According to local historian and newspaper columnist Kenneth Moore, the common has lost a few of its trees, but has not lost territory to street widenings.
The Bridgewater Common has been the focus of community life for over 150 years. It was laid out in 1822, when the South Precinct was incorporated as a separate political entity, known as Bridgewater. Presumably, the common was set off to provide the town with a distinctive visual identity. Over time, this elliptical, tree-shaded oasis has attracted residential, educational, commercial, governmental, and ecclesiastical development on the edges of its encircling roadway, Central Square.
Even before its transformation from Major Isaac Lazell's cow pasture to a common area, its land had been used as a pre-revolutionary war militia training field and was the site of a liberty tree. To the east of this pasture was the original First Parish Church and the Old Graveyard. During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Major Lazell's store and house/tavern (Tory House, still standing) attracted local and out-of-town visitors. The construction of the first Bridgewater Academy building in 1799 on the site of the present ARCO gas station insured the area's designation as the town center.
Until the advent of automobile travel, the common functioned primarily as a public park. Between 1822 and the Civil War, its tree-shaded cartways were traversed by local students, shoppers, and church-goers, as well as Bridgewater Hotel guests doing business with flourishing industries (iron, cotton gin, tack, and brick manufacturing). The arrival of the Old Colony Railroad in Bridgewater in 1846 increased pedestrian activity in Central Square.
During the latter half of the 19th century, the common functioned as an outdoor meeting hall. Crowds gathered here to view Fourth of July fireworks, to cheer on passing parades, to examine the latest fire fighting apparatus, and to listen to Thursday evening concerts in the summmertime. During the early 1900s, ticket holders waited here to view silent movies screened in the second-floor auditorium of the town hall.
Twentieth-century automobile travel has wrought many changes in Central Square. Small businesses situated around the common must compete with large chain stores and shopping plazas. Shopping activity in Central Square has dropped. The lack of parking space in the vicinity of the common has encouraged the development of large parking areas along the northern edge of the square. The common's function as a traffic rotary has made it less accessible as a public park. The common itself, however, remains appealing and well-maintained. It reflects Bridgewater's long-term commitment to beautification that began in 1823, when Colonel Abram Washburn planted trees in the common, Old Graveyard, and along the town's major thoroughfares. Today the Bridgewater Improvement Association, aided by the generous bequests of Mrs. Walter Little, continues Colonel Washburn's important work.