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Town’s oldest house needs a new home

Modest structure was built in Pilgrim days; plan now is to move and preserve it

Nuno Cunha of Kingston Propane makes a delivery to the Spataro home, just behind the Sergeant Samuel Stetson house (foreground) in Norwell. Nuno Cunha of Kingston Propane makes a delivery to the Spataro home, just behind the Sergeant Samuel Stetson house (foreground) in Norwell. (Photos by Debee Tlumacki for the Boston Globe)
By Meg Murphy
Globe Correspondent / March 1, 2012
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N ORWELL - Kathleen Spataro and her husband bought property near their Norwell home for family reasons. Their son, Russell, would build on it and live nearby with his wife and young children.

It was a simple plan. Except for one thing.

That thing is called the Sergeant Samuel Stetson house, a modest, three-bedroom cottage built circa 1678 by the son of the town’s earliest Pilgrim settler. And it came with the land.

“It’s an antique house,’’ Spataro, a history lover, recalls saying to her husband, Salvatore, when the couple acquired 85 Stetson Shrine Lane in 2008.

“This thing has to go,’’ he said of the structure.

“You can’t just tear it down,’’ she said - never suspecting then that the Colonial-era artifact would remain an odd presence on the property today.

People in town do care to save it. Members of Norwell’s Board of Selectmen, Historical Commission, Community Preservation Committee, Cemetery Committee, and the Stetson Kindred of America, a nonprofit group of descendants, have made efforts to relocate the historic home.

The Spataros are all for it. From the beginning, the family had offered to relinquish the home for a dollar to a caretaker prepared to cart it away.

And, said John Mariano, chairman of the Board of Selectmen, in a recent interview, “It could happen any day now.’’

In November, the town took responsibility for the Stetson home when residents elected to spend $35,000 in Community Preservation Act funds to relocate it. Now a moving company must be hired, and town officials are following the necessary procurement process, said Mariano, adding that state guidelines “don’t make it easy for towns to do things quickly.’’

The Spataro family couldn’t agree more.

“It’s like this situation is never-ending,’’ Kathleen Spataro said recently, adding that no town representatives have contacted the family of late and there’s been no word about a moving date. “We’ve heard nothing.’’

The family set out to do a good thing by preserving the house, Spataro said, but 3 1/2 years is a long time to wait. “I’d say the family sees the situation as kind of comical, but some people would be going cuckoo,’’ she said.

Past efforts to relocate the house have been passionate but ineffective.

In 2008, a Norwell resident of Stetson ancestry, William “Beau’’ Dyer, took up residence in the old house, renting it from the Spataro family, whom he describes as “just tremendous people.’’ He spent two years securing the permits and funding to move the house to a nearby plot of land owned by the Stetson Kindred, known in town as “the Shrine.’’

But those efforts stalled when neighbors Frank and Jean Granara took legal action to prevent the plan, contending that the house relocation would violate conservation restrictions, disrupt bordering wetlands, and lower the value of their home.

The lawsuit against the Stetson Kindred of America Inc. and The Trustees of Reservations was a drawn-out affair that resulted in a settlement agreement barring the old house from the disputed site for three years. The case was later dismissed in Massachusetts Land Court in November 2010.

Asked about the case and any plan for the house now, Dyer said recently, “I am not allowed to comment.’’

Meanwhile, Russell Spataro, who in February 2010 purchased the property from his father for $10, applied in September 2010 for a permit to tear the house down; he also began building a modern home for his family. That set off concern among local preservationists and enactment of a town bylaw placing a one-year delay on historical demolitions.

“So now all of a sudden everybody sees the house might be torn down, so everybody came out of the woodwork. And that was good,’’ recalled Kathleen Spataro. She assumed preservation-minded action was imminent.

But another year passed. Russell Spataro’s children - two boys, ages 9 and 11 - were by now playing hockey in the yard beside the empty and unwanted Pilgrim-era house, sitting just 9 feet from their new home.

In October 2011, the Norwell Historical Commission reported that the Spataro family would continue to refrain from destroying the historic home if town funding could be secured to move it. The commission expressed urgency about resolving the matter, noting the imposed demolition delay had expired the month before.

Wendy Bawabe, president of the Norwell Historical Society and chairwoman of the local Historical Commission, said she is relieved that town residents in November agreed to fund the relocation of the house to a nearby cul-de-sac owned by the town.

“We almost lost that house. We were lucky,’’ she said. “We’ll just pick it up, shrink-wrap it, and move it. That’s our holding pattern for now. I don’t want to say indefinitely, but it can stay on the dolly in the cul-de-sac for years.’’

In the society’s library recently, Bawabe flipped through books and charts referencing Stetson genealogy, which traces from the early 1600s. Cornet Robert Stetson and Honour Tucker Stetson were the first Pilgrim settlers in what is now Norwell, she said. So a house built by one of their sons is of great historical value, she said, even though admittedly it’s less impressive as a model of period architecture.

“But what would it say about Norwell if something so significant in the history of the town was knocked down without anyone trying to save it?’’ she said. “I think it’s important to know where you come from to know where you want to go.’’

A permanent location for the house, which is currently unfurnished but contains much original pine flooring and wood trim from the period, is still undetermined. It might go in a few years to the nearby land owned by the Stetson Kindred, or be set down in a new public cemetery or behind a home on the town-owned site of the Stetson-Ford House, an impressive Georgian colonial, the earliest section of which was built circa 1674 by another son of Norwell’s founder.

A key factor is visibility, said Bawabe. The Sergeant Samuel Stetson house, both a learning tool and touchstone, deserves an audience, she said.

“What good is history if no one can see or appreciate it?’’ she said.

The Spataros agree that historical appreciation requires the proper context.

“The kids just see it as part of the property. And my son doesn’t mind it, but my daughter-in-law wants to know how much longer that thing is going to sit in front of her new house,’’ said Kathleen Spataro, who lives at 26 Stetson Shrine Lane, her family home now for more than a quarter-century.

“It does look strange. And you can’t do shrubbery and stuff like that, you really can’t do anything with the area,’’ she said in an interview by telephone.

“I should have torn that thing down,’’ her husband said loudly in the background, describing the old house in its current placement as looking like waste. He wryly offered contact information for the “guy that’s going to demolish it.’’

His wife laughed at the outburst. She remains a history lover.

“We’ll feel good in the end, when it’s moved,’’ she said.

Meg Murphy can be reached at msmegmurphy@gmail.com.

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