More on the Garfield House: History and photos

For those of you wondering, what’s the big deal about the Garfield House (aka Burnett House), there are many in town eager to school you.

I’ve already shared a groundroots protest effort and some of the comments from Monday’s meeting. There are many more comments being posted to the blog this week. But the best sources on the estate’s significance are the official ones.

Today, the Planning Board’s website was updated. Now, under a section on the Garfield Estate, you can find:

  • Robert Moss’ ANR plans for the estate (after the house is torn down, 3 English cottage style 3 bedroom houses would be built, and the Carraige House and Stone Shop/Church would be combined into a 2 bedroom home.)
  • Mass Cultural Resources record of Massachusetts Historical Commission’s description, details, and photos
  • An old photo from the Southborough Historical Society (also above)
  • The life and legacy of the man behind the building, Joseph Burnett (inventor of  vanilla extract and founder of Deerfoot Farms among other accomplishments).
  • A link to the recorded presentation of the ANR plans to the Planning Board (begin 1:15 into the meeting)

As I posted earlier this week, the Planning Board is waiting for a report from counsel before deciding how to proceed on the ANR application. Town Planner, Jennifer Burney, has promised to keep me (and therefore you) apprised of any developments.

Kate Matison, Vice Chair of the Historical Commission provided the Mass Cultural Resources information to the town. (She stated that it is available at the library.) She also followed up, as promised, in sending a letter to the Massachusetts Historical Commission.

In Matison’s letter, she informed them:

The Town was surprised by the prospective sale because it has not been advertised on the open market. The majority of Southborough residents look at the prospect of demolition as a devastating blow. The Planning Board is working with the developer to dissuade him from demolition. Residents are scrambling to find a solution, but with no demolition delay law in place and no Local Historic District it is an uphill battle.

For the full letter, click here.

As many have pointed out, the Garfield House was in danger in 2010 when it was put up for auction and received no bidders. But townsfolk breathed a collective sigh when the owner of Edaville Railroad came forward to buy the house, stating his intention to return it to its former glory.

For past coverage the Garfield House on the blog, click here.

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Al Hamilton
8 years ago

I think it should be remembered that about 10 years ago a bylaw was proposed that would have given the town the right to delay the demolition of a historic building. That by law was debated on the floor of town meeting and was overwhelmingly defeated.

I do not believe that Ms. Matison should take it upon herself to speak for the Town particularly when Town Meeting is on record as supporting the rights of property owners to use their property as they see fit.

If Ms. Matison believes that this should change, then she should draft a bylaw and get 10 or 200 signatures and put it to a vote again.

If Ms. Matison believes that the building should not be demolished then she and those that believe likewise should pool their funds and make the owner an offer.

At a bear minimum, they should offer to pick up the $6,000 per quarter in taxes while they find a better way. Delaying this has a real dollar cost to the owner. I have not heard any of the proponents of delay or stopping the demolition talk about making the owner whole. Fairness requires that his interests, as he sees them, be given substantial consideration.

8 years ago
Reply to  Al Hamilton

I am curious why the property taxes would be so high since the current owner paid $850,000 for the property?

Al Hamilton
8 years ago
Reply to  Trixie

I was using the numbers reported in the article. The actual assessment is $943,000 which would make the current taxes $15,258. So we should only be six tenths as grateful for the taxes paid on an uninhabited residence.

So, take the assessed value and add $1,200,000 to $1,500,000 for renovation and you have a property that will cost $2,100,000 to $2,400,000 to inhabit.

Here are some comparables in move in condition:

Oh, and by the way a significant part of the property in a flood zone.

8 years ago

At least Dipetri or Giblin doesn’t own it. The town would let either of them put up 100 condos in its place. Be happy that’s not the case. They “donate” fireworks though so it’s ok.

Donna McDaniel
8 years ago

Additional notes to clarify the Town Meeting “debate” and a demolition bylaw.
I put “debate” in quotation marks because there was minimal debate at that Town Meeting about 10 years ago and barely any response tp counter opposition before the vote was taken. I remember being very frustrated about the “debate.”
I note too that there had been little publicity or preparation for the demolition article before Town Meeting so it was a new idea to many voters there.
After the article was presented, someone (I don’t recall who) rose to declare that the bylaw would affect over 500 houses in town, implying a total slowdown in any sales or construction dependent on demolition. My impression, which lingers because of the lack of any rebuttal, was that unfortunately the Historic Commission presenters were taken by surprise by that accusation and offered no response. The vote was called and, yes, the motion failed–I would suggest because of the scare created by the thought of sales of 500 houses being held up.
Still, it’s also important to know the simple fact that even WITH a bylaw we could not prohibit a property sale but only a delay to allow time for any proposal from a prospective buyer who would save or move the building. There’s a time period (the town has a choice of months to specify in the bylaw) and, if nothing happens to save it during that time, then the destruction goes forward.
In the case of this, yes, very treasured building, as I recall, It was on the market for several years before someone came along to buy and restore it. But that didn’t work for him and another buyer has come along. The fact is the building, as beautiful as it is, needs repairs interior and exterior in the millions of dollars.
So, as much as we wish otherwise–even with a demolition bylaw, it’s highly likely that we would be where we are right now–wishing it could be saved but with no visible prospect in sight.

