IN THE LATE 1800s, wealthy people would travel in the summer from Boston to the rural Worcester County town of Petersham for fresh air, tennis, croquet, and views of Mount Wachusett. Often, they stayed at the Nichewaug Inn.
When the original stately hotel burned down, a new one was built in its place in 1899. When it closed for good, the campus became a religious high school for girls, the Academy of the Sisters of Maria Assumpta.
Today, 40 years after the last users abandoned it, the end is near for the Nichewaug Inn. The once-elegant hotel, now a decrepit shell of its former self, is slated to be demolished. Years of attempts to save the landmark inn have come to naught.
The Nichewaug saga stands as a cautionary tale of the strong headwinds often faced in trying to preserve historic, but aging, structures, especially in places with weaker real estate markets. Those fighting to save the inn found themselves trying to preserve an enormous building in a small town that had limited municipal capacity to steer a big development project. Without a booming economy to lure buyers, multiple attempts to repurpose the property failed. The efforts have sparked acrimonious debate among town residents, including accusations that the select board chair who pushed for demolition of the inn had a conflict of interest.
The poisonous atmosphere became too much for Jane Lynch Gilbert, the clerk of the Nichewaug Inn and Academy Committee, a group formed by the town to explore options for the property. She said she resigned last fall after being “verbally accosted” at a public meeting and spoken to in a way that was “derogatory and nasty.”
Before the situation frayed to that point, Erin Kelly, executive director of Preservation Massachusetts, said there was a time when she and others hoped the building would “rise like a phoenix from the ashes.” But historic rehabilitation money is difficult to come by and it never happened. “Massachusetts is full of historic buildings, and their maintenance and upkeep takes a lot of time and effort,” Kelly said.
Kelly said a confluence of factors help explain why a building like the Nichewaug couldn’t be preserved. “You can say it was a large building, you have a small community, rehabilitation is expensive,” Kelly said. “You have to find someone willing to take on a project, to find funding for a project, to find a reuse that the community wants to see. It’s really hard.”
Preservation efforts in other small communities often come up against the same forces, with a little bit of our past lost each time one of those attempts falls short.
A ‘WHITE ELEPHANT’
In its heyday, the Nichewaug Inn was a grand, three-story, 100,000-square-foot wooden building, sitting on 6.6 acres of land. When they took it over, the Sisters of Maria Assumpta built a separate brick building on the site in 1952 as an addition to the inn, which was used for classrooms. The site is in the Petersham Common Historic District, on the north end of the village green in the center of town.
A public information packet prepared for a town meeting vote last December on the inn’s fate included photographs showing the site today as an abandoned, derelict property. Windows are boarded and broken, shingles are weathered, and boards are falling off the exterior. The inside is littered with broken furniture and debris, floorboards are missing, walls and paint are peeling, ceilings are rotted, and entire hallways are cordoned off deemed too dangerous to enter. Bedroom wallpaper still decorates a wall, but it is moldy and peeling. A basement in the academy building is flooded.
How the Nichewaug got to this point is a tale that spans decades. The girls academy closed in 1972, and the Sisters of Maria Assumpta left by the 1980s. Since then, it has largely sat empty, with five different owners since 1982. In 2003, Preservation Massachusetts listed the Nichewaug Inn as one of the state’s ten most endangered historic resources. In 2007, the town of Petersham obtained the property from its last private owner, which had acquired it after a foreclosure, in an arrangement designed to give the town more control over its fate.
According to the public information packet prepared by the select board, the town has spent over $600,000 on the building since 2007, cleaning it up and removing hazardous materials. In 2015, voters at town meeting rejected a proposal to demolish it. Over the years, several proposals have been made to repurpose the space, but none have moved forward.
In 2016, Concord Square Planning and Development, a Boston-based real estate firm hired by the town, wrote a 154-page market and feasibility analysis exploring six options for redeveloping the site into housing. These included renovating the buildings, demolishing some buildings, and demolishing all the buildings, and constructing anywhere from four single family homes to 29 apartment units. Financially, the report found only one of the plans – redeveloping the inn and academy building into 29 units – would likely be profitable. But even that analysis assumed that construction costs were lower and sale prices higher than what could realistically be expected.
Ted Carman, president of Concord Square Planning, said the biggest problem is that Petersham is far from any job centers, so property values are low and developers would be hard-pressed to recoup the money they put into redeveloping the site. From the inn, which sits just east of the Quabbin Reservoir, it is a 45-minute drive to Worcester in one direction and 35 minutes to Amherst in the other.
