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Keeping dream of gentility alive on Norwood estate

21-room mansion drew presidents, writers, and performers

Oak View mansion, which Sarah Erlandson and Brad McCracken hope to purchase with the help of a nonprofit group that would own the estate. Oak View mansion, which Sarah Erlandson and Brad McCracken hope to purchase with the help of a nonprofit group that would own the estate. (Oak View Preservation.\Inc.)
Email|Print| Text size + By Michele Morgan Bolton
Globe Correspondent / February 10, 2008

NORWOOD - In its heyday, the moss-green and white mansion at 289 Walpole St. served as the focus of genteel society, its weekend guest lists peppered with presidents, philosophers, and performers.

When they closed their eyes, preservationists Sarah Erlandson and Brad McCracken could almost hear the merry dissonance of tuning violins. They stood in the elegant Oak View orchestra and drawing rooms, where records show that guests included Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff.

There, decades of extravagant balls lured the world's glitterati to this former governor's mansion, also known as the Winslow-Allen estate, whose rich history has persuaded the couple to do what they can to preserve it.

Last year, McCracken, 51, and Erlandson, 38, established Oak View Preservation Inc., a nonprofit meant to ensure that the 21-room mansion never is turned into condominiums or falls to a wrecking ball.

After reaching a memorandum of agreement with the mansion's owners, Barbara Rand and Robert Pegurri, McCracken and Erlandson are trying to raise the $1.7 million needed to acquire the mansion, preserve it as a museum, and make it home to a new generation of exhibits, including Erlandson's 200-piece teacup collection.

Rand currently uses one room of her home as a dollhouse museum, but McCracken and Erlandson dream of being able to make the museum their full-time career.

To date, the only interest in the house has been from developers, "who, heaven forbid, want to knock it down and put condos there," said Judith Howard, chairwoman of the town's Historic Commission.

"This home is on our list of 100 historic sites in Norwood," she said. "The town would feel good about it being restored. It would be a crime if it were torn down."

In 2000, the Winslow-Allen estate was on the market for $1.5 million, Howard said. A scale drawing of the estate, divided into condos, is displayed in a downtown storefront window. If another offer is made on the house, McCracken said he and Erlandson have a 90-day right of first refusal. The goal is to raise the money in three years, through membership dues and donations. Oak View Preservation is a 501(c)(3) organization, meaning that donations will be tax-deductible.

Asked why they expect contributors to help them buy and then live in the house, McCracken said that the house would be owned by the nonprofit organization and that the mansion would be used "for public enjoyment."

"By donating," he said, "each individual is making a statement that they care enough to protect a magnificent part of history, their heritage, and care enough to share that heritage with others who will come this way."

Once the purchase is made, Erlandson and McCracken plan to live in the sweeping Second Empire-style, mansard-roofed mansion, whose design became popular during the Victorian era for its opulent detail.

Later, they may either decide to stay, after the museum is opened, or hire a caretaker, McCracken said.

The story begins in 1873 when construction, commissioned by tannery owner and philanthropist F.O. Winslow, then 29, was completed. A great patron of the arts, Winslow was an example to his daughter, Clara, who took over residence of Oak View in 1929 with her husband, Frank Allen, a governor of Massachusetts.

Over the next decades, their effervescent gatherings drew luminaries like Presidents William Howard Taft and Calvin Coolidge, artist John Singer Sargent, Bishop Phillips Brooks of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, philosopher William James, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, according to town historical records.

Even under the original Winslow ownership, Oak View was often home to the Norwood Literary Society and its annual meetings, performances, and picnics. The 10-bedroom mansion has 6 1/2 baths and was a showcase of African mahogany, carved verdite, and intricate plaster frieze.

In 1954, Oak View was sold to the Missionary Servants of the Most Blessed Trinity and became known as the Cenacle, after being consecrated by Richard Cardinal Cushing. Then, in 1978 it was bought by Rand and Pegurri.

The owners did not return a call for comment. McCracken said they did not want a reporter to tour the home.

At its heart, McCracken and Erlandson's campaign, begun in December, is to get people active in saving places like Oak View. "Then they can say, 'I'm helping to preserve a piece of history and some architecture that's doomed,' " McCracken said.

"It would be wonderful if someone were able to save the house," said Heather Cole, a member of the board of directors of the Norwood Historical Society. "The Winslow family were important early industrialists, and then Governor Allen lived there. It's a gorgeous house that has been beautifully preserved."

When the mansion was briefly for sale in 2000, McCracken and Erlandson met the owners and became friends.

The house was later taken off the market.

McCracken and Erlandson both love history and have already restored and sold a small property in Norwood and an old Victorian in the central part of the state.

McCracken, who handles intellectual property rights for an international publisher, and Erlandson, a paralegal, said their inspiration for Oak View was Ventfort Hall in Lenox, a restored mansion and Gilded Age Museum that is also privately owned owned by a nonprofit organization.

A series of public events to help raise money begins on Saturday, Feb. 16, with a tea tasting at the elegant Bradley Estate in Canton.

A tea dance is set for July 13, another tasting for Nov. 8, and a winter ball on Dec. 20. Most anticipated is a masquerade ball planned for next year that will mirror one held in Norwood in 1888, McCracken said. "We have an antique dance card from it that we would like to mimic."

McCracken and Erlandson hold on to their dream that such history will be passed on.

Both are sure that once people find out about their project, they will care.

"Genteel sensibilities may be gone, but you know what?" McCracken muses. "They're not forgotten."

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