Country Gazette

‘Sharon couple restoring Wrentham’s Proctor Mansion as Inn’

By Heather McCarron / Staff Writer

From the moment Brian and Dawn Fitzgerald first set eyes on the grand Victorian mansion facing the town common, with a tantalizing “For Sale” sign posted in front of its dilapidated, unhinged gate, they began hatching plans.

It seemed like fate.

The Sharon couple, already the proprietors of the historic Admiral Fitzroy Inn in Newport, R.I., had been thinking about possibly buying another historic property to turn into an inn, and then the Wrentham mansion practically fell into their laps.

“We were just driving by and we saw the ‘For Sale’ sign,” said Brian Fitzgerald, recently standing in a front parlor of the mansion under a 146-year-old ceiling decorated with delicate, handpainted swags of roses. “We purchased it last spring.”

Now the couple, both with backgrounds as electrical engineers, is in the midst of an extensive restoration project to bring the slowly deteriorating mansion back to its original grandeur. Their hope: To transform the elegant home into the Thomas Proctor Inn, the town’s first country inn since voters added the use to the zoning bylaws around 1995.

“Dawn and I have this vision of making this property into a very elegant Victorian inn,” Brian said, walking from the parlor into the entry hall, then further into the ballroom with its elaborate plasterwork of acanthus leaves and tall, sunlit windows.

The Fitzgeralds have applied for a country inn permit from the town, and their plan is under consideration by the Planning Board. So far, they said, they’ve been welcomed by the town.

“We’ve been very warmly received by the people in town. We want people to know we’re going to do good by them,” said Brian.

“We’ve very excited,” added Dawn.

The couple’s chosen name for their Wrentham inn pays homage to the man who had the second empire French Victorian mansion, with mansard roof, built in 1861-1862. Thomas Proctor made his fortune as president and CEO of the American Screw Co., after patenting a process for making gimlet tip, or pointed, screws.

“I think it’s important we go back to the original owner rather than subsequent owners,” said Brian.

Over the years, care of the Proctor mansion was passed mostly between two families. After Proctor, Daniel Brown, a local straw bonnet manufacturer, owned the home, which then passed into the care of his daughter Grace and her husband Ernest Hall, then on to their daughter, Hope, and in around 1993 on to Paul Minkin and his family, until finally falling to the Fitzgeralds.

“For a long time it only had really two family ownerships between the Proctors and the Browns and the descendants of the Browns,” said state Rep. Richard Ross, R-Wrentham, a town historian and owner of the Ross Funeral Home on South Street, a slightly smaller, more feminine version of the main mansion which Thomas Proctor had built as a wedding present for his daughter Emma, and her husband, Henry Fisher.

Hope Hall spent her life as a resident of the Proctor mansion, caring for her sister, Janet, who had cerebral palsy. Short on funds, the sisters at one time took in boarders, and finally closed most of the house while living in part of the first floor.

Without the financial resources of past owners, the home began to fall into disrepair. Then the Minkins came along and began to work toward a restoration.

“Paul Minkin did a lot of structural reconstruction, which I’m now doing more of,” said Brian.

Even as he spoke, rotted wood on a side porch of the house was being removed and replaced with new wood, while the ballroom, with its original textured wallpaper, awaited attention, its floor spread with drop cloths, a makeshift work table and supplies.

“We are going to make it as authentic as we possibly can, to as close as possible to when Thomas Proctor was here,” he said.

“If we can save what’s original (to the house), that’s our goal,” added Dawn, but acknowledged that won’t be possible in places where rot and other deterioration makes it impossible to restore.

But the overall vision is clear.

“Our vision here is to restore the house to add to the ambiance of the town center,” Brian said. “So when you walk into this home, you feel like you’re walking into a throwback to the 1860s.”

The Fitzgeralds said they feel a duty to be true to the home’s past.

“My wife and I look at it as the fact that we’re caretakers of the property, not really the owners,” said Brian. “We want to do right by it.”

“There’s an obligation that comes with this house,” agreed Dawn.

She said people have been curious about the work the couple is doing, and the Fitzgeralds have been more than happy to let them have a look for themselves.

“People come by and we’ve shown them around, because it’s to be shared,” said Dawn.

The couple has a four-phase restoration plan, and they hope to open with three bedrooms as soon as this summer and begin establishing their business — they’ve already received requests to hold two weddings at the mansion.

“With phase one, we want to get our feet wet,” said Brian. “Then in phase two we’d go from renting three rooms to six or seven.”

Phase two would be about a year way, he said. In the third phase, room availability would expand up to 11 or 12. The fourth phase, four years from now, would see the addition of a small restaurant.

“We have a lot of restoration to do and I want to take the time to do it correctly,” Brian said.

Besides restoring the mansion’s interior, Dawn said they are also excited about restoring the English gardens that once graced the back portion of the 2.3-acre property. An inventory of plants and flowers still growing there is taking place now.

“It’s going to take some research and some time (to restore the gardens),” said Dawn.

The Fitzgeralds aren’t the only ones excited about restoring the Proctor mansion.
Ross said he, like many others in town, is “absolutely thrilled.”

“This is probably one of the seven best Victorians of this period in the nation. It has all the original elements,” said Ross.

He calls the  Fitzgeralds’ project “a great endeavor.”

“I’m excited for them and I’m excited for the town,” he said.

Wrentham Historic Commission Chairman Greg Stahl shares the sentiment.

“Everybody in town is pretty excited about the possibilities of their business,” he said. “They seem to have a really good restoration plan and a good business plan … We know it’s a very ambitious project and we just wish them all the best.”

As they continue with their project, Dawn said the couple would love to see any historic photos people may have of the home, inside and out, as well as the families that lived there. Seeing items purchased at the auction following Hope Hall’s death would also be a thrill, she said.

“We want to have a history book here, too, that collects as much as we can of this home’s history,” she said.