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History Lessons

At right: from left, project partners Chris Orszulak, Henry Clement, and Andrew Lam.

In its heyday, the Brewer-Young mansion was the center of Longmeadow’s social scene. Those who don’t remember those days know it more as an eyesore alongside the town green, after a string of owners over the past 30 years were unable to maintain the decaying structure. Enter a trio of investors with a commercial vision for the property, one that would pump economic vitality into the building while restoring its original architecture — and historic importance.

Andrew Lam says he’s “very invested in Longmeadow’s history,” and not just because he lives next door to it.

Specifically, his home abuts the Brewer-Young mansion, a sprawling, Colonial Revival estate built in 1885 that has, to put it charitably, seen better days.

Restoration work aims to return the mansion to its former glory (top photo, courtesy of the Longmeadow Historical Society).

“I’m very interested in making sure we preserve this property and turn it into a positive on our green — not to have it torn down or turned into something negative,” said Lam, an eye surgeon, author of three history books, and co-owner, along with financial-services professional Chris Orszulak and contractor Henry Clement of Innovative Building and Design, of the mansion that will soon begin the next phase of its intriguing story — as a professional office complex for small businesses.

The 10,900-square-foot house, at 734 Longmeadow St., has undergone a slow decline since it left the Young family — of Absorbine fame — in 1989, and has fallen into significant disrepair over the past decade, especially after its last owner, Shahkar Fatemni, was foreclosed on in 2013 and evicted in 2015.

The problem is that — as a string of owners since 1989 have learned — with its massive size and the restoration work it requires, it’s just not viable as a residence anymore; when the front columns collapsed several years ago, it cost Chase Bank $120,000 just to repair the porch. Even if the town got lucky and a wealthy investor stepped in to buy it, Lam noted, what would happen when he moved out? Longmeadow would be in the same situation all over again.

Orszulak also lives in town — in fact, with kids at Center Elementary School, right across the street, and a commute to work that takes him right past the mansion, he’s had a good view of it for a long time. He discussed some sort of commercial development at the site with Lam several years ago, when Lam still believed a residential use was possible.

Jason Pananos in 734 Workspace, the co-working center he’s developing on the third floor.

“I basically said to him, ‘listen, if it ever gets to a point where it comes on the market and you agree it’s not a viable single-family residence, why don’t we talk about partnering on repurposing it and putting it back on the path to sustainability?” Orszulak told BusinessWest. “I’ve always felt like the property was a key part of the town center, and there was a way to sustain and repurpose it.”

Fast-forward a few years — and a massive restoration effort — and the three owners will welcome a nearly full house of commercial tenants in September. The Youngs’ ballroom is now the home of financial advisers Shawn Torres and Alecka Kress of Vitae Wealth Management. The minister’s parlor is occupied by event planner Lindsay Maloni. Setting up shop in the formal dining room are Melissa Buscemi and Maria Arsenieva, program director and financial advisor, respectively, for Reboot, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting Jewish heritage. Psychologist Bonnie Connell will practice in the mansion’s former kitchen.

Meanwhile, Dr. Melissa Johnson, a surgeon at Baystate Medical Center, will operate a practice on the entire second floor, and the third floor is given over to a large co-working space.

The public will have an opportunity to tour the restored mansion as part of the Friends of Storrs Library Tour of Homes fundraiser on Oct. 5. What they’ll find is a lot of history — and, for the first time in many years, hope that a new, vibrant chapter is being written within what was, very recently, only an eyesore alongside the town green.

Singing the Praises

The mansion’s first resident was Rev. Samuel Wolcott, known for writing more than 200 Christian hymns. It was built for him by his two sons, who made their fortune in silver mining in Colorado. Ownership passed to State Sen. Edward Brewer in 1901, but the mansion’s third owner, Mary Ida Young, truly put it on the map.

The matriarch of a family that had made its fortune from Absorbine, a horse liniment popular in the days before automobiles, Young lived there from 1921 to 1960, and during this time it was truly a Gilded Age mansion, with extensive grounds and many servants and gardeners, serving as the site of important social gatherings.

A worker from Blackburn Building Conservation engages in the painstaking work of repairing the original wallpaper.

The Young family retained it until the 1980s, over the years selling off parts of the estate toward the Connecticut River — some was given up for I-91, more to enable development of the Ely Road neighborhood in the rear. A series of residential owners owned the home it in the 1990s and 2000s, each with plans to restore it and put it to use (among the plans were an event space and a bed and breakfast) — but each kept running into the high cost of repair and maintenance.