“In terms of places where there’s no economic activities, it’s sort of ground zero in this state,” Carman said.
“Aesthetically, it would be wonderful for the town if it was kept,” Carman said. “But the problem is you have to have someone who’s willing to make the investment to make it happen.”
Dale Gienapp, a Danvers-based architect, surveyed the building in 2014 on behalf of a developer who wanted to redevelop the property as housing. According to a timeline written by the town officials, voters rejected the proposal along with others made at the same time. Gienapp said part of the challenge is the nature of the public procurement process. If the land were privately owned, he said it would be easier for a developer to form a relationship with the owner and investigate the property before moving forward.
“Because the public procurement process is the way it is, someone individually has to invest a lot of time and money on their own behalf to figure out what the property is worth and what the potential is, to then blindly put in a competitive bid, of which they don’t know what their odds are of winning the project and whether the town will proceed,” Gienapp said. “You have to invest an awful lot, buy the property, and take a huge risk to find out if it can be done or not.”
Gienapp, who has worked on other historical preservation projects, says denser towns that need the land are often under more pressure to sell a vacant property. That is not the case in a place like Petersham, which has available land.
Henry Woolsey was the town’s point person on the Nichewaug Inn as a selectman from 2015 to August 2021. The frustration that came with that was enough to help drive him out of office. Woolsey said the Nichewaug is similar to other aging large buildings in Western Massachusetts in need of repurposing. “The economic uses just aren’t there. It’s cheaper to build anew,” he said.
“It’s sort of a white elephant,” Woolsey said of the ramshackle behemoth. “We’re a small town of 1,200 people. This was a 100,000 square-foot building. We have no town water, no town sewer.” With no town planner or economic development coordinator, Woolsey said Petersham doesn’t have the capacity of larger municipalities to focus on redevelopment. Woolsey said a major reason he left the select board is because of the all the time consumed in dealing with the Nichewaug Inn. “I had enough of it,” he said. “We just couldn’t find a path forward.”
SENIOR HOUSING SOLUTION
Jim Moseley, a neighbor of the property, worked with the head of the Petersham Board of Assessors to distribute a petition to residents in 2021 asking for the Nichewaug’s demolition. More than 140 residents signed it. Since he moved to town in 2016, Moseley attended numerous meetings where people made different proposals and expressed different views about future uses for the property. “As we continued to examine them, we found that none of them really were economically feasible,” Moseley said. “They were great ideas – let’s have an arts center, an education center…but they didn’t fly in terms of finding someone who wanted to make the investment and do it.”
Moseley said after a time, the issue “began to cycle around and around without any resolution.” He concluded that it was time for a town vote.
Yet some say town officials gave up too soon.
For Stephanie Selden, a Petersham resident opposed to the demolition, the inn and its grounds held the potential to address a desperate need for senior housing in Petersham. Selden said many seniors cannot maintain the large houses that make up Petersham’s housing stock, and much of Petersham’s land is protected for conservation, leaving few options for older adults.
Selden and a group of residents came up with a $20 million plan to redevelop all the buildings on the site into senior housing, with some affordable units that would make it eligible for state grants. The Nichewaug Inn, she said, could become a “perfect Norman Rockwell opportunity” for seniors to live within walking distance to the library, country store, town common, town hall, and two churches.
Selden framed the dispute as one between residents who see a need for senior housing, and those who do not want the town to grow. “It’s been a tug of war between those interests,” Selden said.
Selden’s group is not the only one that landed on the idea for senior housing. Separately, the Nichewaug Inn and Academy Committee, a group created by town government, released a proposal in October 2021 to demolish the academy building but retain most of the historic inn, and use the site to build senior housing and a senior center.
Ann Lewis, who chaired the Nichewaug Inn and Academy Committee, said the group felt that any successful plan needed to be smaller than the various plans that had been proposed previously by Selden and others. But she agreed with Selden that there is a need for senior housing in the center of town, since for years, elderly residents have been moving away when they could no longer live safely in a large home or drive.
The Select Board, however, did not support either plan.
At December’s town meeting, three articles on the town warrant asked voters whether they supported total demolition or partial demolition of different parts of the site. Partial demolition was favored by the Nichewaug Inn and Academy Committee. The select board recommended total demolition.