Michael Weishan
8 years ago

Hello Fellow Residents of Southborough. Here is a draft of the letter I plan on sending to the Selectmen etc. tomorrow.

Selectmen of Southborough, Members of the Planning Board, Members of the Historical Commission and the Members of the Southborough Department of Health

I’m sure you realize that what makes Southborough such a desirable place to live is its open feel and historic character. As a member of the Southborough Historical Commission in the 90s, I worked hard to get our historic survey report finished as a preliminary for the establishment of demolition by-laws and the creation of a town historic district. Unfortunately, these efforts later stalled, and now we are faced with the destruction of the Burnett house by a for-profit developer who has no problem with robbing us all of our shared heritage — not to mention decreasing the attraction of Southborough to future residents, and by default, the value of all our properties.

This is a quality of life issue that affects every rate-payer in town, and one that you need to address urgently and forcefully.

While I fully understand the rights of private property owners, we as citizens of Southborough also have joint and communal rights not to have the historic features of our town center destroyed by an outsider who is clearly motivated by one and one thing only: money. Mr. Moss’s arguments that he is acting as a private homeowner and that the house is too expensive to renovate and use as a personal residence are false and misleading. My design firm works with clients on a daily basis to preserve and revitalize historic structures exactly like the Burnett House, and I have every reason to think that the uniqueness of this property and its dramatic Main Street site would make the restored home ideal other potential buyer who appreciates and values old-house living. The assertion that when the house was put up for auction in the depth of the Great Recession and received no offers is in any way indicative of the current or future marketability of the property is patently ridiculous. The real issue here is that Mr. Moss paid the previous owner, a friend of his who purchased the property a mere two years ago for $850,000, a $650,000 profit when he agreed to a 1.5M sale price this past week. The only way that even begins to be financially viable is that he intended from the onset to act as a commercial developer and subdivide the historic Burnett property and build houses for personal gain. Mr. Moss’s recent filing for ANR status should be seen as what it is: a blatant attempt to twist the law, bypass our Planning Board and destroy an invaluable piece of our town’s history for personal gain.

Finally, I would like to point out that the property was recently given a replacement septic system for an 11 bedroom house. If the current house is demolished, Title 5 regulations come into force and as entire the parcel is included in the setback zone mandated by state law (see attached graphic), no new septic systems can be constructed on any of the lots proposed by Mr. Moss. The Town of Southborough should insist that Title 5 regulations be followed to the letter and inform Mr. Moss immediately that his plans to “share” the existing septic system with new construction will not be approved.

Given the above, I urge you refuse a permit to demolish the Burnett House until the residents of Southborough have time to review this matter in a thoughtful way, even if this means incurring legal costs to do so. There are many issues here — historical, environmental, civic — that need to be explored before we agree to destroy forevermore such an important piece of our shared heritage. And needless to say, I hope this pending disaster also provides a wake-up call to all residents of Southborough that we need to get our demolition by-laws and historical districts in place immediately to prevent this type of cultural robbery from happening in the future.

Al Hamilton
8 years ago


However well intentioned your letter might be it is not clear to me that any of the boards you cite has the authority to deny a “demolition” permit.

First, there is no such thing as a “demolition permit”. There is only a building permit and one of the activities called out on the building permit is demolition.

My understanding is that a property owner has the right to a building permit provided that he follows the rules and regulations established in our by laws (and pays the inevitable fees). I suspect that Mr. Moss is already in possession of a building permit for this activity. If so, I believe that it would be up to the Building Inspector to issue a stop work order. I believe he can only do that if there is some violation our our rules.

Our town does not have an historic demolition by law (which only delays demolition). When it was proposed it was soundly defeated by Town Meeting. Absent that, Mr. Moss has the right, as a property owner, do demolish this building provided he has the appropriate building permit, to which he is entitled by right.

Michael Weishan
8 years ago
Reply to  Al Hamilton

Good Morning Al. I’ve read through and appreciated your thoughtful commentary along the way. My point is this: I think when it becomes clear that the Town is not going to grant a variance for septic, this project becomes a 1.5M ring around Mr. Moss’s neck. Whether he was just banking on us all just rolling over, or whether he really didn’t investigate the land use restrictions on this parcel is unclear. Either way, that’s his problem. I note in passing your offer to help defray Moss’s holding costs until a solution is reached. While that’s certainly one way forward – the proverbial carrot, it’s unclear to me why we should be supporting someone who felt comfortable paying a $650K premium for the property, Rather, perhaps what’s needed is the stick: a legal defense fund for the House, to hire an attorney that will represent the interests of historically minded citizens who don’t feel like having their heritage destroyed. Now that’s something I would contribute $500 to.

Al Hamilton
8 years ago


I don’t think your stick will prove too strong. I doubt that you or any other citizen would have the standing to sue and if you think my carrot is expensive litigation is far far more expensive.

I have never met anyone who has “won” a lawsuit regardless of the verdict.

Michael Weishan
8 years ago
Reply to  Al Hamilton

Al, I agree with you on the last point, unless of course you can muster some good pro-bono lawyers. :) ! Again, I have enjoyed reading your spirited responses and hopefully we can all find a way forward that is a win win for all concerned.

8 years ago

Beautiful, just beautiful property! Tantamount to Downton Abbey! And were we not all mezmarized by that BBC production? Lets preserve this Stone House and its environs and redeem the town for omission of failing to register it properly.

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