, Salem, MA

October 8, 2012

Completing the transformation

Final building has been restored in Willowdale Estate project

By Bethany Bray STAFF WRITER
The Salem News

---- — TOPSFIELD — Renovations are finished on the coach house at the Willowdale Estate, the final building to be restored at the historic estate of business tycoon Bradley Palmer.

The two-story building is the last piece of the puzzle in a massive, private/public restoration, breathing new life into the Arts and Crafts-style mansion in what is now Bradley Palmer State Park.

The events and catering company that took over the dilapidated estate is also celebrating its fifth year in business. A ribbon-cutting was held at the coach house last week.

“There’s so much to celebrate this year,” said Sarah Boucher, the estate’s marketing manager and assistant planning manager.

The Fandetti-Forsythe family of Cambridge signed a 50-year lease with the state Department of Conservation and Recreation to take over the Willowdale Estate in 1997. They’ve poured more than $1 million into restoring the property and now run it as a for-profit events venue, hosting weddings, parties and other gatherings.

Briar Rose Forsythe, who previously worked at her family’s hotels in Cambridge, is Willowdale’s executive director.

When the family took over the estate, it had been mostly vacant since Bradley Palmer donated it to the state in 1944. The buildings were in poor shape, uninhabitable, Boucher said, and home to bats and wasps.

After a painstaking, multiyear restoration of the main house, Willowdale hosted 16 events in 2007. Now, it has more than 20 employees and hosts up to 150 events a year— three or more each week, Boucher said.

While events will continue to be held in the main house, the newly restored coach house will be used as much-needed storage and auxiliary/prep space.

“It’s just great to have more room,” she said. “We’re growing a lot.”

Bradley Palmer, an attorney and businessman, built the main house around 1901 and did a massive renovation in 1926. The adjacent coach house was most likely built during the 1920s renovation, Boucher said.

The building was used to house carriages and horse equipment; remaining space was used as staff quarters, equipped with restrooms and a first-floor kitchen. Horses were stabled in an adjacent building.

Palmer, a lifelong bachelor, loved the outdoors and entertaining. President William H. Taft, England’s Prince Edward VIII and Gen. George Patton were all visitors to the estate Palmer called Willow Dale.

Restoration of the coach house, which began last year, preserved roughly 90 percent of the building’s layout, Boucher said. Three apartments with restrooms and kitchens were created around the building’s main garage space.

The only major alterations were done to bring the building up to modern building codes, such as widening staircases and adding doors. Electrical, plumbing, heating and cooling systems were upgraded, while features such as the antique cookstove, exposed brickwork, built-in cabinets, and original wood floors and window frames remain.

The coach house renovation was done by Coastline Construction of Newbury.

The business plan for the coach house has yet to be fully fleshed out, but the units could be used as overnight housing for brides, grooms and their families. The units will not be rented to the public or used for long-term stays, she said.

The first-floor cook space could be used as a test kitchen by Willowdale Estate’s catering business, she said. The garage will be used by the estate’s facilities team.

The restoration at the Willowdale Estate is one of 17 in the state’s Historic Curatorship Program. Through the program, private individuals or companies lease a state-owned property, rent-free, but agree to pay for rehabilitation and upkeep of the buildings.

In addition to private events, Willowdale Esate opens for public tours periodically through the year. In December, a holiday concert of classical music and a free movie night, showing the classic “White Christmas,” are open to the public, as well.

Bethany Bray can be reached at and on Twitter @SalemNewsBB.