In the board’s presentation, they wrote that thousands of hours and lots of money have been put into trying to redevelop the site over 40 years. “There has been zero success,” the board wrote. “As the 40 year timeframe has proven, at about 100,000 s.f. the building is too large for reasonable, successful redevelopment for our town/region.” The board argued that the town cannot continue to spend money on maintenance and safety concerns, and the police and fire departments have both said it needs to be demolished.
“The current failing and dangerous building conditions are putting this town at extraordinary risk,” the board wrote in a report to voters.
Moseley said the problem with the idea for senior housing was that “none of their proposals were feasible financially or physically.” He argued that the inn was in ruinous shape and would be difficult to rebuild, and it was still unclear how much interest there would be in senior housing, who would invest the money to build it, and how the investor would profit.
Residents at the town meeting, which was held in person, voted in favor of the warrant article supporting total demolition, at a cost of $721,000. According to the Athol Daily News, the vote was 143-31 for total demolition, exceeding the two-thirds vote necessary to approve the motion. The town voted to borrow the money for the tear-down, rejecting proposals to use federal COVID recovery aid for it. After that article passed, there was no vote on the articles asking about partial demolition.
SMALL TOWN POLITICS
Further fueling tensions in the drawn-out battle over the inn has been controversy over the role of the three-member select board and, in particular, its chair, Nancy Allen. Allen, who has been a vocal advocate of demolition, lives next to the Nichewaug Inn site. Some of those who worked to preserve the property say she should have recused herself from participating in the Nichewaug debates and votes.
Michele Cahill, a former Petersham resident who has remained active in efforts to preserve the inn, said Allen simply didn’t want senior housing “in her backyard.” If the inn is demolished with no plans to replace it, Cahill said, the site would be left as green space indefinitely.
Gilbert, the Nichewaug Inn and Academy Committee clerk, said she felt the select board simply ignored the committee’s recommendations for senior housing, and Allen “worked very diligently to not allow it to succeed.”
“It’s just sad that somebody who has a vested interest in having a large plot of land adjacent to her property took such a stand to have it demolished, when she shouldn’t have been talking about it at all,” Gilbert said.
Allen did not respond to multiple attempts to reach her by phone and email at her house and at the town office. The other two select board members also could not be reached.
Opponents of the demolition say Allen, as an abutter to the property, acted improperly in pushing for and voting for demolition of inn. When Woolsey was on the board, Allen recused herself from votes related to the property. But when another abutter to the property replaced Woolsey on the three-member board, the new member and Allen invoked the “rule of necessity” to vote on matters relating to the Nichewaug, including calling the special town meeting and recommending demolition. That rule in state law allows an elected official with a conflict of interest to vote on the matter in limited circumstances when it is legally necessary for an elected board to act.
Opponents say demolishing the Nichewaug was not an emergency and it was not legally necessary for the select board to act, so Allen should not have voted.
In their report on the inn, the select board acknowledged that two board members are abutters. What’s more the board noted that all three candidates who ran to replace Woolsey were abutters to the inn. Meanwhile, the third board member is a firefighter, and the town fire department also advocated for demolition, citing the safety risk should a fire break out in the massive wooden structure. The board said that the likelihood of an emergency like a roof collapse made the vote time-sensitive – a claim the opponents say should not have been made without an opinion from a structural engineer.
It is not clear whether Allen sought an opinion from the State Ethics Commission before voting on Nichewaug-related issues. Opponents said complaints with the commission have been filed against her. The State Ethics Commission has not taken any public enforcement actions involving Allen, and a commission spokesperson could not confirm or deny whether the commission is reviewing the matter.
There is no plan for how the site will be used after the buildings are demolished, which has been another point of concern. “My point all along was let’s figure out what we’re doing here before we bring in the wrecking ball,” Woolsey said.
Without a clear plan, Moseley said he hopes that demolishing the inn will at least prompt a fresh conversation in town on the whole range of options that have been proposed, from recreational parks to housing developments. “There’s a general sense in town that we can stand back, look at the empty canvas, and start discussions about what should we do,” Moseley said.
Kelly, of Preservation Massachusetts, said it will surely be an emotional time for advocates and residents who have discussed, debated, and lived next to the property for decades. She said it is sad anytime a historic building is demolished, especially one as iconic as the Nichewaug Inn. “It’s definitely not for lack of trying,” Kelly said of the years of preservation efforts to have the story end differently.