Last month two colleagues and I formed Longmeadow Historic Preservation Partners with the goal of saving the Brewer-Young Mansion, which we recently acquired. Because there has been so much public interest and I know there are thousands who, like me, care deeply about preserving the history of Longmeadow, I thought it would be beneficial to explain how we came to the conclusion that our plan is the best for the mansion and for our town.
The fact is, for many years I adamantly opposed any commercial development of the Young mansion. During the eight cumulative years I served on the Historic District Commission and Historic Commission, I was very vocal about my feeling that we should wait for a wealthy person to buy it, fix it up and live in it. For the last seven years – since the home was first put on the market in 2010 – I have watched the home languish and deteriorate. As a neighboring property owner, every day I see the broken windows, rotting wood and collapsing pillars that aren’t visible from the street. When the prior residents were foreclosed upon, this damage intensified. After they were finally evicted, it became calamitous, especially when one pillar supporting the front portico collapsed completely.
Despite my strong initial feelings, I was forced to acknowledge that no one is going to buy this mansion as a home to live in. I remained in close contact with the property’s two selling agents who both told me there were no parties interested in buying it as a residence during the years they represented the property. I came to realize that if we waited much longer the mansion might be lost completely and demolished due to safety concerns. I also had to admit that, even if a buyer had emerged, in 15 or 20 years we’d likely face the same uncertainty when that homeowner encountered difficulty selling the property – it would not have been a long-term solution.
I should note that during my years on the Historic Commission I spearheaded efforts to find “alternative” solutions. Bay Path was not interested. I contacted historical preservation societies that restore historic homes in Massachusetts; at one point, I was set to tour the mansion with a representative from one of them, but he called off the meeting at the last moment because their board decided the mansion was such a “money pit” that it might actually consume their entire endowment and bankrupt their organization. More recently, I worked with the town manager to see if JP Morgan Chase might be willing to donate the mansion to the Longmeadow Historical Society so that the bank might benefit from the tax deduction. The bank was not interested.
In short, once I finally realized the mansion would not be a residence, and that no “angel” organization was going to save it, I began to consider alternatives and concluded that it would have to become an income-producing property if it was to survive.
But not just any income-producing property.
We’ve carefully studied every possible use and I can say with confidence that no bed and breakfast, events center, nor condominiums would ever generate enough funds to both restore and maintain this mansion. The costs are just too high. Now that we’ve had an opportunity to inspect and assess the building, we know that it will take at least $2 million to restore and modernize it. Historic structures are very costly to rehabilitate. JP Morgan Chase paid $120,000 just to replace the front portico’s four columns and deck. Repainting the building with proper removal of lead paint and repair of rotting trim will cost about $100,000. Replacing the mansion’s 128 exterior windows will cost more than $150,000. An HVAC system, electrical re-wiring, asbestos removal, new roof, and repair of the collapsing porte-cochere will cost more than half a million – and the list goes on.
I hope this information helps demonstrate that my partners and I are not taking on this gigantic project because we think it will make us rich. Believe me, there are far better ways we could invest our money if profit was our primary motive. We are doing this because we want to preserve the mansion for Longmeadow and for future generations.
And we believe the best type of income-producing property to achieve this is professional office space with high quality, low-impact tenants. By “low-impact” I mean minimal parking and a low volume of cars, open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and quiet at night.
We believe we have found an ideal tenant in Dr. Glen Brooks, a respected surgeon who wants to lease two-thirds of the mansion and whose current location is already in the Historic District just four doors away. He has already proven himself to be a good neighbor who respects the historic district. The furnishings of Dr. Brooks’ office would be distinguished and refined to match the mansion’s detailed and historic interior. His is not a “high-volume” practice, and his employees park across the green which would minimize on-site parking.
My partners and I did not arrive at the decision to invest in this property lightly. There is significant risk, both financially and to our own reputations – which we each guard very closely. One of the main reasons we acted was because we realized there was nothing to stop another buyer from purchasing the mansion and tearing it down after a nine month waiting period (to satisfy the demolition delay committee’s requirement). We also wanted to prevent it from becoming some other type of business that could be detrimental to the historic district. With tenants like Dr. Brooks, we are confident that the look and feel of the green will be unchanged, with minimal impact on traffic, modest signage, and no evening activity. We hope that restoring the mansion to its proper and grand appearance will add value to the historic district and to the town in general. If we succeed, the mansion will then be a public building, and it is likely that we will be able to invite the Historical Society to create a permanent exhibit inside showcasing the unique history of the home and its importance to Longmeadow.
One of the downsides is that there will have to be a limited parking area, but this is probably a small price to pay to save the mansion. We will keep this as small as possible and ask the Planning Board for a variance if necessary to achieve this. Landscaping will keep it invisible to all abutters and also shield the view from the street.
We will obtain the most restrictive zoning change possible so that the property cannot later be changed into retail, restaurant, industrial, or any other type of business besides professional offices.
I expect there will, of course, be some who oppose our plan to re-zone this property. They may hold beliefs that I, not so long ago, also espoused before I realized the difficult fiscal realities necessary to preserve the mansion. Until now, they may not have realized that a B&B or condos are not viable options. I would be the first to admit that our plan isn’t a perfect solution (I truly wish I did not have to live next to a business with a parking lot, for example!), but as someone who has studied this problem for longer than most, worked very hard to find alternative solutions, and been willing to spend money personally to protect and hopefully preserve the mansion, I can whole-heartedly assure you that this is the best solution.
Because the alternative is to lose the mansion. A decision to re-zone is really a decision between preserving the mansion or someday allowing it be demolished. Because if it is not re-zoned and remains residential-only, only a fool would continue to sink more money into a property such as this indefinitely and with no foreseeable endpoint. My partners and I are not fools. We do have sincere intentions and want to do everything we can to preserve this special building, both inside and out, to the best of our ability. It is our great hope that we will be given the opportunity to do so.
Andrew Lam, M.D.