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WEYMOUTH

Town buys $1.9m estate

Aims to preserve views at Emery

The 1903 Emery mansion in Weymouth Heights was designed to look like George Washington’s Mount Vernon. The 1903 Emery mansion in Weymouth Heights was designed to look like George Washington’s Mount Vernon. (James Clarke)
By Johanna Seltz
Globe Correspondent / July 14, 2011

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Weymouth is buying the Emery Estate, a 1903 mansion designed to look like George Washington’s Mount Vernon and set on 24 hilltop acres overlooking Boston Harbor.

The $1.9 million expense will be paid through the town’s Community Preservation Act fund, money that comes from a 1 percent surtax on real estate bills plus a contribution from the state. The town plans to borrow the money and pay it back over 10 years, according to planning director James Clarke. Closing is scheduled for Aug. 5, he said.

The purchase comes at the same time that Milton is selling its 34-acre historic poor farm to a private developer, and Dedham is looking for ways to make its town-owned Endicott Estate less of a financial drain.

Clarke said it’s unclear what Weymouth will do with the Emery Estate, a secluded site on top of King Oak Hill, about a mile south of Great Hill with a view of Massachusetts Bay and the Boston skyline. Those details will be worked out with community input, he said.

Town officials “certainly want to see it used by the public, and the house maintained and available to the public,’’ he said. “In general, our intent is to preserve the scenic views and the wooded area.’’

He said part of the impetus to buy the land was to prevent it from being developed. The mostly wooded site has very little ledge or wetlands and, under Weymouth zoning, could become a 28-lot subdivision, he said.

Weymouth’s Town Council voted unanimously last month to buy the property, “which doesn’t happen too often on big things like this,’’ Clarke said. “That tells you what the community thinks of the property; there’s nothing else like it in Weymouth.’’

The property had been in the Emery family - prominent wool merchants - since the early 1900s. Allan Comstock Emery Jr. was living there at his death, at the age of 91, last September. His estate gave the town first shot at buying the property, Clarke said.

“We felt that it was an opportunity not to be missed,’’ he said.

Some residents had urged Town Council to pass up the opportunity, saying it was too expensive and the town has trouble maintaining the parks and open space it currently owns.

“It’s a waste of money, a giveaway to the estate,’’ said Irving Murstein. “And that’s only the beginning. You have to fix the place up, make it accessible. It’s a boondoggle that will go on for 10 years. The estate could have donated the land to the town.’’

Murstein said he was particularly upset that the town was paying almost twice the property’s $987,000 tax valuation. A private appraiser hired by the town set the development value at $1.975 million, according to Clarke.

Other residents, including a representative from the North Weymouth Civic Association, supported the purchase. Mayor Sue Kay also endorsed the project, calling it a great chance to preserve one of the last big pieces of open space in town, and one with phenomenal views that the public finally would be able to enjoy.

“It’s very private,’’ Clarke said. “Unless you grew up [nearby] and as a young child you snuck up there, you haven’t been there.’’

(For many years, high school students in the Weymouth Bible Club did go to the house for Thursday night meetings, according to Emery’s obituary.)

Clarke said about 5 acres of the property are open space - the lawn in front of the Georgian Revival house - and the rest is wooded. The entire site sits on top of King Oak Hill, a glacial drumlin. The spot is centrally located, close to Town Hall, Legion Park, and the Abigail Adams birthplace, he said.

Besides the main house, there is a carriage house, garage, and children’s playhouse.

The eight-bedroom house, which has about 4,000 square feet of space, is structurally sound and, except for some peeling paint, is “in pretty good shape,’’ Clarke said.

He said the town plans to hire a consultant to do a market study to determine what might succeed at the site. Town officials also are contacting similar places, including the Endicott Estate, to see how they operate, Clarke said.

“A lot of times you can come up with wonderful ideas, but if you can’t make them happen it’s not very useful,’’ he said.

Among the uses that have been discussed already are walking trails, educational programs, conferences, and weddings, he said.

“Everything is on the list at this point. Maybe we could find some private entity that would maintain it - a bed and breakfast or a small restaurant - and the public [would] still have access to it,’’ he said.

Clarke said the town also is working out how much it will cost to maintain the property and whether the money could come from the Community Preservation Act fund. The account has about $718,000 available currently and expects to collect another $686,000 in local taxes next fiscal year, and $150,000 from the state, he said.

Clarke said the town originally estimated it would cost about $50,000 a year to maintain the Emery Estate, but that figure is being refined.

The Binnian family originally owned the property, but sold it within a few years to the Emery family, Clarke said.

Allan Comstock Emery Jr. grew up in the house and graduated from Weymouth High School. A Coast Guard veteran of World War II, he worked in the family woolen business and later with ServiceMaster Industries in Illinois. After retirement, he lived in Florida and Weymouth and was active in the Billy Graham Evangelical Association and other Christian organizations.

For 33 years, he and his wife, Marian, hosted high school students from the Weymouth Bible Club at their home on Thursday nights - which “gave him the greatest joy,’’ according to his obituary.

Johanna Seltz can be reached at seelenfam@verizon.net.