As it decayed further, Fatemni, five years before his eviction, sought a residential buyer, but found none. And once the property was abandoned, it went downhill quickly.

“Over these eight years, it really started decaying rapidly,” Lam said. “The front portico columns collapsed. The porches were rotting and threatened to fall. The inside had water damage from roof leaks. It was a terrible eyesore for the town because it is located prominently at the center of the historic green.”

Lam, who served for years on the Longmeadow Historical Commission, wanted to preserve it, but every historical preservation society or benefactor he approached realized it was too expensive to maintain — “it was a true money pit” — and declined to help. One society said taking the project on would have bankrupted it.

Finally, he came around to the idea that a commercial use would make sense, and teamed with Orszulak and Clement to purchase the property for $470,200. But not just any commercial use, like a bank or chain store that would be out of character for the town center. Instead, they envisioned a professional office complex that would require renovating and restoring, not tearing down, this piece of history.

“It is probably the best example of Colonial Revival architecture in the Pioneer Valley,” Lam told BusinessWest. “All three of us cared deeply about preserving the mansion in the best possible way.”

That use, however, required a zone change — and a two-thirds vote at a special town meeting. “We had a strong case it was in such terrible condition that it was quite obvious something needed to be done, but any time there’s a change, there are always going to be people for and against it.”

Their effort was buoyed by an informational campaign — and the support of Todd and Tyler Young, the last of the Young family to reside in the mansion.

The striking conservatory at the mansion was restored with new tempered, shatter-proof glass.

“When considering the various use cases (bed and breakfast, condominiums, etc.) and related market and financial analysis the current owners have undertaken, our family honestly believes that the proposal of re-zoning this property for professional office space is the most realistic and best use of this uncommon structure,” they wrote to Longmeadow Buzz, an online forum, in January 2018. “Outside of a viable repurposing and renovation, we sincerely believe demolition of this prominent building is a certainty once it is officially deemed uninhabitable or a catastrophic event such as a partial structural collapse or fire occurs — whichever comes next.”

The vote that month was close, as 69% approved the zone change from a residence to professional offices. “That’s different from commercial zoning,” Lam said. “We didn’t want it to be a McDonald’s or a gas station or any building that didn’t look historic.”

Since then, he, Orszulak, and Clement have poured $1.3 million into renovations, with more to come — the original budget was $2 million, and Lam thinks it will wind up in that ballpark.

Melding Old and New

It has been a delicate dance. On one hand, Lam said, “everything needed to be modernized — HVAC, plumbing, electrical. There was no central air, and the roof was collapsing. Every day brought a new challenge. ‘Oh, we need handrails.’ ‘Oh, we need an elevator.’ ‘Oh, we need a fire escape.’ But we didn’t want to take away from the historic look.”

Original features include marble floors and a grand staircase, lined by stained-glass windows, in the front foyer; a glassed-in conservatory based on the Crystal Palace from London’s Great Exhibition of 1851; and embossed leather wallpaper on the first floor designed by Zuber & Cie, an 18th-century French manufacturer that also designed wallpaper for the Diplomatic Reception Room in the White House.

“The wallpaper was literally falling apart, full of cracks and peeling,” Lam said, noting that the team commissioned Middleborough-based Blackburn Building Conservation return it to its original glory, a painstaking process involving tiny scalpels and other equipment — and plenty of patience.

“The whole staircase is priceless,” Lam said. “The goal when you walk into the building is for it to appear as it did in 1885 when it was first built — exactly the same. The staircase and stained glass are all the same.”

But today’s Brewer-Young mansion reflects the 21st century in many ways, too, such as 734 Workspace, the co-working complex Jason Pananos has developed on the third floor, featuring 10 small offices — already mostly rented — a large shared workspace, and amenities including a kitchen and office equipment.

The mansion’s grand staircase is highlighted by large panels of stained glass.

“It’s very exciting. It’s going to be a vibrant place — a place where entrepreneurs and professionals come together and cross-pollinate ideas,” Lam said. “It’ll be a wonderful environment to work in. All our tenants are local; they all believe in our goal to save this mansion, and they’re willing to join us in doing just that.”

Saving the 134-year-old house means modernizing it in other ways, too, many of which require significant funds.

“Frankly, it was not clear how much it would truly cost,” Lam said. “Asbestos was discovered that would have to be removed. We needed to install a giant sprinkler system that includes the exterior porches to comply with codes. The conservatory serves no purpose from a profit standpoint, but it’s beautiful, so we replaced the old glass with tempered, shatter-proof glass.”

