Lyman Estate & Greenhouses

Located off a roundabout in Waltham, Massachusetts, Lyman Estate & Greenhouses is a property of Historic New England (HNE) named for the five generations of the Lyman family. The home was known as “The Vale” home throughout its time as a residence. The summer cottage was designed in 1793 by Samuel McIntire, an architect known for his Federal style buildings. The Lyman family made their money through the Transatlantic shipping industry, then in the New England textile industry, and then expanded into railroads and insurance. Like many families of the time, each generation was large, and the land was divided between the sons and sons-in-law. The Vale underwent major renovations and expansion at the turn of the 20th century, with additions barely distinguishable from the original architecture.

The Ballroom; tall, pale gray painted room with tall windows which could open to become doors. A crystal chandelier hangs from the pale gray ceiling. An oil painting of two people in a golden frame hangs over the white, wooden mantel.
PHOTOGRAPH BY Abigail Epplett

The interior of the home is currently decorated in a mid-Victorian era style and bears resemblance to many other country estates. The oval-shaped dining room has curved doors to align with the rounded wall. Oil portraits and photographs of family members hang on the walls in gilt frames. Decorative tiles surround the fireplaces of the many parlors and bedrooms, while imported French clocks exude quiet opulence atop carved mahogany mantels. Floral and geometric wallpaper, decorative neoclassical columns, an ornate ballroom chandelier, and cabinets filled with delft tea sets feel comfortingly familiar to a frequent historic house visitor even if they have never before set foot in the estate. However, they may have previously seen parts of this house and not realized it. Cinefiles may recognize the porch and ballroom from a dancing scene in the latest movie version of Little Women, which came out in 2019. As an added bonus, much of the furniture is reproduction, allowing visitors to sit on dainty chairs and pretend to be their favorite Louisa May Alcott or Jane Austen character.

The Library; a fireplace surrounded by floral tile and a wooden mantel. A decorative clock and a pair of vases are set on the fireplace. A mirror is set in the woodwark above the fireplace. A fake pot in a white-and-blue floral planter sits to the right of the fireplace. Busts sit on either side of the fireplace. A pink stuffed chair sits on the far left. Windows are on either side of the fireplace.
PHOTOGRAPH BY Abigail Epplett
The Round Dining Room; a pair of curved, white, wooden doors in an elliptical yellow room.
PHOTOGRAPH BY Abigail Epplett

The property’s distinguishing features are some of the oldest extant greenhouses in the United States. Theodore Lyman constructed the first greenhouse from 1798 to 1804. Theodore’s son George transformed the greenhouse into a grapery in the 1870s. The Camellia House, designed to protect a flowering tree from east and southeast Asia, was rebuilt in 1908. The fourth greenhouse was built by the Lyman family in 1930. Today, the buildings still operate as greenhouses with HNE hosting annual sales of herbs and perennials. Recent renovations allow people with limited mobility to safely explore the plant selection.

Inside a greenhouse with little trees in terracotta pots lining the red brick wall.
PHOTOGRAPH BY Abigail Epplett
Inside a greenhouse with a pair of white doors set into a glass wall. The room is filled with green plants in various sizes.
PHOTOGRAPH BY Abigail Epplett

This National Historic Landmark is open for tours on the first Saturday of the month at 10:00 a.m., 11:00 a.m., and 12:00 p.m., while the grounds are open daily from dawn to dusk. Admission is $15 for adults, $13 for seniors, $7 for students , and $0 for HNE members. The home is currently used for public programs and rented for weddings, along with offices for Historic New England. The second floor of the mansion is only accessible by staircase, but a 3D virtual tour is available.

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Abigail Epplett

Abigail Epplett leads a dual life as a freelance digital marketing consultant for small humanities-focused organizations and as a customer experience design creative specialist at lab equipment manufacturer Waters Corporation. She holds an MA in Museum Education from Tufts University, where she researched the history of New England from Plymouth to the Civil War. To learn more about her adventures with museums, visit her current blog at abbyeppletthistorian.blogspot.com.