Biography of R.D. Donaldson

Robert Douglas Donaldson

Undated portrait of R.D. Donaldson.

Robert Douglas Donaldson, Sr., was an invested and active citizen of Lincoln. Born in Tatamagouche, Nova Scotia on October 21st, 1870, he was the son of a farmer and one of eight siblings. He moved to Massachusetts at age 16, and worked in Acton as a farmer’s helper for $2.50 a week, about $69.22 today.

Donaldson lived with his aunt in Somerville until 1900, when he and his new wife, Charlotte Donaldson (née Alcock) moved to Lincoln. Donaldson built his first house in Lincoln in 1895 for William Peirce at 27 Tower Road.  He constructed the home from store-bought plans.

The contract between Donaldson and Peirce (as seen below), states that Donaldson will build “a single two story frame dwelling house...said dwelling house to be...finished complete on or before the first day of September, next (i.e., 1896).” The house cost Peirce $2,300 in 1895 money, or $68,743.73 today.

Building Contract between R.D. Donaldson and William Peirce, 1895

The 1895 building contract between William Peirce and R.D. Donaldson.

A Prolific Builder

R.D. Donaldson then became known as a prolific builder, with around 80 houses constructed in Lincoln alone, and several more in Cambridge, Brookline, Needham, Waltham, and Concord. He and his wife moved into 7 Old Lexington Road, the former Hunt-Rice tavern, and simultaneously ran a dairy farm and a contracting business. Charlotte was in charge of the books, and went to Boston every Friday to collect the cash for payroll.

R.D. Donaldson was a “vernacular carpenter,” meaning that he built practically, in local styles, and with local materials. He was completely untrained—he never studied carpentry or engineering. Presently, almost all of the houses he built are still in use.

He also altered or renovated several existing historic houses, which date back to as early as 1715. Many renovations he made consisted of converting barns, stables, kennels, and piggeries into habitable homes. Donaldson built bigger buildings as well: the original Emerson Hospital in Concord, the Lyman House in Waltham, the original Lincoln School (now Town Offices) and Gordon Hall in Lincoln.

Map of Robert Douglas Donaldson Houses in Lincoln, Massachusetts

The impact Donaldson had on the town’s buildings is striking — left, on the Lincoln map, every red dot signifies a Donaldson-built or -altered home. And below right is the historic town center.

Donaldson stopped building before 1930, as, per Astrid Donaldson “after began employing machines and not men... [he] stopped building large structures.”

Map of Robert Douglas Donaldson Houses in Lincoln Center

An Active Lincoln Citizen

Charlotte and R.D. had six children, 12 grandchildren, and 29 grandchildren. Three of their direct descendants still live in Lincoln with their families, on the Donaldson homestead and in a Donaldson-built home. The imprint Donaldson left on the town is unquestionable—obviously he made a large physical impression, but he was also an incredibly active Lincoln citizen.

He was very involved in town government and goings-on: he was a Freemason, a member of the Boards of Health and Cemetery Commissioners, and, for 28 years, a town selectman. Charlotte was a member of the League of Women Voters and of the Order of the Eastern Star.

Biography of R.D. Donaldson