Sale May Open Last Chapter for 1920s Mansion

By Maria Cramer
Boston Globe
January 1, 2004

From her window, Leslie Anderson occasionally would see a priest wandering the grounds of Our Lady's Hall with a golf club in hand.

"It would always be the same one, putting around," she said.

In the 20 years she has lived in Milton next to the elegant estate on Highland Street, Anderson said, she seldom saw its other residents, many of them priests who suffered from alcoholism and some who had been removed from their parishes following accusations of sexual abuse.

"If the place was loaded with priests who were child abusers, we never had a clue," she said. "I don't know what went on there."

Other Highland Street residents said they have paid little attention to the goings-on at the mansion, built in the late 1920s by Philip L. Spalding, president of the New England Telephone and Telegraph Company. Even the 1997 revelation that the house was used by the Archdiocese of Boston as a transitional home for priests accused of sexual misconduct did not generate shock waves in the affluent neighborhood.

And as a developer prepares plans that may include the demolition of the mansion, its possible destruction also appears to be eliciting muted reactions.

Thomas Corcoran, a well-known Milton developer, bought the estate from the archdiocese last month for $3.3 million, $1 million more than the property's assessed value.

Proceeds of the sale will go to the Clergy Medical and Pension Trust, church officials said.

Some neighbors said they knew too little to comment on the house's fate. One neighbor of Our Lady's Hall, who declined to give her name, said razing it may improve the property's image. "It's time to move on," she said.

Timothy Colton, who lived on Highland Street but moved to a new home in Milton a year ago, said most people ignore the mansion and are unlikely to miss it.

"People don't know it exists," he said. "So it's not a big deal. I guess the question would be more of an urban issue: Do you want more housing or not?"

Anderson said she would miss the mansion, which sits less than 50 yards from her house.

"Realistically, we all knew the property was up for sale and the likelihood of a family moving in and taking over was small," she said. "I wish it could stay the way it is."

The last time a priest lived in the house was at least 18 months ago, said the Rev. Christopher Coyne, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Boston.

Our Lady's Hall director, the Rev. Robert P. Beale, was suspended by the archdiocese in July 2002, following accusations he had sexually abused a minor in the 1970s. Coyne said Beale is still under investigation.

Corcoran was reluctant to discuss his plans for the 12.5-acre property, but saving the house does not make "economic sense," he said. "It's not zoned for condominiums," Corcoran said. "It's just too big a structure for a single residence, and it would need a lot of work."

On Dec. 19, Corcoran submitted plans to the Planning Board to build 10 lots on the property, said James G. Mullen Jr., Milton's town clerk and chairman of the Board of Selectmen. The house lots range in size from 43,088 square feet to 57,578 square feet, he said. "They"ll be huge. They'll be million-dollar homes," Mullen said.

Steven Crawford, Milton building commissioner, said a builder could ask the Zoning Board of Appeals for a permit to develop two to three condominiums in the mansion instead.

"I don't think anyone wants to see the building thrown away," he said. "Someone purchasing it may want to check their options before disposing of it."

Anthony M. Sammarco, a member of the Milton Historical Commission and author of "Milton Architecture," said he favors converting the mansion to residential housing. Losing the house and its elegant grounds would be "a travesty," he said.

"It would be very profitable for a developer to demolish the house and develop these multimillion-dollar trophy homes," Sammarco said, but such a move would erase part of Milton's architectural and cultural history. "It's a remnant of what was really quite a showpiece" from the 1920s, when many wealthy families built large estates around Boston, Sammarco said.

The house, a red brick Georgian revival-style mansion with a slate roof, is in remarkable condition, Sammarco said. And though the gardens are overrun by weeds, the original landscaping design remains.

"The architectural landscaping is just superb," he said.

Despite the indifferent reactions of some neighbors, Sammarco said, he is beginning to hear concerned questions from area residents. "It might be easier for a person to demolish a piece of property and `clean the slate,' but to clean the slate could be a loss to our architectural heritage," he said. "You can't foist onto a house what happened there, and say that by demolishing it you can eradicate what happened."

Globe researcher Robert W. Burke contributed to this report.

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