WorcesterThen: 1869-1920


The Norcross Brothers and the Family Compound

Followers of Worcester history are likely to know something about the Norcross brothers, James and Orlando, including at least a bit about what they did and why they are significant figures in Worcester history. They may also know about their almost-but-not-quite identical houses on Claremont Street, numbers 16 and 18, now owned and in productive use by Clark University. But how many would know there weren’t just the two houses, but five, of which three were inhabited by members of the Norcross family over the first two decades of the 20th century?

First, a little background.  James and Orlando Norcross were born in Maine in 1831 and 1839, sons of Jesse Norcross, a carpenter and builder, and his wife Margaret.  At some date in the 1840s, the family relocated to Salem, Mass., where Jesse did carpentry work, as did his son James. In 1849, Jesse went to California, along with countless other “forty-niners.”  Little is known of what happened to him there except that he died in California in 1850, of unknown cause. That left James, at age nineteen, as the principal wage earner in the family.

Orlando was only ten or eleven years old when his father died. His schooling was cut short and he was apprenticed to the same trade as his father and his brother. In 1861, as a journeyman carpenter, he enlisted for service in the Civil War, and during his three years faced considerable action. With the Army of the Potomac, he was part of a construction unit, and in Virginia he had a harrowing experience in a battle north of Richmond in 1864 from which he said he “never expected to get out alive.” He did survive, of course, and upon his discharge he joined his older brother James in the formation of Norcross Brothers construction company, based in Swampscott, Mass.

Biographical sketches by Charles Nutt:  James Norcross,   Orlando Norcross

In 1866, the Norcross firm was awarded the contract for construction of a new building for the Congregational Church of Leicester. It was their largest endeavor to date, and their successful completion of the job apparently won them local praise and recognition.



Description: FCC3_Leicester

Congregational Church of Leicester,

1867-1900, from the church’s website:



 Trinity Congregational Church in Boston

Photo of Trinity Church under construction, 1877

Focusing their efforts in this area, they won a number of building contracts in Worcester, including the First Universalist Church at 62 Pleasant Street, and the new high school on Maple Street (completed in 1872, no longer standing).

Over the next few years their local accomplishments included the Crompton block on Mechanic Street, the All Saints church, and others. 

The firm became known for its ability to handle construction jobs of large size and complexity, and especially for its competence in stonework. Norcross Brothers became closely associated with Henry Hobson Richardson, one of the nation’s leading architects, known among other things for his large public  buildings of stone, usually in what came to be known as the “Richardsonian Romanesque” style.

   From Worcester’s Best *: 

“It is thought that the firm and its ingenuity in masonry construction was partially responsible for  the development of Richardson’s unique Romanesque style, and indirectly for the popularity which heavy masonry achieved during the late nineteenth century."   ( p.147)

* Elliot B. Knowlton and Sandra Gibson-Quigley (eds.) Worcester’s Best: A  Guide to the City’s Architectural Heritage, 2nd ed., 1996 by Preservation Worcester


Over the half century or so of the firm’s highly successful operations, the Norcross Brothers built the Trinity Church in Boston, the New York Public Library, the Rhode Island State House, South Station in Boston, Symphony Hall in Boston, the Marshall-Field Building in Chicago, and many other large buildings, numbering in the hundreds. In 1902-03 they renovated the White House during the administration of Theodore Roosevelt, and they built the Executive Office Building in Washington.

In Worcester they constructed City Hall; the State Mutual, Slater, and Burnside office buildings; Worcester High School on Maple Street; the First Universalist and All Saints churches; the Worcester Art Museum (the inner part, now nearly surrounded by additions); the Royal Worcester Corset Company; and others. 

Low Library, Columbia University

Worcester City Hall, 1898 (rear view)  

Rhode Island State House

Worcester Art Museum

Worcester Classical High School,

Maple Terrace, completed 1872

First Universalist Church, Worcester, 1871

(From the collections of the Worcester Historical Museum, Worcester)




In 1868 the Norcross brothers relocated their offices from Swampscott to Worcester, and moved into the Claremont-Woodland area south of May Street.  


James and his wife Mary, and Orlando, who was still single, first appeared in the Worcester City Directory of 1869, residing on Silver Street. That year they purchased a 60 by 125-foot lot on the west side of Woodland Street and built a side-by-side “double house” in the Second Empire style, with two stories plus floor space on the third floor under a “French” (Mansard) roof.  The following year, Orlando married Ellen Sibley of Salem.

Photo by author


Left:  82-84 Woodland Street, the original home of the Norcross brothers and their families. It is now a two-family dwelling, which, while no longer a gem by preservation standards, has been kept serviceable as rental housing after a century and a half, the beneficiary of modern methods of rehabilitation and maintenance. It shows the outlines of its original form, but only slightly its appearance.

