Historic house renovation sparks some fears, controversy

JAIME CAMPOS/Staff photoThe Grimshaw House is one of the city's most historic properties and now is being eyed for conversion to apartments.

SALEM — An historic building with connections to Nathaniel Hawthorne has become the focus of controversy, as some preservationists back plans for a renovation and addition, while others are trying to prevent it.

As of Monday afternoon, an online petition to "Save the Grimshawe House" had garnered more than 4,100 signatures — but one of them was from the owner of the company doing the project.

"I went online and signed the petition to stop myself from turning that building into condos," said Walter Beebe-Center, owner of Essex Restoration. He wants to restore the property to its original, historical appearance and build five apartments inside. 

Essex Restoration's plan is up for discussion before the Historical Commission Wednesday. 

The three-story home at 53 Charter St. is next to The Burying Point, the city’s oldest cemetery, and is valued for its connection to Salem's famed writer Nathaniel Hawthorne.

The house was built in the early 1700s and dramatically remodeled in the 1790s. In 1835, it came into the hands of Salem dentist Nathaniel Peabody, whose three daughters — Elizabeth, Mary and Sophia — all became historically noteworthy. Sophia married Hawthorne; Mary married Horace Mann, the first Massachusetts superintendent of schools; and Lizzie, who remained single, was a well-known publisher and educator credited with promoting the kindergarten movement in America.

Hawthorne used the house as a setting in "Dr. Grimshawe's Secret" and "Dolliver's Romance."

In the 1900s, it became a rooming house and, at some point a basement-level barbershop was added, according to Beebe-Center. It is owned today by a Peabody family trust.

Beebe-Center was hired more than two years ago to begin restoring much of the property, but the project was put on hold because of a death in the Peabody family. 

That is, of course, until this past week, when plans for a new renovation project at the Grimshawe House appeared on social media.

Some angry voices 

Reaction was swift, with some fearing the house would be destroyed or lose its historic value, and others praising the effort to restore the property.

The petition to stop the project said the proposal "is to turn this important piece of Salem History into more condominiums! This has been the fate of house after house in Salem over the past decade but we cannot allow The Grimshawe-Peabody House to fall prey to the same demise!"

In fact, the project seeks to convert the building into five apartments, not condominiums. A first-floor unit would be reserved for a property manager, and the rest of the first floor is currently identified as "office space," according to the plans. This would in part be done with an addition on the inside corner of the L-shaped building, new construction that would not be visible from Charter Street or the cemetery next door. The other two floors would have two apartments each.

"We started looking at the ultimate saving of this building and how to make the building be financially self-sustaining," Beebe-Center said. "The family doesn't have the means to keep a building going in downtown Salem that can't be a single-family residence. It's difficult to park, isn't convenient for a family with young children."

Though it's tagged as office space, three rooms on the first floor would eventually become a historical library, Beebe-Center said.

"It would be a library, a library for visiting scholars," he said. "There's information about this house and these individuals scattered around Salem. If we can gather miscellaneous elements together and have them all in one place, I think it'd be really nice."

Voluntary review

The Historical Commission has no legal jurisdiction over the property, as it is not located in an historic district. Essex Restoration is voluntarily seeking the commission's input, with the hope of landing its influential support before taking the plan to the Salem Redevelopment Authority, which does have jurisdiction.

"We're excited that the owners have chosen — on their own — to come before the Historical Commission for not only support but advice, and we encourage others to do this," said Jessica Herbert, the commission's chairwoman. "It's a privilege to be part of historic restoration, particularly in parts of the city not covered by historic districts, and we're very happy to go to other boards in support of excellent restoration."

One issue facing the project, however, is the status of historic materials used inside. 

"All of the interior of the building has been changed by the fact that it was turned into a rooming house, so there's very little original material left," Beebe-Center said. "We know the main staircase is old and dates to the late 1700s, and we are optimistically hoping we'll find original material in the two front rooms."

Herbert also downplayed concerns about the addition diminishing the historical value of the property.

"We want to look at the addition," she said, "but historically, this is what happened with early houses. As families grew, additions were added. This may be a very appropriate historic addition."

The project's ultimate goal, Beebe-Center said, is to bring a historic property back to its former glory.

"We want to save the building, restore it back to its original condition, save everything we can on the inside, and allow someone to live there and enjoy it," he said. "We're going to get back to it. We're going to pick up where we left off as soon as we get these approvals in line."

The project will be discussed Wednesday, Feb. 6, at a Salem Historical Commission meeting, which begins at 7 p.m. in the first-floor conference room of the City Hall Annex, 98 Washington St. The Grimshawe House plan is the seventh item on the agenda.

Contact Salem reporter Dustin Luca at 978-338-2523 or DLuca@salemnews.com. Follow him on Facebook at facebook.com/dustinluca or on Twitter @DustinLucaSN.