| Matt Rocheleau's Blog |

There’s more than meets the eye

Posted in Uncategorized by mrochele on January 4, 2009
Tom Maguire, The Sun Chronicle staff)

Brian and Dawn Fitzgerald are in the second phase of restoring Wrentham's Proctor Mansion, which was built in 1861 and is now an inn. (Courtesy: Tom Maguire, The Sun Chronicle staff)

Wrentham’s Proctor Mansion  Inn restored

On an assignment last Sunday, I visited The Proctor Mansion Inn in downtown Wrentham.

The Victorian-style building, that was in rough shape less than a decade ago, is being restored by local residents and owners Brian and Dawn Fitzgerald. The restoration began in the spring of 2007 and all major repairs are expected to be complete by 2010, the couple said. The inn welcomed its first guests in late September and currently have three bedrooms available to rent.

Besides people spending the night, the couple has hosted several small functions including the inn’s first Victorian tea party which was held while I visited the mansion and interviewed the Fitzgeralds.

I’m not normally one to care much about what made this building so special. I do not have much of a sense of appreciation for anything historic; nor does old, detailed architecture catch my eye. Fancy hand-painted walls and ceilings aren’t really my ‘cup of tea,’ and artwork often bores me.

However, as Brian Fitzgerald showed me around the 147-year-old building, built by wealthy entrepreneur Thomas Proctor, I was actually quite impressed.

It was not that I suddenly recognized some beauty for a collaboration of things that would normally  not care to see, but I immediately noticed that Fitzgerald and his wife had a genuine interest in the history of this building, and their stories drew me in.

On a historical tour, going from room-to-room I listened to some interesting tales Mr. Fitzgerald told me about what life might have been like when the house was built during the mid-1800s.

The Proctor Mansion Inn)

In the inn's formal dining room, the seat closest to the steam-heated fireplace was the warmest and where Thomas Proctor would have sat. Below the table was a small button he could tap to call one of his 10 servants. (Courtesy: The Proctor Mansion Inn)

For instance, beneath chair where Thomas Proctor would have sat at the dining room table, a small button was on the floor which Proctor could tap with his foot to call for one of his 10 servants who lived in the mansion.

Tom Maguire, The Sun Chronicle staff)

A room with a view One of the mansion’s bedrooms overlooks Wrentham Common and has a great view of the Original Congregational Church's steeple. (Courtesy: Tom Maguire, The Sun Chronicle staff)

Additionally, each bedroom had buttons which could be pressed to signal servants to their room. The buttons were hooked up to different bells with distinct sounds so the servants would instantly know which room was calling them, said Fitzgerald.

The quarantine room on the first floor was where sick people were kept and is where at least seven deaths and 12 births took place.

Many of the rooms have fireplaces which are not actually used for fires, but were built as a decoration and as a sign of wealth and social status. The fireplaces were, however, a source of steam heat.

The Proctor Mansion Inn)

A circular, red window at the rear of the Proctor Mansion may signify the house once participated in the Underground Railroad, speculated owner Brian Fitzgerald. (Courtesy: The Proctor Mansion Inn)

At the rear of the house between the second and third floors is a circular, red window. At the time when the home was built, colored glass and glass cut in a circle, or with rounded edges, was very expensive because they required a lot of skill to make. Because the window is in the back of the house, it is an odd location for such an expensive piece of glass to be displayed. Also, the house was build during the height of the Underground Railroad and red was a common color to signify where slaves fleeing from the South could seek shelter in safe houses. All of these factors caused Fitzgerald to speculate the home may have been a safe house at one time.

Fitzgerald also told me about how several documents and an old portrait of who is believed to be Thomas Proctor has been found beneath the floor boards during the restoration process.

One of the bedrooms has a special closet with about a dozen wooden bars running across the top which were used to hang gowns from women visiting the mansion for a ball. The women would have their dresses hung up so high to make sure they would stay clean and wrinkle-free as they put on their makeup and prepared for whatever the event would be in the ballroom downstairs, Fitzgerald said.

I was just awestruck by the a mount of research the Fitzgeralds must have done to know all they did about the house and the time when it was built. Every story and theory about what might have gone on nearly 150 years ago was captivating, which is saying a lot considering I’ve never enjoyed learning about history.

As we walked around the third floor and were wrapping up the tour, Fitzgerald got a call on his cellphone; the women who were having the tea party in the ballroom were now waiting in the parlor and ready to start their own tour of the mansion.

Tom Maguire, The Sun Chronicle staff)

The Proctor Mansion Inn's parlor showcases the style of furniture popular in the Victorian era and offers a view through arched doors to L'Enfant Ballroom, where a Victorian tea and historical tour were in progress. (Courtesy: Tom Maguire, The Sun Chronicle staff)

By that time, the photographer had already left to cover another assignment, and Fitzgerald had to go start the next tour. So, he told me I could go up the final set of stairs myself if I’d like.

I did, and it led me to a small, enclosed balcony-like room at the level of a fourth floor. Fitzgerald told me the room was known as a widow’s walk and the windows would often be opened  to cool the rest of the house in the summertime because it allowed the heat to escape.

The view was pretty cool as every wall had windows so you could look out in all directions. It was then I started to notice that I had surprisingly grown to appreciate this building that I never expected I would care for.

That moment reminded me why I enjoy journalism.

Even when you are assigned to cover a tea party at some old house in a small, country town in Massachusetts you can expect to be surprised and it may even turn out to be an experience you’ll remember for years to come.

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