It was in the family until 1915 when it was sold by James’ son Jesse and his wife. [Registry of Deeds, book 2073, page 185]


Although it was still only sparsely developed, the Claremont-Woodland area was beginning to grow. Two nearby houses, one belonging to organ reed manufacturer Andrew H. Hammond, the other to gun-maker Franklin Wesson, were large, impressive homes. The area appeared to be a good place for investment in the kinds of large, fine homes they intended to build for themselves for their permanent residence. 

In 1871, the brothers bought five adjacent lots in a subdivision that had been laid out along the east side of Claremont Street, running from Woodland about two-thirds of the way to Silver Street, giving them a frontage of a bit over 300 feet. The lots remained vacant until about 1878 when construction was begun on two almost-but-not-quite mirror image houses in the Queen Anne style, made of sandstone. The City Directory listed James and Mary Norcross in residence at 18 Claremont Street in 1879, and Orlando and Ellen Norcross next door at number 16 the following year.



18 Claremont Street ,  James A. & Mary Norcross

Photos by author in 2011

16 Claremont Street,  Orlando W. & Ellen Norcross



These houses are said to have been the first examples of the Queen Anne style in the city, and they have been described as “arguably the… finest examples(D. L. Johnson, of Clark University, 1989, emphasis added).  They are also said to have resulted in the adoption of the style by other noted architects, including Stephen Earle, who designed the Whitcomb house at 47 Harvard Street in that style, also in stone. It was also built by the Norcross brothers.


18 Claremont, entry hall, Kasperson Library, Clark University (photo by author)


The two buildings seem, to this non-professional visitor simply viewing the basic visible features, to be in very good condition. From a preservation standpoint, it helps that they are in the capable hands of Clark University, which is using each for library and special studies functions.  


In 1893, James and Mary Norcross built a palatial new home, which they called “Fairlawn,” on a 66-acre site on May Street, south of June. It was far larger than 18 Claremont, and in keeping with the houses on Claremont and most of the work done by the company, it was made of stone. In the photograph below, the Norcrosses are sitting on the lawn, but their images are too small to reveal more than forms.

Today the house stands as the core and the original component of the Fairlawn Rehabilitation Hospital, which started there in 1922 as the (Swedish) Fairlawn Hospital.


Photo in Franklin P. Rice, Worcester of 1898, p. 697. (interior views, pp. 698-699)


Rather than sell 18 Claremont, the family leased it to Horatio Lincoln, a card clothing manufacturer, and his family, and they lived there until about 1905.  After a period of standing vacant, the house was leased in 1910 to Mr. and Mrs. Charles F. Hutchins, he the General Manager of Crompton and Knowles, and they lived there until 1921.  The property was then sold by the estate of Mary E. (Norcross) Davis of Millbury, a daughter of James and Mary Norcross. 

James Norcross died in 1903, at the age of 72, and Mary passed away some years later. 


Orlando and Ellen Norcross had three daughters who survived and two sons who died young.  Alice Whitney Norcross was born in 1872, Mabel Ellen in 1874, and Edith Janet in 1878.

In 1889, when their daughters were ages 17, 15, and 11, Orlando and Ellen may have been thinking ahead a few years when they purchased the property at 23 May Street, located behind their house.  It consisted of about two-thirds of an acre with a one-story z-shaped building, most recently in use as a kindergarten.

They demolished it to erect a large and no doubt finely constructed, elegant residence for three families. It was also in the Queen Anne style, and contained over 7,500 square feet of floor space, about 2500 for each of three apartments. The 1892 House Directory showed the property valued at $9,000 for the house and the stable, six times its previous value, plus another $9,400 for the land.   


 23 May Street   (Photo by author, 2011)


In 1892, the Norcrosses purchased the property next door at 14 Claremont.  It had been built about 1873 and throughout its less than twenty years had been the residence of Mr. and Mrs. Albion Carpenter.  (No photograph is known.)  The Norcrosses held the old house as it was for a few years, but in 1898 they demolished it and in its place built another large Queen Anne style house, a side-by-side duplex far larger and of much greater value than the original. No early photograph of the house is known, but one taken in 1978 shows it in what probably was close to, if not exactly, its original appearance.


Photo by Worcester Heritage Preservation Society (now Preservation Worcester), 1978 (Macris)

The roof is barely visible, but it’s there.

Description: Claremont_14_a

Photo by author, 2012

Note the siding, the porch balustrade with added posts supporting the roof, and removal of one of the two doors. The inside has been converted to a multi-apartments and rooms.  


The house had (and still has) large octagonal bays at the front corners, and a dormer in the center, all three having a steeply pointed roof projecting from the moderately sloped roof. It was a large house, with 6,463 square feet of living space (per current assessor’s records), thus more than 3,200 sq.ft. per unit as a two-family. The 1900 Worcester House Directory showed a valuation on the building of $13,000, compared with only $3,000 on the original in the books in 1898.



This map from the 1896 Atlas shows the Norcross “compound” – four major residences, plus the duplex at the end of the street.

