BY ETHAN FORMAN
---- — WENHAM — Penguin Hall, the estate of Ruby Boyer Miller, once served as a place of “friendship” for Mrs. Miller and the equally married Adm. Richard Eveyln Byrd, or so the story goes.
Signs of their companionship are embedded in the 20,000-square-foot “summer house,” from two bronze penguins standing guard in the courtyard that were a gift from Byrd, a noted Antarctica explorer, to the name “Penguin Hall.”
There’s a spider web and zodiac signs on the front door; hearts on the downspouts; and two urns that, when lit from behind, form the shadow of a heart.
It’s not often that a story of forbidden love serves as a pitch to buy a unit in a luxury senior-living condominium complex. The story behind the estate can be explained when you understand that it was written by Jim Mullen, once one of the nation’s top advertising executives.
On the property website: “When Ruby Boyer Miller built Penguin Hall in 1929, she and her home were served by an attentive staff, permitting a cosseted lifestyle and the leisure time to pursue her particular interests — at the time, firmly focused on Admiral Richard Evelyn Byrd. Your staff at Penguin Hall will be equally attentive, although we do hope your interests will be more broadly distributed.”
It’s the kind of story that could make a person fall in love with the property and want to share in its secrets.
Mullen and his developer partner, Chris Wise, founder and CEO of Wise Living, are repositioning the former corporate campus into a place where people who are sick of homeownership can continue to live a vibrant and active life. They plan to build 240 units with prices ranging from $350,000 to $1 million.
Why focus on the story of the original owner?
“The thing I learned from (working with) Disney is it’s stories people remember,” said Mullen, the owner of Penguin Hall and its 50 acres. “People don’t remember facts, but they remember stories. What you always want to do is tell a story.”
The question now for Mullen is how to transform Penguin Hall from the headquarters of one of the nation’s top 20 advertising agencies, a place where 500 people once worked, into condominiums where those 55 and older can live in luxury and continue to be cared for as they get older.
What Penguin Hall will not be, Mullen said, is an old-age home.
“It’s for people who want to get rid of the hassle of homeownership,” Mullen said, “and who want to live in a beautiful place and who want to have activities and who want to do things and who want to travel.”
Love may be the way Penguin Hall gets a new lease on life, not the love between Miller and Byrd, but the passion Mullen has for his property, one of the last parkland estates left to be developed on the North Shore.
Penguin Hall served as Mullen Communications’ headquarters for 20 years before the company moved to downtown Boston in 2009. In 1999, Mullen and the other owners of the company sold the ad agency to Interpublic Group. Mullen later retired, but he continued to own the property at 36 Essex St. (Route 22) and lease it to the ad agency, which, in 2007, announced its intention to move to Boston.
Mullen and Wise plan to demolish the large brick buildings that were built in the 1950s. New buildings with a 1930s feel will extend out of the back of the property and down a slope. The parking lots will be removed, with garages placed under the homes.
“We are going to build new buildings on either side,” Mullen said.
The project could add up to 270,000 square feet of housing. The first phase of construction will include 192 units all connected to Penguin Hall, which will get just four new condos. The second phase will involve the construction of three manor homes, also in the style of the 1930s, with 12 to 16 residences in each one.
So far, in the first six months, Mullen and Wise have signed up 98 depositors whose average age is 70, said Mullen, who is 72. The condominium laws require 80 percent of the population be older than 55, which means grandparents can take care of a grandson, or a mother and a daughter who want to consolidate homes can do so.
“We have decided that we are building 100 percent of the units connected to Penguin Hall in the first phase,” Mullen said.
Units connected to Penguin Hall will be 800 to 1,600 square feet, and are projected to fetch $350,000 to $750,000. The manor home residences, averaging 1,800 square feet, will be larger and sell for $800,000 to $1 million each.
The average monthly fee for all this is expected to be $1,600, according to the website. The fee covers inside and outside maintenance, appliances, and utilities such as basic cable.
Planned amenities include a fitness center, pool, a gourmet restaurant, Penguin Hall’s large conference rooms, flower and vegetable gardens, a putting green, and trails around the 50-acre estate and beyond, to name a few. There will even be opportunities to audit classes at Gordon College, Mullen said.
“They are not coming to a nursing home,” Mullen said. “These are vital, active people who are post-65, most of them, although we have people in their 50s. ... What they want to do is get away from the hassles of homeownership.”
Wise has built six senior independent-living projects on Cape Cod, and he projects about 80 percent of the people who live at Penguin Hall will come from within five to 10 miles, meaning that many residents will remain connected to the community.
Wise said Mullen’s goal is to preserve Penguin Hall for another 100 years.
Ruby Miller, who built the manor, was wealthy because of her father, Joseph Boyer, who, at the turn of the 20th century bought Burroughs Adding Machine Co. It was “the IBM of its day,” Mullen said.
There is no documentation proving that Byrd and Miller were ever lovers, but Mullen said the home was known as the Mrs. Ruby Boyer Miller house because her husband never stepped foot in it.
“They were consummate companions,” Mullen said. “They were awfully close and stayed here together a lot. Maybe they were just pals, who knows, it doesn’t seem that way.”
Mullen’s love affair with Penguin Hall began when the ad agency’s former Beverly headquarters, the Loeb Estate in Prides Crossing, was destroyed in a fire. Mullen bought Penguin Hall for $7.5 million and moved his company there.
He expects that at the soonest, once he has deposits on 70 percent of the units and can arrange financing, that construction would start in September 2013.
“I love the property, and I am going to give it a chance to have another career as a great property,” Mullen said.