The Boston Globe

September 11, 2008

Brian and Dawn Fitzgerald, Sharon residents who own and operate a bed and breakfast in Newport, R.I., are converting an 1861 Victorian mansion that overlooks the town common into a small hotel aimed at antique seekers and European bargain hunters.
In the process, they’re preserving a piece of local history that some feared would be lost permanently.
Thomas Proctor, a wealthy Providence hardware mogul, lived in the Common Street structure with his wife, a Wrentham native, for only a few years before his death in 1865. Ownership then passed to another well-heeled Wrentham family, descendants of whom lived in the house until 1991.
The 8,700-square-foot building was then willed to local churches, but it had already fallen into disrepair. A buyer made some initial repairs but then abandoned the project, and the Fitzgeralds purchased the property in April of last year. After tens of thousands of dollars of restoration work, three rooms are now ready for guests, and the Proctor Mansion Inn is on track to host a grand opening on Sept. 27.
“I’ll be restoring this building 20 years from now, because there’s always going to be something that needs restoration,” Brian Fitzgerald said.
Greg Stahl, the chairman of Wrentham’s Historical Commission, said the mansion is “probably the most impressive building site in Wrentham.” The structure needed such extensive restoration in part because its last residents were two sisters who lived out their old age in the house and didn’t make many repairs, he said. However, he added, that’s also why the interior of the house is so well-preserved.
The sisters didn’t change any of its historic elements, Stahl said, “but then they didn’t do much of anything either.”
Fitzgerald said the home is one of only about 10 of its kind in the country with the interior intact.
“When you step into the home it’s like stepping back 150 years to the wealth of the Victorian age,” he said. “If you stayed at the Proctor Mansion Inn, you would get an idea what it would be like to live in 1861, except the beds will be queen-sized.”
Stahl said he had feared the local landmark would never be restored.
“We were very worried that the wrong person was going to get it and demolish the house,” he said.
State Representative Richard J. Ross is a longtime Wrentham resident who owns a South Street property that Proctor built for his daughter in 1867. He described the building, which he inherited from his parents and where he operates a funeral home, as “just as elegant” as the property around the corner on Common Street, “but more diminutive.”
Ross said he and his wife looked into buying the mansion in the early 1990s, and recalled that it had captured his imagination even when he was a child.
“Everybody in town always had a dream of somehow getting in and getting a tour,” Ross said. “For all of us as kids growing up, it was always kind of a mystery. It had kind of a Halloween feeling. I think we all had ideas of what it looked like inside.”
Peeks inside aren’t a rare treat anymore. Fitzgerald said he invites anyone who sees his white minivan at the property to stop in for an “impromptu tour.”
Fitzgerald and his wife have owned the 17-room Admiral Fitzroy Inn in Newport since 2006. Rooms there rent for as much as $330 per night, but Fitzgerald said stays at the Wrentham inn will cost between $100 and $200 per night.
Many of Fitzgerald’s guests in Newport hail from Europe, and he said they “invariably” ask how to get to the Wrentham Village Premium Outlets to take advantage of the weak dollar. Fitzgerald expects visitors with similar interests to form a large chunk of his guests in Wrentham, along with people hunting for antiques and those who simply admire Victorian architecture. He said there is also a market for guests attending local weddings, and adult children visiting their parents in nearby nursing homes.
The Proctor Mansion Inn will eventually offer 11 or 12 rooms, Fitzgerald said. He also has plans to convert the site’s 4,500-square-foot carriage house into a fine-dining restaurant.
Fitzgerald said he and his wife – both former high-tech workers – haven’t ruled out adding a third Victorian mansion to their holdings.
“High tech’s wonderful, but you get this high-tech gadget that beats the world on day one, and 10 days later it’s obsolete,” he said, explaining why he changed careers. “There’s nothing lasting about it,” unlike the Proctor residence.
“This property is significant,” he said. “It’s going to outlast me, and it’s going to be a piece of history. It’s a legacy.”