DANVERS — The renovation of the historic, hilltop Hussey mansion and stone barn in Danversport has picked up steam in recent months despite the sputtering condominium market.

The so-called Riverbank development marks a new lease on life for the Victorian-era buildings whose windows were blown out by the Danversport chemical plant blast across the Waters River nearly five years ago. The grand buildings, an Italian-style mansion and its distinctive stone barn, sat boarded up for years after the blast.

The buildings were so badly damaged, their former long-time owner, the New England Homes for the Deaf, decided to sell them rather than fix them up. The nursing home for deaf and deaf-blind residents had already moved to new facilities next door in 2004, and an independent living facility opened in 1997.

Thomson Companies of Danvers, under the name Danvers Riverbank Corp., bought the 2-acre property for $800,000 in June 2009.

It was a project spearheaded by developer Gordon Thomson, with help from his son and partner, John Thomson of Swampscott, and fellow development partner Warren Kelly of Middleton. Gordon Thomson, now 78, helped found the company, and he has been developing single-family homes and condos all over the North Shore since the late 1980s, when his son joined the company. Gordon Thomson has been in the real estate business since 1956.

John Thomson said it was his father who forged ahead with a 17-unit luxury condo development at 152 Water St. despite obstacles such as a down housing market and permitting hurdles.

The move appears to have paid off. Despite limited marketing, three condos have sold and one is under agreement, he said. There is interest at a time when the market for condos is anything but robust.

In Danvers, condo sales from January to May plummeted nearly 44 percent this year compared with last year. There were 32 sold in the first five months of 2010, and only 18 this year, according to The Warren Group, which released housing sales figures last week. Last year's sales activity came at a time of an expiring federal tax credit, so those numbers could be somewhat inflated, The Warren Group said.

Over the same period the median condo price in town jumped 12 percent to $271,250.

"I had my third closing yesterday," John Thomson said Friday, noting that the company has had only one open house, which attracted more than 120 people. Another is scheduled for Sunday, July 10, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Why the interest?

"I wish I had a Thesaurus for another word for 'unique,'" he said. "It's very visible there, I think the water aspect of it (is attractive). I think the stone and brick aspect of it make it a very unique property."

Prices range from $419,000 to $700,000, and they all have views of the Waters River. All condos have a minimum of two bedrooms and two bathrooms, and they have hardwood floors and granite counters. Two condos, one in the mansion and one in the barn, have cupolas. Some condos in the stone barn have half-moon arched or round windows.

Because the buildings are made of stone, condominium fees will be lower because of reduced exterior maintenance, John Thomson said, about $278 to $378 a month depending on the size of the unit.

The renovation of the stone barn, a former meeting room known as Salem Hall, is nearing completion. Only two condos in the barn remain on the market.

The next phase will be renovation of the mansion, which dates to 1853, along with construction of three new townhouses, Thomson said. Developers have been working with town preservationists to make sure the development retains its historic feel. Town Archivist Richard Trask said he has been pleased with Thomson's preservation efforts.

The property not only has a unique look, but a unique history.

Trask said it was Matthew Hooper who built the mansion in 1853. The property was later acquired by William Penn Hussey, a controversial and eccentric figure who lived in the house at the turn of the last century. The nearby statue of Hussey on a horse on Water Street shows him as chief marshal of the 1902 Danvers 150th anniversary celebration, a statue Hussey's son put up after his father died, Trask said. It was Hussey who expanded the property.

The mansion and barn were acquired by what was then called the New England Home for Deaf Mutes in 1925 when the facility moved from a smaller home in Everett. According to the facility's website, Helen Keller and her teacher, Ann Sullivan, were on the board of trustees when it acquired Riverbank.

It took Thomson several years to get the condominium project going, as it needed a variance because the land was zoned for single-family homes. The project was at first envisioned as a senior condominium development, but is now without any age restrictions.

Besides the unique buildings, John Thomson said the reason he thinks it is immune from the condo market downturn is simple: It sits on the water.

"Anything on the water seems to maintain its value better," he said.

Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673 or by email at eforman@salemnews.com or on Twitter @DanverSalemNews.

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