PEABODY — The vacant O’Shea Mansion has good bones.
Its rooms have high ceilings, ornate woodwork and inlaid wooden floors.
There’s also more peeling paint than you can shake a scraper at.
“Lots of peeling paint,” said James Hafey, the city of Peabody’s facilities director, of the mansion, which was built in the 1890s.
Hafey has not seen any structural evaluations of the building, “but it’s built like a tank. When you go in the basement and look up its amazingly structurally just magnificent.”
Hafey on Wednesday was giving tours of the mansion at 2 Washington St., part of a request for proposals the city has issued to find a developer willing to spruce up the property, bring it back to life, and hopefully spark revitalization at this end of downtown Peabody. Responses to the RFP are due back April 8.
The city is seeking a developer willing to pay at least $750,000 for the less than a half-acre parcel, which includes the mansion and a large beech tree in front.
The property, which the city has assessed at just over $1 million, is being sold “as is.” While parking is limited, officials say they’d be willing to work out a deal with a developer for access to additional parking at the former St. Paul’s Episcopal Church at 12 Washington St., which the city also owns.
“Two Washington Street is a beautiful house and property that has been a downtown landmark since Colonial times,” said Mayor Ted Bettencourt in a message. “Its highly visible location at a major traffic corridor between Peabody and Salem seems ideal for the right type of development. We look forward to receiving proposals that fit in with our overall downtown revitalization efforts.”
The house is known as both the O’Shea Mansion and the A.S. Bettencourt Furniture Company. In more recent years, it was the home of Pioneer House, which provided a day clubhouse and services to those with mental illness. According to John A. Wells’ “The Peabody Story,” a book which traces the city’s history from 1626 to 1972, J.B. Thomas actually built the mansion for his grandson in 1897. It stands on the site of the old Bell Tavern.
Inside the mansion, the first thing you see is an abandoned institutional kitchen with empty metal boxes that once housed portable defibrillators.
Hafey said the building’s most impressive feature is its full basement with brick floors, an old boiler, the central chimney, a coal bin and the remnants of an antique elevator shaft and motor.
Upstairs, there are ornately carved mantelpieces, stained glass windows, and inlaid wooden floors. The third floor features a room that could serve as the ultimate man cave, with an idyllic mural adorning the inside of a circular turret.
The carriage house behind the main house used to hold apartments. The request for proposals calls for any residential use to be limited to the carriage house, and no more than four units.
“Fixed up it would be extraordinary,” Hafey said.
The goal of the city is to find a buyer willing to preserve and restore the historic mansion to its former glory.
The city would like to see it become a restaurant or some other type of commercial occupancy, artist workspaces or a gallery or museum. As a bonus, the mansion was awarded a site-specific liquor license by the state Legislature in 2014.
“It was acquired for historic preservation and obviously the objective is to preserve it,” said Ward 2 Councilor Peter McGinn, “and to establish a use that will create an anchor for this end of the downtown, generate some activity down here. So, that’s the hope.”
As to what he would like to see in the building, McGinn said: “There are several uses that are contemplated in the RFP and they are in line with what I would hope to see.”
The more than 200-year-old beech tree on the corner is associated with the property as the site of the Bell Tavern, where local militia gathered before marching off to the Battle of Lexington at the start of the Revolution.
“The loss of several of these men during the battle is commemorated at the Lexington Monument located nearby,” the RFP states.
The Bell Tavern was taken down in 1840, according to Wells’ book. The mansion also sits within the Washington Street National Register Historic District. The tree must remain as part of any development plan.
The city acquired the property through eminent domain in January 2016, but the taking sparked two lawsuits.
In November 2018, the city settled the lawsuits with former owner Michael Corsetti of Empire Design & Development of Gloucester, who sued the city when it took the mansion in 2016 for $425,000.
That money for the purchase came from the Community Preservation Committee.
The city fretted the mansion might be torn down. In the settlement, Corsetti agreed to drop the suits in exchange for another $825,000.
The settlement announcement said the developer had been unaware of the city’s interest in preserving the site when he acquired the property for $350,000 in the fall of 2015 through a foreclosure sale. The settlement also said there was no evidence of wrongdoing by city officials in their attempt to preserve the property.
The mayor had said previously insurance proceeds should defray the cost of the settlement, and the city took a bridge loan from the city’s Community Development Authority for this purpose, which it intends to repay when it sells the property to a developer.
One of those who dropped by to see the property last week was someone with a large stake in the downtown, Pat Todisco, who with his son and business partner, Steven, has been restoring another high profile O’Shea building at 1 Main St. in Peabody Square.
The plan for 1 Main St. is a mixed use development with 20 apartments above and a pub on the ground floor. The Todiscos bought the building for $1.47 million in 2017 with plans to invest $4 million in it. Todisco also owns 3 Main St., a mixed use building next to 1 Main St. that has 10 apartments on the upper floors and the La Siesta Restaurante on the ground floor.
“I’m going to take another look at it,” Todisco said of the O’Shea Mansion. “We looked at it two years ago. Loved it then. Don’t know what it looks like now, but still love the idea of it.”
Todisco said he likes the idea of restoring the mansion, and he has recently spoken with members of the O’Shea family.
“I talked to a few of their family members, a couple of them are actually professors of law up here in Massachusetts. One is out in Texas that I’ve been talking with a lot. So, they’d love to see me get it, you know.” He is hoping to invite members of the O’Shea family to the grand opening of the building at 1 Main St.
Todisco said the family has sent him some historical pictures of the O’Shea Mansion, including “a nice picture of the family with John F. Kennedy before he was actually president having dinner here.”
“A lot of history, and I love history, and I would love to see this place put back to what it was, but, financially, we don’t know what it would take to bring this back,” he said. “That would be the big deciding factor as to whether we would be a buyer or not.”