Even more beautiful, the partners said, was the speed at which the building was rented.

“It was a stronger response than I anticipated,” Orszulak said, noting that the tenants on board are virtually all from Longmeadow — impressive in a town that has a lower density of commercial properties than any other in the region, by far. “For us to be almost occupied before completion was really reassuring to me personally. This level of support, I think, speaks to the broad community interest in repurposing this property.”

Lam never assumed that kind success, although he was hopeful.

“That was one of the major risks we were taking — that no one would want to be there,” he told BusinessWest. “But the town strongly believes in our goals to preserve it in an aesthetically beautiful way, and that’s reflected in the people who want to be there. They’ve trusted us and agreed to rent before the building was beautiful. That’s telling, and very fulfilling to us.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

The Baystate Health & Wellness Center, which opened last year, lies alongside significant improvements to the Dwight Road corridor at the East Longmeadow line.

When people think of economic development, they might think of a flood of new businesses into a community. Longmeadow will never have that, Town Manager Stephen Crane said, but it certainly has economic development — centered instead around residential property values and the quality of life that maintains them.

“What sustains property values are investments like middle schools, senior centers, things that make the community more desirable to live. That’s the number-one goal of Longmeadow,” he said of a town in which 95% of all property is residential.

“As I always say, our number-one economic activity is the sale of single-family homes,” he went on. “So keeping those homes a desirable place for people to live is job one, and new senior centers, new schools, new amenities — those are the things we can do as a municipal government to sustain that quality of life.”

While a new middle school has been talked about for years, a new senior center will soon become reality, after a groundbreaking ceremony was held on July 11. The Longmeadow Adult Center will move from its current location, a former elementary school at Greenwood Park, to a $14 million facility on Maple Road next year.

“It’s a fantastic project. It’s a very big deal,” Crane said, noting that the demographic trend commonly called ‘the aging of America’ is certainly underway in Western Mass.; in fact, 29% percent of Longmeadow’s population is age 60 or older, and that number grows every year. Because of that, he said, communities need to provide services that help seniors age in place.

“The senior center will fill a lot of gaps we have in terms of aging in place,” he told BusinessWest, noting amenities like its state-of-the-art gymnasium with a suspended walking track. “The programming space will be substantially better than what we have now. The current programs are great, but the new space will reflect the quality of those programs.”

Crane, who has been Longmeadow town manager for the past six years, will be departing his seat next month after inking a three-year contract as town manager in Concord. He’s witnessed plenty of changes in town during that time, but one of the intriguing ones has been Longmeadow’s shifting demographic reputation, spurred by growing amenities for seniors and a significant stock of ranch homes for single-floor living. In short, a town once known as a place where young parents raised their kids and moved out is becoming an all-ages destination.

Taxing Concerns

To maintain those amenities — and the quality of life so critical to keeping residential property values high — town officials support legislation on the state level that would allow it, and other towns, to override a key element of Proposition 2½, which went into effect in 1982.

That legislation sets a 2.5% ceiling on total property taxes — or $25 per $1,000 of assessed value — and a 2.5% annual limit on property-tax increases. (The ceiling does not include excludable debt for capital projects like the senior center.) Proponents of a change, at least in Longmeadow, would like towns to be able to override the first part of the law by moving the ceiling higher, first by a two-thirds vote at town meeting, then at the ballot box.

“It’s really quintessential self-determination, which is the essence of town-meeting government.”

“We are approaching that ceiling. And costs are going to continue to go up, unless property values stay the same or go up. If we have a 1% dip in our real-estate market, our tax rate jumps up even if we don’t spend another dime,” Crane said. “We are not proposing to touch the 2.5% increase, but we propose that the community can set the ceiling where it wants, and decide for themselves how much they want to invest in themselves. It’s really a local-control thing.”

While Longmeadow has the highest residential tax rate in the Commonwealth, it also has a high bond rating. “So our tax rate is not the result of profligate spending. We are an extremely well-managed town from a financial standpoint. We have to be very careful and make great decisions and pursue value in earnest, which we do.”

One way it does that is by pursuing regionalization when possible, as with the two-town (and perhaps others in the future) regional emergency communications center, or RCC, that Longmeadow is establishing with Chicopee, housed in that city’s Police Department and operated by an independent district called WESTCOMM. That system is expected to go live in October, and dispatchers have already been hired.

