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Thursday, October 23, 2008

Investing in Antiquity

Once at risk for demolition, the historic Grandview Farm, one of the last vestiges of Burlington's agricultural past, may finally get a face lift.

After years of uncertainty over the future of the local landmark, the town plans to spend up to $2 million to restore the exterior of the farmhouse, also known as the Marion Tavern.

"This is definitely a large step forward for is," said Nick Rubino, cochairman of the Grandview Farm Use Committee.

Residents at Town Meeting recently approved borrowing $1 million over 20 years to help pay for the renovations. The borrowing will cost about $75,000 annually, which will be covered by payments from a local developer, the Gutierrez Co., to the town. The payments were part of the three-way land swap agreement seven years ago between the former owners of the farm, the town, and the Gutierrez Co. that allowed the town to take ownership of the property.

The town also has about $800,000 from various sources available to help pay for the restoration. Additionally, the town plans to sell a single-family residential lot on the property that could generate between $250,000 and $300,000 toward the Grandview renovations, said Town Administrator Robert Mercier.

The $2 million is expected to pay for structural repairs and exterior work to the main house, the oldest part of the complex. It does not include work to the ell or the barn, which are connected to the house.

Mercier said the town will issue a request for proposals this fall for the work, and hopes to award a bid for construction by late winter and have the contractor begin work in the early spring.

"Lots of ifs in the plan, especially with the current market conditions, but this is our best hope to date to stabilize and save this structure," Mercier said via e-mail.

Better known today for its shopping and business parks along Route 128, Burlington started out as a farming community, according to Michael Tredeau, cochairman of the Burlington Historical Commission. Just 100 years ago, the town's population was 592, Tredeau said. Today, the residential population is 24,000 and its daytime population is 150,000.

The Grandview Farm complex began as a Greek Revival-style house built by the Marion family in 1830, said Tredeau. Abner Marion decided that, in addition to running a farm, he would open a tavern to attract those traveling between Boston and Lowell. He moved a pre-1750 saltbox house to the site and connected the two homes into one main house. An ell was constructed to connect the main house to the barn.

By 1870, Charles McIntire owned the property and ran a large dairy farm there. It was later turned into an egg and poultry farm. The McIntires named it Grandview Farm because its high peak had majestic views of Mount Wachusett in Princeton and Mount Monadnock in southern New Hampshire.

In 1970, the property was purchased by Hubert Ruping, whose family owned the property until the three-way land swap in 2001.

Tredeau said the connected farm complex is an architectural style unique to New England. "It's the only one left in Burlington and one of only a few in the Eastern Massachusetts area" - reason enough to preserve it for posterity, he said.

"The growth has been incredibly explosive and all the farms are gone," he said. "This is a building right in the middle of town to remind us of our farming heritage. To say this property is the truest example of Burlington's heritage would not be an understatement."

Tredeau said the building is in "fair condition." The framework is solid, but the roof and foundation need work, and its exterior needs to be redone. He said it's been vacant since the town took ownership about seven years ago.

"It's not falling down, but a couple more years with nothing being done and it could get into that condition," he said.

When the town first took over the property, a committee was formed to look at how it could be used. But it became clear that the house needed work and renovations would be needed before the town could decide its best use, said Rubino. "Our focus shifted from use to saving the building," he said.

The committee raised $800,000, but it wasn't enough to do all the work, Rubino said. At one point, the committee recommended razing the structure because the renovation costs were so high.

The first phase won't fix everything, town officials acknowledge. But Rubino said it's a good start.

"From the common, certainly it should look much better," he said. "The outside will look like it should."

Rubino said the second phase will focus on the ell and the barn, and the third will target the interior.

"We do want to save that as well, but money is tight and we had to focus on the most historic portion," he said.

Once the renovations are done, the committee will once again be able to look at use. Rubino said ideas include using it as a function hall, meeting space, and offices. One idea would turn the barn into a community theater.

Tredeau said town residents should remember that while it would be nice to reuse the building, its most important purpose is to serve as a reminder of what the town used to be - a farming community.

"We have in our hands, a prime example of that agricultural industry," he wrote recently in a letter to the Board of Selectmen. "A building which was the center of commerce for this town. A building which can show us, remind us, and teach us the history and heritage of Burlington. And we need to remember the value of this building is its unique structure, and its antiquity.