BY ETHAN FORMAN
---- — WENHAM — Former ad executive Jim Mullen says the plan to redevelop the historic Penguin Hall into a senior living community will not go forward, saying people liked the concept, but could not commit to it.
The senior condominium concept also had trouble gaining financing from banks, Mullen added.
“It is true,” Mullen said when asked yesterday evening if the senior living plan was no longer a viable option for him. The wooded property and 1929 Penguin Hall was once the headquarters of the Mullen Communications advertising agency.
Plans had been to redevelop the 20,000-square foot “summer house,” with its two bronze penguins standing guard in the courtyard, into a luxury senior-living condominium complex on 50 acres.
Penguin Hall is one of the last parkland estates left on the North Shore, and it was to be a place where residents could age in place, free from the cares of home ownership. The plan was to build 240 units with prices ranging from $350,000 to $1 million, depending on their size and location.
In August 2012, Mullen and Chris Wise, his former development partner, counted nearly 100 depositors.
“We had a gangbuster beginning to this whole thing and signed up 100 people,” Mullen said. Most of those who had committed were in their 60s and 70s.
“When it came down to actually choosing a unit, most of them, all but 20 ... came back and said: ‘We love the concept, but we are not quite ready.’” The problem was many of those looking at the senior living concept felt they were too young, that it would be better suited to someone in their 80s.
Mullen, who is 73, said all the potential buyers raved about the concept. Of those who declined to move forward, he said, “they dropped out as friends.”
Mullen and Wise, the founder and CEO of Wise Living, had sought to reposition the former corporate campus into a place where people tired of mowing the lawn might live an active life with all the amenities. Wise is a developer of senior independent-living projects on Cape Cod. He declined comment when at his home last night.
Mullen said he pulled out of the project in May, but gave Wise four months to try and come up with a new senior living concept or development partner. Mullen said he had never developed a senior living project before. Wise, Mullen said, had wanted a rental concept with smaller units. He also proposed an assisted living and an Alzheimer’s unit, Mullen said. The problem is the land is zoned for independent senior living, not assisted living, and that would have required further rezoning.
Mullen and Wise also ran into the problem that there is “no financing for for-sale condos in the suburbs,” Mullen said. The financing in the suburbs is for single-family homes, and banks are still shy from the financial fallout from a few years ago.
Intertwined in the Penguin Hall sales pitch was a story of the forbidden love between heiress Mrs. Ruby Boyer Miller and the also married famed polar explorer Adm. Richard Evelyn Byrd, though there is no evidence they were lovers, according to Penguin Hall’s website.
The property had served as Mullen Communications headquarters for 20 years before the company moved to downtown Boston in 2009. Ten years before, Mullen and his partners sold the agency to Interpublic Group. In retirement, Mullen continued to own 36 Essex St. and lease it to the agency.
Plans had been to demolish the large brick buildings that were built in the 1950s and add 270,000 square feet of new housing. New buildings with a 1930s-era style were planned to extend out of the back of the property and down a slope. Parking lots would have been removed and parking would have been under the homes.
The first phase would have included 192 units connected to Penguin Hall, which would have had just four condominiums inside. The second phase would have included the construction of three manor homes with 12 to 16 residences in each one. Amenities would have included a fitness center, pool, a gourmet restaurant, Penguin Hall’s large corporate conference rooms, flower and vegetable gardens, a putting green and trails around the estate.
The hope was residents could stay active and even audit courses at Gordon College. The project was also meant to preserve Penguin Hall for another 100 years. Mullen said he is working with his broker to put together another plan. The land is still available as a corporate headquarters, he said.
Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at email@example.com or on Twitter at @DanverSalemNews.