RETIRED DEVELOPERS Charlie Wills (left) and Roger Harris of Boxford visited the Lynnfield Public Library to examine three portfolios containing pictures of the 615 homes their firm built between 1947 and 2000. Some 388 homes were built in Lynnfield, with 94 in Boxford, the rest in surrounding towns. Wills gifted these volumes to the Lynnfield Public Library earlier this year. (Helen Breen Photos)

 

 

By HELEN BREEN

LYNNFIELD — If your home was built in Lynnfield between 1947 and 2000, it may be one of 388 constructed by Charles B. Wills and his partner Roger Harris.

Over the years, Wills has meticulously arranged pictures of these individual homes chronologically into three stunning leather bound portfolios. Wills includes the name of each original owner. He often adds a note about how much a property has increased in value, along with humorous anecdotes about the construction process.

These volumes, depicting a large swath of the town’s 20th century growth, have recently been donated to the Lynnfield Public Library.

Sherwood Forest

Wills was young when he started building in Sherwood Forest, a wooded section of South Lynnfield. His father, the esteemed architect Royal Barry Wills (1895-1962), and his partner, Bengt Eriksson, first bought this land from the Pierce estate on Suntaug Lake during World War II. Yet two banks turned down their request for mortgages, maintaining that the location was “too far out.” Wills built his first dozen houses in the Forest in partnership with his father before striking out on his own.

Learning on the job from experienced carpenters, Wills soon mastered many tricks of the trade. For example, he was advised to check his reflection in plate glass windows as he drove along to be sure that lumber was not sliding off his truck. In 1948, he built a small house at 77 Locksley Rd., the first of four homes that he, his wife Arnie, and their four children would enjoy in Lynnfield. Meanwhile, Sherwood Forest became a favorite Sunday afternoon destination for young families “house shopping” in the early 50s.

Problem-solving

Half of Wills’ houses were contracted while the rest were built “on spec.” He soon learned not to apply floor stain to those homes still for sale after one potential buyer objected to the dark stained floors. It proved an expensive mistake. Another buyer had a problem moving a large box spring up a winding staircase. After much maneuvering, the problem was resolved.

In order to avoid costly changes during construction, Wills and his partner, Roger Harris, offered a free case of Chivas Regal Scotch to any client who did not alter the plans to the original contract. On the whole, it worked. Eight clients won free scotch.

While Lynnfield’s population tripled during the last half of the 20th century, Wills and a host of other builders scrambled to secure available lots. Beyond Sherwood Forest, a random sampling of properties developed by Wills include: Fletcher Road and October Lane (19 lots); Cooks Farm Lane, Tophet Road and Cortland Lane (38 lots); and Fernway and Stoneway (45 lots). The list goes on.

The Wills distinctive footprint was all over town. More than half of new homes were two-story Colonials, followed by split entries, ranches and Capes. Many featured sturdy foursquare chimneys, spacious breezeways, narrow dormers and garage doors without windowpanes. Wills was a stickler for proportion. He dug basements deeper so there would be less foundation visible on the facade.

Branching out

On occasion, Wills and Roger Harris ventured into commercial construction. For instance, they completed several projects for the Donovan family in South Lynnfield. One was a Cape style residential addition to Donovan’s Liquor Store on Route 1 in 1978 for Bill Donovan Sr., then 83-years-old. In 1959, they negotiated a price with St. Paul’s Episcopal Church to build an addition after the church board found commercial builders too expensive.

“The church took out an insurance policy on me in case I got hit by a bus in which case it might have been more costly to finish the job,” Wills reflected in his notes.

Wills’ single project was the construction of Center Village, a 60-unit senior housing complex designed by his late father’s firm Royal Barry Wills Associates. Completed in the early 1980s, the compound on Main Street retains its Colonial Wills charm to this day.

In addition to the 388 buildings constructed by Wills in Lynnfield, his three portfolios include pictures of 227 homes built in surrounding communities, amounting to a total of 615. In the last volume for the reader’s convenience, he lists these towns “alphabetically by location.” The top contenders after Lynnfield are Boxford with 94, Reading with 51, Topsfield with 20 and North Reading with 15.

Ever the statistician, Wills also lists the homes “chronologically by year” from 1947-2000. The result is an almost perfect bell curve with his peak productivity being from the late 60s through late 70s. Through all of these transactions, a testament to Wills’ integrity was that his firm was only once involved in a major lawsuit. The matter, however, was resolved when the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court later ruled in his favor.

Legacy

In the latter part of the 20th century, the town of Lynnfield changed from a sleepy, agricultural community to one of the most desirable suburbs in the state. The 388 elegant homes that Wills and Harris built there contributed significantly to that transformation. Wills’ three portfolios provide a tangible record for posterity of that growth in Lynnfield’s history.

Wills and his wife, Arnie, moved to North Andover in 2021 from their home on Smith Farm Trail. Last September, they celebrated their 75th wedding anniversary and still retain a keen interest in Lynnfield matters.

Lynnfield Public Library

The Lynnfield Public Library was thrilled to receive the three bound volumes from Wills and Harris.

“Longtime Lynnfield resident and builder Charlie Wills recently gifted the Lynnfield Public Library with a three volume set of pictures and descriptions of homes he built in Lynnfield and surrounding communities,” said Library Reference Head Patricia Kelly.  “We were thrilled to receive this visual history of his long career as a builder.  The three volume set is housed in the Marcia Wiswall Lindberg Local History & Genealogy Room and is available for use in the library.”

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