Saving Elsineas?


Public interest paused a planned demolition Sunday of a historic tea house on the campus of the Landmark School in Manchester.  The school, lacking funds but eager for a solution, said it would halt movement on its plans to raze the dilapidated, circular structure while those expressing interest in saving it explore options to do so.

Even in its current state, abutting a small parking lot at the entrance of the staff dormitory campus, the early 20th Century granite masonry tea house remains elegant.  The former glass windows are long gone, the main circular salon still has a dramatic inlaid granite and marble star, and the massive carved soapstone mantle over the fireplace is stunning.  David Selter, Landmark director of facilities, said he’s wanted to save the structure for 21 years.  But it’s an expensive proposition rife with regulatory hurdles requiring resources, expertise, and partnerships the school doesn’t have.  Furthermore, its outside its mission to educate students.

Called “Elsineas,” the tea house was built to entertain, situated in the substantial estate garden of Mr. and Mrs. William Hooper, who live there from about 1900.  And entertain it did.  William Hooper was a Harvard classmate and close friend of Theodore Roosevelt, and entertained accordingly.  Besides Roosevelt, visitors of the estate included, according to articles in the Manchester Cricket archive, Ellery Sedgwick, editor of the Atlantic Monthly; JP Morgan, the financier; Charles Francis Adams, Secretary of the Navy under President Coolidge; William Phillips ambassador in Italy; the historian Frederick Jackson Turner; novelist Owen Wister; archaeologist Thomas Whittemore; and Isabella Stewart Gardner (who apparently always requested baked potatoes and sausage).  Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes was another friend and frequent guest.

Gertrude Bell, the noted English traveler and geographer once remarked that “Elsie’s house,” was,  “the only salon in Massachusetts.”  

Mrs. Hooper lived in the house until 1945, and was greatly interested in education.  She was an early advocate of educating women.  Following her death, Mrs. Hooper’s niece, Mrs. William S. Youngman inherited the house.  The Youngman family used it for several years as a summer residence, and in 1973 the family donated the estate to the then-new Landmark School to honor Mrs. Hooper’s interest in education.

Even with immense will, the path to save Elsineas is a big challenge.  Manchester Town Planner Sue Brown became the point person last week to figure out a last-minute strategy to assemble interest in restoring the building, or reclaiming the pieces and assembling it elsewhere.  She contacted Selter, who reported all he knew, including his history of trying to find takers for the parts and pieces of the beautiful building.  But even “free,” he said, the Tea House requires significant investment to disassemble and transport to willing buyers.  As a short-term solution, Selter said, simply restoring the structure’s roof and windows could halt degradation of the structure.  But Landmark is not interested in an endless search for solutions.  Decision time is upon them.

Last week, days before demolition was scheduled, Brown reached out to interested local organizations, including the Manchester Historical Museum, the North Shore Horticultural Society, the Manchester Garden Club, the Manchester Historic District Commission and the Community Preservation Committee (CPC) that is charged with disbursing local state monies for open space, recreation, community housing, and historic preservation.

Complete restoration of Elsineas could easily run into millions of dollars.  Temporary solutions could run as low as $100,000. 

The fundamental question is whether private or town interests will step in to lead the solution.  Many point to the CPC for help, as it’s the committee’s mission to preserve historically significant places in town and it is able to fund private property projects. 

Community Preservation Committee Chairman Jack Burke said the tea house restoration, theoretically, could be supported with CPC funds, but there are many hurdles to overcome.  He said, like any project, it must be sponsored by a town historic organization such as the Historic District Commission and the owner of the property must deed restrict the restored property for public access and use, then an application must be made with the CPC, and if it is supported by the CPC whatever budget they provide for the restoration must be approved by voters at Town Meeting.

The CPC has funded town-owned restoration such as Crowell Chapel ($500,000); the Town Common ($250,000); and the Tucks Point Chowder House ($350,000).  Private projects are subject to more scrutiny, and less financial support, such as Manchester Historical Museum renovation ($40,000) and the First Parish Church cupula ($30,000).