In response to Cerny: White Cliffs proves to be historical landmark

Carter Brannon, Staff Writer

When I first heard that Ainsley Cerny was writing a column, “Letting go of the past,” to call for Northborough to demolish the White Cliffs mansion, I was confused but interested in what she had to say.  It had been a few years since the hot debates at the 2016 Annual Town Meeting, and I wanted to know what she came up with that makes her suggest giving up on the building after it was purchased.

Cerny’s column addresses one of the biggest concerns with The Town of Northborough buying up land: we are taking away land that can be developed and taxed.  The town is taking up useful downtown landfor the useless new park near the Civil War Memorial (that I refuse to call a town common), which was approved by the same Town Meeting that approved the purchase of the White Cliffs, and will soon be buying land for a new fire station.  I do agree that Northborough cannot afford take on expensive projects like the White Cliffs, a new fire station, and another downtown park whilst reducing tax revenue. We do also need land to be available for future development, but demolishing the White Cliffs to get this land is not a good option.

The Daniel Wesson House, also known as the White Cliffs, is an historic Queen Anne style mansion and notable Northborough landmark.  According to the Northborough Historical Commission’s Historic Asset Inventory, it was elaborately constructed in the 1880s by European craftsmen as a summer home for Daniel Wesson, co-founder of the Smith and Wesson gun company, and his wife Cynthia Hawes.  It included an impressive water supply system, some of the remains of which can still be seen today. Like most Northborough landmarks, it was severely damaged during the Hurricane of 1938, shortly after which it became the White Cliffs restaurant and function place until it closed in 2015 and was recently purchased by the town.

Demolishing the mansion and selling the land for development would not make sense for the town.  According to the town property records on the Patriot Properties website, the town purchased the property in 2017 for $1.75 million.  The rest of the $2.4 million appropriated at the 2016 Annual Town Meeting is for the studies and maintenance while the White Cliffs Committee works on figuring out what the town can do with the property.  To suggest that the property should be sold for development is absurd, as the town has spent that much money on the mansion.

Creating jobs and small business opportunities in Northborough is a noble idea, but at this point in time, lack of space is not the issue.  We have too many empty buildings to fill before building new ones becomes a reasonable idea. Recently constructed commercial properties, such as Northborough Crossing and the Hillside Grill plaza have struggled to be filled with businesses.  Older commercial buildings, such as the “old town hall” have also sat empty for years, waiting for businesses to come to town.

Keeping the mansion does not mean that the property surrounding it cannot be developed.  The land behind the mansion could be sold and built up while still preserving the manson and the aesthetically pleasing driveway and front lawn, allowing some of the land to be taxed once again, increasing revenue to the town.  This option also opens up good land to be developed for commercial, residential or mixed use, depending on the town’s future needs.

Cerny’s other suggestion is to demolish the mansion to create a public garden.  I assume this means creating something similar to Prospect Park, a park in Shrewsbury that, according to the Friends of Prospect Park website, was created in the gardens surrounding a historic building demolished in the 1970s.  Although a public garden might be lovely, I think the town has better open space priorities, such as protecting the recovering forests on the town’s borders.

The Wesson property once included large gardens with the mansion, although most of those gardens have been built over where Stratton Way and the office building at One East Main Street are now.  These gardens are gone, but the mansion still exists. It would be more useful to the town to keep the mansion instead of trying to recreate new gardens, as the beauty of the property is in the elaborate architectural art of the mansion.

Even if surrounded by less open space, the White Cliffs mansion can be a good asset to the town.  Several events can be hosted there, and the revenue can be used to cover much of the costs of restoration.  In addition to weddings, galas, and parties, our own school dances could be held there and offered at a lower cost than other venues, both saving the school groups money, and making the town money.  

The town should spend the money for structural repairs and lead paint and asbestos removal, so at least part of the mansion is available to be rented for events.  The town-owned property could be raising its own money for repairs, ideally becoming self-sufficient instead of relying on tax money. It is not yet clear how much money this project will require.

The town of Northborough does try to hold on to the past.  Many people do not like to see their town change too much. But we are a growing town, and the town will continue to change, for better or for worse, no matter what we do.  Protecting our landmarks, history, and traditions is important for the town to maintain much of its character, despite the inevitable changes.