, Salem, MA

December 14, 2012

New life for old house

Ropes estate has been transformed in just one year


---- — SALEM — It took a whole village to save the Ropes estate.

The century-old Queen Anne Victorian on Felt Street, once a crown jewel of North Salem, had fallen into ruin. For more than a decade, an aging family member had lived inside the house in deplorable conditions. The lot had become overgrown with scrub trees and brush and was a stomping ground for coyotes and other wild animals.

A year ago, a developer bought the sprawling property, only to raise new concerns. He planned to demolish the historic house and cut down virtually all the trees, including majestic beech and larch trees that were neighborhood landmarks.

Today, one year later, a lot has happened. The house has been saved and has new owners: Michael and Linda Blier.

Neighbors have taken notice. Cars drive slowly past. Some neighbors even walk up the long driveway and knock on the door. Others bring food.

“I think they’re just so happy to see a family in here,” Linda said.

A lot of hands reached out to save 18 Felt St., a once-sprawling property that stretched almost all the way to the North River. Not only was the five-bedroom house a treasure, but the property was once a horticultural showcase with vegetable and flower gardens, a beehive, chickens, and an old barn.

The first to step forward was Jessica Herbert, chairwoman of the Salem Historical Commission. Acting more as concerned private citizen, she convinced the developer, ICECAT LLC of East Boston, that the house not only could be saved but was more valuable preserved.

During its restoration, she was an almost daily presence, working with lead developer George Wattendorf of Swampscott and his subcontractor, Percio Rosario, who painstakingly restored and rebuilt architectural details.

Neighbors attended public meetings to express concerns about the Ropes house and redevelopment proposals that called for three new houses on the 1-acre-plus site. Today, there are two.

The Board of Appeals approved plans that included preservation of the house and four key trees, an unusual condition for a redevelopment.

The developer’s attorney, Scott Grover of Salem, acted almost as a mediator between his client and city boards, helping work out the preservation agreement.

And then along came the Bliers, who needed both capital and courage to move from the McIntire Historic District, a neighborhood of stately Federal Period homes, to a property that looked like the setting for a Stephen King novel.

The porch was leaning; some floorboards were ruined; the front steps were unusable; a key support beam was rotten; windows were boarded up; raccoons were camped in the attic; the plumbing, furnace and wiring had to be replaced; and there were holes in the roof, allowing rain to pour down on the interior.

“It looked like an elephant had run around in the house, it was so beat-up,” Linda said.

Nevertheless, the Bliers went ahead with the $625,000 purchase and worked closely with the developer on its restoration. It was a leap of both faith and love.

“The bones were good,” Mike said of the three-story house built in the 1890s.

A lot that made the Ropes house special has been saved: the tile fireplaces, curved-glass windows, wooden stairways and railings, a corner turret, and a third-floor room with an arched Palladian window. The distinctive wraparound porch will be extended.

There are also plans to plant trees, grass and flowers — maybe a vegetable garden. Mike Blier, a noted landscape architect, wants to pay homage to the past.

“I want to make a landscape that has something to do with harvest and production,” he said.

The Bliers, who are holding a neighborhood open house in the next few days, have a lot of plans for their new home, but it will take time and money.

“We’ll be working on it until we’re old and gray,” Mike said.

Tom Dalton can be reached at