Needham History: Hidden Secrets

An unlikely nest of spies…

40 Grant Street, at the corner of Grant and School Streets. The house was built in 1905 for Julia Casey, and was designed by the Boston firm of Winslow and Bigelow, who had also designed the Needham Town Hall.

Hidden Secrets

The house at 40 Grant Street ranks high on everyone’s list of Favorite Houses in Needham. It is a graceful and elegant house, prominently placed on a visible corner lot. Its neo-Colonial symmetry is anchored by a two-story central bay, with arched palladian windows at the entrance. The fence is a complement and not a barrier, and the yard is shaded by old trees – some of them probably standing when the house was built. Even on a street notable
notable for its distinctive houses, 40 Grant stands out.

40 Grant was built in 1905 for Julia Casey. It was designed by the Boston architectural firm of Winslow and Bigelow. Walter Thatcher Winslow and Henry Forbes Bigelow formed their partnership in 1901. They were known for elegant Back Bay townhouses; suburban residences for wealthy clients such as the Storrow and Cabot families; and several downtown Boston office buildings, including the old Board of Trade Building on the corner of India and State Streets. In Needham, Winslow and Bigelow were the architects who designed our Town Hall in 1902.

Julia Casey was a private nurse working for a wealthy Boston family, and she built the house from a generous bonus that she was given when she retired. Julia soon became the guardian of her widowed sister’s four daughters, and the girls grew up in the large house. She also shared the house with her brother, Sgt. Andrew Casey. Andrew Casey had retired from western service with the US Cavalry. In retirement, he was an avid and skilled woodworker; the property’s elegant fence was his work, as was the large doll house he built for his nieces, that was later donated to the Needham Library and enjoyed by several generations of Needham children.

When she passed away in 1942, Julia Casey bequeathed the house to one of her nieces, Anne Casey Powers. Anne was married to James Henry Powers, foreign news editor and columnist for the Boston Globe. James Henry had grown up in Needham, and attended the Needham public schools. After their marriage, the Powers were living in Sudbury with their three sons, Peter, James Hugh, and John; they moved back to Needham when the house became theirs. (Many of you will remember James Hugh Powers – Jim Powers – who passed away in 2017; Powers Hall is named in his honor).

James Henry Powers was foreign editor of the Boston Globe from 1930 to 1959, and its chief editorial writer from 1931 to 1961, when he retired. He wrote his editorials under the pseudonym “Uncle Dudley.” Powers was an avid observer of world political developments, especially as the world moved toward the brink of war. He had a deep understanding of political motivations, and made frequent predictions of upcoming events. When the Japanese Cabinet resigned en masse in October 1941, Uncle Dudley’s headline was “This Means War” – two months before Pearl Harbor. FDR was one of his dedicated readers.

During the War, James Powers also wrote a monthly political analysis for The Atlantic Monthly, and his predictions were so uncannily accurate that the State Department grew suspicious, and sent Army investigators to find out where he was getting his information. He was getting his information, it turned out, from underground European newspapers, obtained through his widespread network of journalist contacts. The State Department tried recruit him to go to Washington as an advisor. Tragically, however, the Powers oldest son Peter had recently been killed in action, and the Powers were in no condition for another upheaval in their lives.

Instead, the State Department came to them. James Powers was able to use his many contacts to gather intelligence information for the US, Britain, and the Free French. These contacts would get together at the Grant Street house – just so many old friends meeting up after wartime separations! They would use these “reunions” and “business meetings” as cover to pass information to representatives of the intelligence services. Among the visitors to 40 Grant Street was Sir William Stephenson, the British spymaster known as Intrepid. Powers’ deep understanding of European politics and his secret wartime meetings became an important part of the Allied war effort.

In its 120-year life, the house at 40 Grant Street has only been owned by two families. It has been carefully and lovingly tended, and has changed little since it was first built. Modest later additions to the back of the house are in keeping with the original design. Formal gardens on the south side of the house are a continuation of gardens planted by Anne Powers, in which she grew rare specimen roses. A recent survey for the MA Historical Commission noted that the house is an eligible candidate for the National Register of Historic Places, both for its architectural style and integrity of its outer shell, and for the very important events that took place in secret within its walls.

Another Anecdote…

Anne Powers had her own political connections. In April of 1945, she accompanied her husband to San Francisco for the organizing convention of the United Nations. One morning, there was a knock at the door of her hotel room. When she opened it, she was greeted by a very thin young Navy officer, “Good morning, ma’am. You don’t know who I am, but I know who you are and that you are from Boston. I am Lieutenant John Kennedy, and I am from Boston too. Can I come in and chat with you about what is happening now on the Boston political scene?” He had come to the right place – Anne was well-versed in Boston politics. She said that she had found herself with a “very homesick sailor” on her hands. They had a long conversation about Boston politics and many other topics, including the losses that both families had recently suffered. Several years later, Congressman John F. Kennedy, then a candidate for US Senate, came to Needham to take part in a campaign rally on the Town Common. Anne was there listening, and when Kennedy saw her, he embraced her, thanking her for the time she spent talking to him in San Francisco.

Gloria Polizzotti Greis is the Executive Director of the Needham History Center & Museum. For more information, please see their website at
Previous post Finding a Way Forward on Flooding
Next post Two Very Different Games