A farewell to Friends

High atop Turkey Hill in Hingham, the assisted-living facility run by Quakers closes after five decades as a haven for seniors

Toni White serves a snack to Gene Chamberlain during tea time at the New England Friends Home, which closed last Friday. Toni White serves a snack to Gene Chamberlain during tea time at the New England Friends Home, which closed last Friday. (Bill Greene/Globe Staff)
By Johanna Seltz
Globe Correspondent / September 8, 2011

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Martha Corey says she’ll miss the tomatoes that are still growing in the garden she planted in the side yard, as well as the home-cooked meals and the 3 p.m. teas served in the cozy dining room.

She’ll miss the Turkey Hill Strollers walking club, too, and the annual holiday caroling by local Girl Scouts.

“It’s been a wonderful experience, one I will cherish and never forget,’’ said the 82-year-old former resident of Weymouth. “It was like a family.’’

Corey was one of the last residents to leave the New England Friends Home, which closed its doors last Friday, ending an almost 50-year stay atop Hingham’s Turkey Hill.

The home, originally an opulent private estate, became a haven for retired Quaker teachers in 1962 and broadened its clientele over the years. But the Quaker organization that owns the property said it can no longer afford to operate the 18-unit assisted-living facility.

“It’s a lovely place, a perfect spot, and provided good care, but it doesn’t make sense for us to do this anymore,’’ said Alice Schaefer, a Newton resident who chaired the committee that recommended closing the home. “Little by little, we have run through our resources.’’

Another committee of the New England Friends will decide what to do with the property, which occupies 2.3 acres on one of the highest points in Hingham, boasts enviable views of Boston Harbor and Massachusetts Bay, and is assessed by the town at just over $1 million.

“I hope somebody does something very useful with it: It’s a beautiful place and needs to be used,’’ said Corey, who lived in the home for about six years. She said she would miss the staff and her friends - although half a dozen of them are moving with her to Allerton House, a larger assisted-living facility in Hingham.

There were about 14 residents left when the Quakers decided in July to close the facility once everyone had arranged for somewhere else to go. Some residents had been there a decade, and their ages ranged from the mid-70s to mid-90s, Schaefer said.

“We’re just devastated by disrupting people’s lives like this,’’ she said. “Everybody is very, very sad about the decision we made, but we think it was the right decision.’’

Schaefer said one factor that led to the closing was that none of the residents of the New England Friends Home were Quakers, and none had been for years. “We’re not really serving our population,’’ she said.

The history of the home began when Ezra Thayer, a prominent Boston lawyer and dean of Harvard Law School, and his wife, Ethel, started summering in Hingham in the early 1900s. They bought a farmhouse on East Street - now home to the Trustees of Reservations’ Weir River Farm - added acreage, and, between 1910 and 1912, built a large shingled house near the top of Turkey Hill.

That house burned down in 1929 and the Thayers built a brick one to replace it, with blue tiles brought in from Japan and carved woodwork from England. Camel statues, each weighing more than a ton, and stone peacocks and pheasants, arrived later, bought from the San Francisco World’s Fair of 1939. There was a tennis court, a croquet court, and a barn for horses, as well.

Meanwhile, the original New England Friends Home opened about 1904 in a former tavern in Amesbury, financed by a fund established to help aging, unmarried Quaker schoolteachers. As their number diminished, the home’s mission expanded to include men, other occupations, and non-Quakers.

The Amesbury house was condemned in the late 1950s, and artist Polly Thayer Starr, whose mother built St. John’s Episcopal Church on Hingham’s Main Street, offered her late parents’ summer home in Hingham as a replacement.

The first residents moved into the slate-roofed brick house in 1962, and were charged less than $20 a month, Schaefer said.

At that time, the house had 13 bedrooms, according to Gretchen Condon, director of the home from 1995 to 2009. The Friends built a new wing, so everyone could have a private bath, and the home became a licensed assisted-living facility with 18 units in 1998, she said.

The facility tried to retain the feel of a home, she said, albeit a fancy one with Italian marble fireplaces in the parlor and a grand piano in the wood-paneled, book-lined library. Paintings by Polly Thayer Starr, an accomplished artist, are on the wallpapered walls, and cloth tablecloths cover the five tables in the sunny dining room.

“The garden really was a dream,’’ said the Thayers’ granddaughter Victoria Starr, who lives down the road. “I can’t do it justice in words. It’s only a ghost of its former self. There were four turquoise-tiled goldfish ponds that are now full of golden rod and poison ivy. How the mighty have fallen.’’

Starr said she understood it was an “economic necessity’’ that the Friends close the home, although she, too, says, “of course, I’m sorry.’’

“I hope it will continue with the same kind of institution,’’ she said. “There’s been talk of something to do with Alzheimer’s [patients] or a school connected with the [Weir River] farm below. Any of those would be pleasing to Mother, I believe.’’

Schaefer confirmed that there was interest in the property and “it seems likely it will go to some kind of senior care,’’ although probably with more rooms. “We’re told [by industry experts] that 24 units is a break-even point,’’ she said.

Karen Sadlon, outreach coordinator at the Hingham Senior Center, said that, given the current economy, she was sad but not surprised that the New England Friends Home was closing.

“It’s always been a hand-to-mouth kind of place,’’ Sadlon said. “I don’t think they’ve had a lot of resources, but it always has seemed to work.

“It provided a really unique place [in assisted living] because it was such a spiritual place and very quiet - a perfect place to spend your later years if that was the kind of person you were,’’ Sadlon said. “Having been brought up a Quaker myself, I certainly appreciated what they had to offer. It was open to everyone, but the mission was always there.’’

She said the home also was an affordable alternative to other facilities, charging $3,000 to $4,000 a month, including services such as transportation to appointments, compared with up to $6,000 at other places.

“It was not inexpensive, but affordable,’’ Sadlon said. “And they bent over backwards to keep you there. If you ran out of money, they tried to subsidize you, which I guess got them into trouble [financially]. We will miss them.’’

Johanna Seltz can be reached at

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