Walter Hunnewell (1917 – 1999)

January 16, 2012

A businessman and patron of horticulture, Walter Hunnewell was born on March 23, 1917, in Boston, Massachusetts. 

Hunnewell’s great-grandfather, Horatio Hollis (Lot 3799 Iris Path) built the family’s estate, Wellesley, on the banks of Lake Waban in 1852. The Town of Wellesley and Wellesley College both derived their names from the Hunnewell estate. H.H. Hunnewell created a nine-acre pinetum of rare conifer trees and a three-acre Italian topiary garden that is now thought to be the oldest topiary garden in the United States. Hunnewell, having grown up at the estate and having helped maintain the horticultural collections, had a deep understanding of his family’s commitment to supporting horticulture.

After attending Harvard, Hunnewell served in the U.S. Navy during World War II. Following his service, he worked at The Gillette Company’s international offices in both Mexico and South America. While in Mexico, he met his wife, Maria Luisa de la Borbolla, whom he married in 1952. His time in South America allowed him to collect wild orchids, which he later brought back to the Wellesley greenhouses.

Once Hunnewell returned to the U.S., he settled close to Wellesley so he could assist with the maintenance of the conifers in the Pinetum. His four children were raised with the same commitment to the preservation of the Wellesley grounds. Following the death of his parents, Hunnewell moved back to the family estate and personally oversaw the majority of its maintenance.

Upon assuming stewardship of the grounds, Hunnewell, with the help of the Arnold Arboretum, identified and labeled more than three hundred trees in the Pinetum. As part of a long-standing agreement between his family and the Arnold Arboretum, Hunnewell also continued to grow and test tree specimens, mostly from China, for their potential use on the commercial market. Wellesley was able to identify 46 Massachusetts champion trees and 15 New England champion trees, including a 100-foot Cedar of Lebanon.

Hunnewell continued the family legacy of horticultural patronage by helping to finance the move of the Massachusetts Horticulture Society (MHS) from Boston to its current location at Elm Bank in Wellesley. He also continued his family’s long-time support of the Arnold Arboretum. To protect the historic and horticultural relevance of his family’s estate, Hunnewell placed 142 acres of Wellesley under a conservation restriction held by the Trustees of Reservations. This order protected the estate from future development and allowed for the conservation of valuable, open green space in the Boston metropolitan area. Hunnewell was also a patron of the Escuela Agricola in Panamaricana, an agricultural school in Honduras, and the North Bennett Street School in Boston.

Hunnewell died in his home in Wellesley in December of 1999. He was buried in a family lot on Iris Path overlooking Consecration Dell. In January of 2000, Hunnewell was posthumously awarded the Massachusetts Horticultural Society Grand Gold Medal for his outstanding contributions to the field of horticulture.

Walter Hunnewell is buried in Lot 5863, Iris Path.

Adapted from the research of Mount Auburn staff, as published in March Birthday: Walter Hunnewell, 2005.

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