Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Town looks for buyer to restore, preserve historic 18th-century farmhouse

5 bedrooms, 3 baths, needs work

By Joyce Pellino Crane, Globe Correspondent

The historic Red Wing Farm on Maple Road in Chelmsford is up for sale, but it's not on any real estate agent's listing sheet.

Article Tools

The town-owned property, with a farmhouse built in the early 18th century, is being sold through a governmental bidding process, with the opening bid set at $160,000.

Though that may seem like a steal for a 3,000-square-foot house that sits on a 57,000-square-foot parcel next to wooded fields, there are several factors to consider.

For one thing, town officials expect bidders to substantially raise the price. Moreover, the property will come with a preservation restriction that requires the buyer to maintain the property to certain standards. And then, there's all the work that needs to be done on the house.

''It's rare that a town will [auction off a historic home] and work to make sure it is preserved in the process, by putting a preservation restriction on the property," said Anne McCarthy Forbes, a preservation consultant who was hired by the town to help the Red Wing Farm get on the National Register of Historic Places.

Home repair hobbyists should think twice before rushing in with an offer, cautioned Dennis Lawlor, principal of Lexington-based Classic Group Inc., specializing in the restoration and construction of traditional-style homes.

Comparing the restoration process to camping in the woods, Lawlor said, ''It sounds romantic, but a week into it, it's very difficult."

As he toured the house and grounds last week, Andy Sheehan, Chelmsford's community development director, savored the setting and history he found at every turn.

A former conservation commissioner from Acton, Sheehan said he has a list of potential buyers who have expressed interest in the property since the town bought it from former resident Nancy Bartleson 2 1/2 years ago.

''We've got about 15 people who have called us over the years about this property."

The rundown building, which hasn't been occupied since Bartleson moved out a few years ago, could be a dream come true for a preservation-minded developer with an eye toward history and a penchant for modern serenity.

Located in Chelmsford's southwest corner, the property is bordered on two sides by 12.6 acres of conservation land that was purchased along with the farmhouse, and the future 7-mile Bruce Freeman bicycle trail is on the west side. The town will retain the conservation land, which is open to residents for passive recreational activities.

The house sits on a plot of overgrown shrubs, with a split-rail fence that bows when the gate swings. Sheehan pointed to the Norway and sugar maple, American elm, mulberry, and weeping willow trees on the property. Purple asters contrast with the overgrown grassy field, and here and there, milkweed, loosestrife, tall reed, and daisy-like wildflowers adorn the open space.

In June, Forbes, who has meticulously chronicled the home's history, submitted an application to the National Register, a federal program designed to preserve historic and archeological resources. Chelmsford has four properties on the register.

The farm was founded by Richard Hildreth, who built the original farmhouse sometime in the early 1700s, said Forbes.

''The . . . absolutely extraordinary feature is . . . Sarah Hildreth writing her name in chalk on the ceiling joists" in an upstairs bedroom, said Forbes, referring to Hildreth's granddaughter, who inherited the property when she turned 24 in 1770. ''It's a signature dating back two-and-a-quarter centuries."

Sarah married John Robbins III of South Chelmsford, and the couple sold the Hildreth-Robbins Home, as it is still known, in 1776. The property passed through several owners before Michael Bartleson, a doctor, purchased it in 1976. When Bartleson died in 2000, he left the property to his wife, Nancy, who sold it to the town three years later.

Through the centuries, there have been numerous additions, large and small, and today the house has five working fireplaces, five bedrooms, three bathrooms, a sunroom, and a four-stall barn. Architectural details include wide pineboard flooring, horsehair plaster walls, and original iron-hinged latches.

The center entrance and chimney are slightly off line, with two windows flanking the front door, and five running across the front on the second floor, typical of the architectural style for that period, said Frederick Lyman, president of Winchester-based American Landmarks, a real estate company specializing in sales of historic and period properties.

''Early Georgian houses weren't always symmetrical because they often grew," he said. ''The original house could have been a single-room house that then grew laterally."

Lyman, who has restored seven historic homes, said that restoring an old house ''takes a lot more physical and mental energy than you'd think. But I find it very satisfying. When you can take a house that's down on its heels and gone through neglect, and bring it back to its full measure of historic value, it's incredibly satisfying."

Lawlor said bringing a historic house up to the standards of today is extremely challenging, because the main beam often has been weakened through haphazard renovations, or because the construction of earlier eras was flawed.

''We know that anywhere there's plumbing, somebody's done something they shouldn't have," he said. ''These are the tip of the iceberg of problems with renovating older homes."

The deadline for bidding on the property is Nov. 21 at 10 a.m., when Town Manager Bernard Lynch will read bids publicly at the Town Offices.

While the $160,000 starting price is much lower than the median price of $380,000 for a single-family home in Chelmsford, Lyman said that ''a location next to conservation land can bring the price up.

''I wouldn't necessarily disagree with [town officials] that the price could be driven up by a low asking price. . . . I'll often advise sellers not to be terribly aggressive on the asking price because putting it on with a reasonable price can attract buyers," Lyman said. ''If you can get two buyers who are interested, they can drive the price up."

The overall 13.9-acre property was purchased for $730,000, mostly with a $580,000 grant from the state's Route 3 North Land Conservation Grant Program, designed to compensate communities most affected by the Route 3 expansion. The town borrowed the remaining $150,000, and Sheehan said officials hope to at least break even.

The land is a precious commodity in a 23-square-mile community with almost 13,000 households. Defining the abutting conservation land is a series of crisscrossing streams, creating soggy and forested wetland areas. These areas could serve as outdoor laboratories for elementary students of the Byam School, located next to the property.

''In spite of needing some work," said Forbes, ''it's an extraordinary example of 18th-century architecture with a wealth of intact detail in a beautiful setting."