WELLFLEET — Jay and Allison Bombara love history. Jay is president of the historical society in Farmington, Conn., where the couple live most of the year in an antique house, so finding a second home with a rich history was natural.
The pair bought the house at 1515 Baker Ave. in Wellfleet nearly one year ago. It was built in 1867 by William Atwood, son of a prominent merchant. Lorenzo Dow Baker then bought it in 1889 and set about expanding it into a summer residence.
Baker was an entrepreneur and probably the wealthiest person in Wellfleet at the time. Born in 1840 on Bound Brook Island, he became captain of the schooner Telegraph, ferrying goods and people back and forth from New England to points south. It was Baker, the “Banana King,” who first introduced bananas from Jamaica to the U.S. after a chance stop on the island in 1870. He and a Boston partner started the highly successful importing firm they called the Boston Fruit Company. It eventually became the infamous United Fruit Company, a legacy writer Stephen Kinzer has said Baker would not have been happy about.
Baker spent much of the year in Jamaica overseeing his business operation. There he owned a plantation he called Belvedere. His Baker Avenue property became known as Belvernon.
The 5,000-square-foot Italianate house, which has had its ups and downs during the past 150 years, still boasts many original features, from the beautiful woodwork in the kitchen, wood floors, and large windows down to smaller touches such as wooden doorknobs.
Baker used the rooms to house his family, friends, and a sizable staff. Doorbell-like buttons can still be seen on the walls, originally connected to a Ross Annunciator, so that family members could summon the staff when they were needed. The Bombaras still have the annunciator box that hung in the kitchen and indicated the room to which staff were being called.
Allison Bombara noted that she was glad the box was no longer connected, since it would likely be tempting for their 20-something son and daughter to ring their parents with requests.
Baker’s descendants owned the house until 2010, when it was purchased from the family estate by Samuel and Paula Agger for $699,000. The Bombaras purchased it in January 2021 for $1.2 million. The pair are grateful that the Aggers were careful to honor the house’s history as they went about making changes.
“When we bought the house, there were things to do, but many of the big jobs were done,” Jay said, pointing to several bathrooms that feature many of the original tiled floors and fixtures, with some updates, and the updated kitchen.
The Bombaras did remove a large cast-iron stove that stood in the kitchen, even though it had long been replaced by modern appliances.
The couple have enhanced the historic flavor of the rooms with their own touches. Pieces from Jay’s collection of paintings by Connecticut artists adorn the walls. And in the dining room, an ornately carved sideboard that had been Allison’s mother’s serves as a connection to her own past.
Much was left behind by the Bakers. When the Bombaras were rehanging the antique wall sconces in the rooms, they were able to find missing parts in the basement. The couple continue to unearth treasures everywhere.
Several large steamer trunks that belonged to Lorenzo Dow Baker are in the attic. “One had a lot of light clothing in it, probably from when they were living in Jamaica,” Allison said. A handful of books sit on a small shelf, also in the attic. One bears an inscription from Lorenzo to his daughter Martha, using her nickname “Mattie” and penned on Christmas 1890: “To my darling Mattie from Papa.”
A small chest bearing Baker’s initials sits on a desk, filled with antique keys. Some are labeled but many aren’t. “If you try hard enough, you could probably find where they go to,” said Jay — a job for another day. “We’re taking our time.”
The wraparound porch will be the renovation focus over the next few years. Jay has found some of the balusters in the basement. Most of the floors also need refinishing, he said, and a few places need repainting.
Jay noted that Lorenzo was not the only well-known Baker. Daughter Martha graduated from Lasell Seminary for Young Women in Auburndale and was a world traveler. Reuben Baker Jr., Lorenzo’s grandson, and the last Baker to own Belvernon, was a captain in the Merchant Marine.
According to his 2008 obituary in the Cape Cod Times, Reuben Jr. “worked every ocean and sea in the world, including carrying sugar around the Pacific rim, moving container ships around the Atlantic, laying cable off the coast of Mexico and tending oil rigs off Alaska and in the North Sea.” He also worked on the Lulu, Knorr, and Atlantis II research vessels for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution from 1972 to 1989, and was master of the Atlantis II when the submersible Alvin discovered the Titanic in 1986.
Susan Baker, a member of the Wellfleet Historical Commission and a Baker descendant, remembers family vacations at Belvernon — “a lovely summer home.”