At the left edge, the original house at 82-84 Woodland is mostly cut out of the picture, but the red lines and the owner’s name ending in “ss” indicate the property.


In 1897, Alice Norcross, the oldest daughter at 25, married Henry J. Gross, 29, son of Raphael and Hannah  Gross. Raphael and his brother-in-law, Leopold Strauss, had operated one of the city’s largest dry goods dealers, known as Gross, Strauss & Company, on Main Street, since 1861.  In 1891, Gross sold out to his partner and established R. Gross & Co., which was incorporated in 1897. Henry remained involved with the company for a few years after his father’s death in 1898, but the 1910 census listed him as a contractor with a construction firm, obviously Norcross Brothers, Inc.  

All this would seem to have made Henry an unremarkable candidate for the attentions of a Norcross daughter, except that he was Jewish, which made the match at least a bit unusual for the time.  According to City Councilman and Preservation Worcester board member Morris A. Bergman, who has researched the Gross and Strauss families, the two families were among, and may have been the first Jews to settle in Worcester during this era. Significant Jewish immigration to Worcester did not begin until the 1880s and continued thereafter, peaking by the early 1920s.  Henry and Alice Gross moved into the first-floor apartment at 23 May Street soon after they were married.



In 1898, the second daughter, Mabel, married another scion of a successful merchant family: William J. Denholm, son of William A. Denholm, founder, with partner and fellow Scotsman William C. McKay, of the city’s leading department store, Denholm and McKay. Young Denholm, after graduating from Harvard, joined Norcross Brothers, rather than his father’s retail establishment, and served the company as vice-president for fifteen years, 1901-1916. In 1900, from the census, William J. and Mabel Denholm were residing at 14 Claremont Street, next door to her parents. The other tenants were Mr. and Mrs. Albert Park. He was an official with Norcross Brothers, Inc.

By the turn of the century, the half-block area between Claremont and May Streets, plus 82-84 Woodland,  had become a virtual Norcross family compound:  Orlando and Ellen Norcross and their youngest daughter Edith were in number 16, and their other two daughters, and their husbands, were next door and on May Streeet, in a contiguous area of about 1.85 acres, where four large houses constituted seven units of luxury accommodations, all in the Queen Anne style.  Although still owned by the family, number 18 was leased to Charles F. Hutchins, General Manager of Crompton and Knowles, and his wife. Jesse Norcross, a son of James and Mary, lived with his family at 82-84 Woodland until 1915.



Description: CompoundView

The former Norcross “compound,” as seen from Claremont Street in 2012. The yellow house to the rear of the picture is the backside of 23 May Street.

In the backyard. Stone structure of unknown use or purpose.

Photos by author



  Aerial view of the former compound area, by Google maps, 2017.



In 1905, the youngest daughter,  Edith, married Charles F. Morgan, a nephew of Charles Hill Morgan, founder of the Morgan Construction Company. They resided with her parents at 16 Claremont, so by this time all three daughters had married and were living in the “compound.”  Charles remained within the Morgan Spring Company into the 1910s (per censuses of 1900 and 1910, and in 1920 and 1930 he was with Morgan Construction.

Ellen Norcross died in January, 1907. 




On the morning of February 27, 1920, Orlando Norcross, age 80, was riding in a city streetcar, accompanied by his daughter Edith, to the office of the company from which he was now retired, at 518 Main Street, when he collapsed in his seat. He was taken into the showroom of a motor car company near King Street where he died before doctors could arrive. The cause was heart failure.

His passing meant the end of the era of the Norcross family in the Claremont area.  Within a little over a year all three daughters and their families had sold their homes and relocated.  

About 1915, Henry Gross, had purchased the Canadian portion of the Norcross enterprise. Soon after the death of Orlando, Henry and Alice relocated to Montreal where he joined in a partnership with an established Montreal construction firm to form Anglin-Norcross, Ltd.  He served as vice-president until 1932 when he became president upon the death of Mr. Anglin.  Anglin-Norcross built many large structures in Canada over the years, thus keeping the name Norcross prominent in “high end” construction for many years after the demise of Norcross Brothers in the United States about 1923.

The May Street property where they had lived for nearly 23 years was sold in May, 1920.


William and Mabel Denholm relocated to 1 Marston Way in 1920, and their old home at 14 Claremont  was sold in September, 1921. William died in 1928, Mabel in 1940.

In March, the long-time home of the Orlando Norcross family on Claremont Street was sold, for the sum of $25,000, to George M. Wright, of Wright Steel and Wire Co., and a former Mayor of Worcester, 1913-1916.  Charles and Edith Morgan then moved to 12 Harvard Street. Edith had lived in number 16 all of her 42 years, with the possible exception of time away at college.

* * * * *

Don Chamberlayne

Add.: Norcross advertisement in City Directory of 1896 , listing buildings and memorials constructed, and architects with whom they had been associated.