Owner, officials at odds over Wheeler Revival Mansion in Orange


Staff Writer

Published: 02-10-2023 5:04 PM

ORANGE — The California transplant who bought the North Quabbin region’s only Gilded Age mansion in July 2020 is at odds with her town over requirements to open the structure she is trying to bring back to its former glory.

Cynthia Butler has expressed frustration over the length of time it is taking to open the Wheeler Revival Mansion for business and what she perceives as a lack of guidance from town officials.

“I’ve been trying to navigate opening a business for, now, two years,” she told the Greenfield Recorder this week. “I can’t go another year spending money and not being able to make money.”

Butler, who lives in the East Main Street mansion, attended the Selectboard’s meeting on Wednesday, when Building Commissioner Jeffrey Cooke and Fire Chief James Young were asked for an update on the project. Butler was the last of the three to speak and mentioned she had a lot to say but needed time to process the comments made by Cooke and Young because “there was a lot of misinformation in that delivery.” She has stated she hopes to open the mansion this year for events and retreats, with a boutique bar and hedge maze.

Cooke told the Selectboard he went to the mansion to meet with Butler, Young and Butler’s new architect on Jan. 30, and he felt it “went very well,” noting his confidence in the architect’s abilities.

He said Butler last year decided she wanted the venue to have a bar, which requires off-street parking. Cooke argued it is physically impossible to provide enough parking, meaning a variance would be required. A viable option, he said, is for Butler to lease parking spaces from Athol Credit Union, which has an ATM on the other side of the street as the mansion.

Young, appearing via Zoom, said public safety is any fire department official’s top priority.

“The fire codes, the building codes, as Jeff Cooke mentioned, are born out of tragedy. Some really bad stuff has happened in the past,” Young said, referring to Cooke’s mentioning of the 2003 Station nightclub fire in Rhode Island that killed 100 people and the Cocoanut Grove blaze that resulted in 492 deaths in Boston in 1942. “And as a fire official, or a building official, it’s our job to make sure history doesn’t repeat itself. That’s why these fire codes exist and that’s why we’re responsible for enforcing them.

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“I’ve heard several different variations of what this business or this building is supposed to be,” he added. “It has changed several times, so that it’s been difficult to provide accurate guidance as to what needs to be done, because each time we have a conversation it seems like there’s something added or something retracted, and it changes the project and it changes the code compliance ... to some extent.”

Butler shook her head in disagreement when Young said her plans have changed.

Young said he takes issue with events already being held in the mansion. Butler has held community Halloween and Christmas events as well as a paranormal investigation in 2021.

“Public events should not occur right now, in the current state of the building, the way the building exists,” Young said.

Selectboard members made it clear to Butler that they want the mansion to succeed but they must keep public safety in mind.

“I can’t name you one single person that isn’t hysterically excited about what this project had done, can do, will do for us,” Chair Jane Peirce said. “We are all completely on board with, ‘Let’s make this happen.’ But we understand that there are public safety issues, and the rules cannot be waived when there’s public safety (involved).”

Butler told the Recorder she feels she has wasted a year trying to navigate complicated codes. She said she understands she needs to overhaul the mansion’s fire sprinkler system.

“If I keep getting pushed back, I’m going to fold and I’m going to sell the building,” she said. “If people don’t work with you, it feels like they’re working against you.”

She mentioned she has taken down the mansion’s website and it will stay that way until there is a resolution. Following the meeting, she posted to the mansion’s Facebook page announcing she would be canceling all activities until further notice.

Selectboard Vice Chair Tom Smith, appearing via Zoom at Wednesday’s meeting, said he has known Butler since 2020 through his involvement with the Orange Merchants Group, and he wants the board to help get the mansion up and running.

“She’s a very hardworking, dedicated lady and she really wants to make a go of this,” Smith said.

John W. Wheeler, who made his fortune manufacturing and selling sewing machines and served as president of the New Home Sewing Machine Co., built the home in 1902 and 1903 for his wife, Almira.

Wheeler died in the building in 1910 and he deeded his home to the Order of the Eastern Star, a Masonic sisterhood. Then-Athol Daily News writer Allen Young reported the building was owned by the Eastern Star for much of the 20th century, serving as a home for its elderly members, who are said to have surrendered their wealth “in exchange for unparalleled comfort and care in their last days.” The Eastern Star closed the building in 1990, and Karen and Robert Anderson bought it from the Star Realty Trust for $240,000 in 1996, according to Young. The new owners had intended to open a bed-and-breakfast called Anderson Manor, but those plans never came to fruition.

The 15,406-square-foot brick mansion has eight bedrooms and five bathrooms, according to the real estate website Estately.com. The property includes roughly 2 acres.

Reach Domenic Poli at: dpoli@recorder.com or 413-930-4120.