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A costly treasure

Dedham to vote on privatizing operation of Endicott Estate

By Johanna Seltz
Globe Correspondent / May 15, 2011

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DEDHAM — The Christian Motorcycle Association meets at the Endicott Estate the first Wednesday of the month, and the Olde Colony Civil War Roundtable gathers every third Thursday. Other regulars: the Flaming Dames of Dedham, the Boy Scouts and Brownies, and the boards of Dedham Youth Soccer and the Royal Doulton International Collectors Club.

Altogether nearly 80 community groups use the town-owned mansion throughout the year, as well as numerous private wedding parties that rent the Colonial revival house and lawn from May to October. The approximately 2,000 runners in the annual James Joyce Ramble 10K started and ended at the estate earlier this month, and Dedham High School will have its graduation there later this spring.

But despite the steady use and revenue potential, the Endicott Estate costs the town about $400,000 a year — a drain that local officials want to stop. To that end, Town Meeting will take up a proposal tomorrow to consider bringing in a private management company to run the operation at the grand estate.

“If I’m not spending that $400,000 [on the Endicott Estate], I can use it to support other areas of the budget,’’ said Town Administrator William Keegan, who’s pushing the proposed change.

“It’s a lot of money, and that’s why we’re addressing it. If [the estate] loses some money we can live with it, but to the extent we can make it more self-supporting, we need to look at alternatives,’’ he said. Keegan stressed that any new arrangement would allow the public access to the 25-room building and surrounding 21 acres — a requirement of Katherine Endicott’s will when she left her property to the town in the 1960s.

The town’s Solutions Task Force — originally named the Efficient Government Task Force — studied the proposal, and chairman David Martin supports it.

“The Endicott Estate has historically been a money loser, and revenues have been flat for a number of years,’’ Martin said. “While I understand [that the estate’s] civic and municipal purpose is not to make money, it seems to me there should be a way to make it more revenue-neutral.’’

Also endorsing the change is Henri Gough, former chairman of the Endicott Estate Commission and a current member of the fund-raising Katherine Endicott Foundation. “It’s probably a good idea to bring in some new blood, some professionals,’’ he said.

But some Dedham residents worry that replacing longtime manager Virginia McLaughlin and bringing in a professional company could hurt local organizations that rely on the space for meetings and events.

“If you call Ginny and you want a room, she will always find a room — even at the last minute; I don’t know if we’d still be able to do that,’’ said Rita Mae Cushman, chairwoman of the Friends of the Endicott Estate, another fund-raising group. “I really hope it doesn’t go that route.’’

The Endicott Estate is no stranger to controversy. Henry Bradford Endicott, the shoe magnate who built the house where a previous one had burned to the ground in 1904, ruffled local feathers when he decided that the almost-finished building wasn’t grand enough. He ordered carpenters to tear down a sidewall to add another 70 feet.

“The local citizenry was utterly repulsed when the beautiful paneling, parquet floors, and woodwork from the demolished wall were tossed into a pile out in the yard and burned. His local prestige never fully recovered,’’ according to a history of Dedham written by Robert Brand Hanson.

Hanson wrote that Endicott earned some respect, though, when he ripped up a side lawn at the estate to plant potatoes during World War I, in support of the need for victory gardens. He died in 1920, after catching a cold while duck hunting in Maryland, and left his estate to his second wife, Louisa.

Her daughter, Katherine, inherited the estate four years later and lived there with her staff until her death in 1967 at age 85. She left the property — which by then included a greenhouse and garage that is now home to the Endicott branch library — to the town of Dedham to be used for public education, recreation, and “other exclusively public purposes.’’

The town, however, deferred to the state, so the house could become the governor’s mansion. Mary Louise Kehoe, a member of the original Endicott Estate Commission, said she remembers when the commissioners gave then-Governor John Volpe the keys.

She also remembers Volpe returning the keys after the Legislature turned down his plan for extensive and expensive renovations.

“Mrs. Volpe felt the dining room needed to be enlarged, and the kitchen needed to be updated, and so on and so on,’’ Kehoe said. “She wanted to get rid of the paneling and remake the interior.’’ The renovation bill “was a rather excessive amount as far as the Legislature was concerned.

“There’s quite a saga attached to the estate beyond its beauty, and we are so fortunate to have it. Every time I ride by there, I’m so grateful. It’s just magnificent,’’ she added.

Kehoe said she’s concerned that a change in managing the Endicott Estate could make it less accessible to public groups. But she said she hadn’t decided yet how she would vote on the proposal before Town Meeting, which starts tomorrow.

The change is part of the proposed 2012 budget, which would fund the Endicott Estate for six months at its current level. During that time, the town would solicit proposals for privatizing management of the estate, according to the budget report submitted by Keegan.

The town also would study how other publicly owned facilities are managed and marketed, and the prices they charge. The Endicott Estate charges nothing for community groups to use the facility, with a nominal fee for social events and fund-raisers. Non-residents pay higher rates, all dependent on the time of the year and day of the week.

If it looks like private management is “more beneficial,’’ said Keegan’s report, the estate would then be managed by a private company, starting Jan. 1, 2012, “who would continue to honor the provisions of the will of Katherine Endicott but would also promote increased use of the estate, while respecting the civic use of this property.’’

The report said the change probably would mean that the three full-time and one part-time positions at the estate would be reduced to one full-time caretaker position.

Town Meeting also will vote on spending $25,000 in mitigation money to build a gazebo at the estate.

McLaughlin, the estate’s current manager, has worked there for almost 25 years and said she has no opinion on the proposed change.

“I think it’s an idea to explore,’’ she said.

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

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