“The Baker administration is pushing municipalities to work together,” Crane said. “We certainly embrace that, whether it’s working with East Longmeadow on shared health services for public health, the regional dispatch with Chicopee, we are always reaching across town lines, trying to find ways to work more efficiently and relieve burdens on taxpayers.”

He understands how legislation to change Prop 2½ could be cast as merely an effort to raise taxes, and he understands how that goes over with some.

“Would it lead to increased taxes? Not any more than the current two-and-a-half-percent cap allows year after year. Would it lead to higher tax bills in the future? Potentially. But is it essential to maintain property values and maintain the community’s quality of life? Yes.

“To hit that ceiling,” he continued, “means reductions in services that may not be impactful right away, but would lead to a downhill momentum where services are reduced, quality of life goes down, property values then go down as well — and that’s even if the economy and real-estate market stay stable.”

Important, though, is the fact that, under the proposed change, each community would have a say in moving its tax ceiling — and Crane said Longmeadow residents have long been aware of its unique tax base and the need for community investment to keep property values high.

“It’s really quintessential self-determination, which is the essence of town-meeting government,” he added. “The state doesn’t really give a lot of local-control options to communities for generating revenue.”

Moving Right Along

Meanwhile, the town continues to pursue improvements and development on both the public and private fronts. Along the busy Dwight Road corridor that intersects Converse and Williams streets — where the Baystate Health & Wellness Center opened last year — a major infrastructure project included street and sewer upgrades, new sidewalks and bike lanes, and improved traffic-light coordination across the East Longmeadow town line.

“The corridor improvements on Dwight Road are complete, which is a regionally significant improvement,” Crane said. “Traffic is flowing exponentially better than it ever did. Those improvements were clearly needed.”

Longmeadow at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1783
Population: 15,784
Area: 9.7 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $24.09
Commercial Tax Rate: $24.09
Median Household Income: $109,586
Median Family Income: $115,578
Type of Government: Open Town Meeting; Town Manager; Board of Selectmen
Largest Employers: Bay Path University; JGS Lifecare; Glenmeadow
* Latest information available

On the private-investment front, in addition to the Baystate project and a 21,000-square-foot expansion of the Longmeadow Shops in 2017, a memory-care facility is planned on the site of a former synagogue on Williams Street, and the former Brewer-Young Mansion on Longmeadow Street has been converted to professional offices, with developers eying a mix of uses, including shared workspaces. On the municipal side, the development of a new Department of Public Works facility on the site of a former tennis club on Dwight Road continues despite unexpected costs from asbestos removal from the soil.

Overall, Crane said, “town meeting been generous with appropriations. To me, it’s a sign that they have faith in their local government and know that, if it wasn’t really needed, we wouldn’t be asking for it. The success we’ve had with approval of things shows we are able to articulate the community’s needs in a way that town meeting agrees with.”

For instance, voters recently authorized a $1.54 million debt exclusion to continue improvements to the Wolf Swamp Road athletic fields, which Crane called the town’s biggest and busiest recreational asset.

“The fields have fallen into disrepair for a variety of reasons — lack of irrigation, overprogramming, and just some disinvestment,” he told BusinessWest. “The DPW does the best it can to maintain those fields, but without irrigation and with the overprogramming, there’s a limit to how effective you can be with maintenance.”

The plan includes a new, central parking lot, converting current parking at one end of the complex to field space, and achieving a net gain in field space.

“The fields will be stripped, graded, planted, and irrigated,” he went on. “It’ll be a couple years out of service, but when it comes back online, it’ll be the envy of the region, I think. That’s not a great economic driver, but when we have tournaments, those do generate revenue for the town, but it also sustains quality of life, which does have economic value.”

‘A Good Place’

Crane said the various departments in Town Hall want to support its local bricks-and-mortar businesses with good infrastructure and cooperative permitting. “You can help people with what they need or you can make them climb through the regulatory systems on their own, and I know we really try to do what we can for our local businesses.”

But he also understands that housing — and the higher revenues that come from raising quality of life and keeping home values high — will always dictate much of what Longmeadow is able to achieve.

“I’m proud of the work I’ve had a small part in accomplishing,” he said as he prepared for his newest challenge in Concord. “We have a great team, great departments, and outstanding volunteers. I’m proud to have been a part of many positive changes that have happened in the community — things that have been quality-of-life improvements, but have not changed the character of the community. The next town manager will have challenges, but I think the town is in a good place.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]