Town of Sandwich halts construction at hilltop mansionBy BEA LEWIS
Union Leader Correspondent
July 14. 2017 1:50AM
SANDWICH — John Dolan has spent the past four years working to return a dilapidated mansion atop Wentworth Hill to its former glory.
Now he’s stunned the town has issued a cease-and-desist order halting the restoration of the landmark property.
“I guess I’m just disappointed more than anything,” he said.
Dolan grew up in neighboring Center Harbor after his parents bought and ran the former Burton’s Corner Store overlooking the Kona fountain in the town square. He remembers driving past the property hundreds of times as a kid and always thinking that it was an amazing house, never dreaming he would one day own it.
“I just love it, the muse of the hill,” Dolan said. “Every time I make the turn at Lower Corner and I see it, it takes my breath away. It’s just such a beautiful place.”
Known locally as Chestnut Manor, for the grove of nut trees that once flourished near it, the property is historically significant as the homestead of Isaac Adams, who invented a steam-powered printing press in 1887, making literacy affordable to the masses.
“I think it is a godsend that John Dolan fell in love with that building. Restoring it is not a rational thing to do,” said Bill Hoffman, who lives nearby on Schoolhouse Road.
The property sat vacant for decades, becoming more derelict with the passage of time, and the behemoth house is too large to be a private residence, Hoffman said.
Dolan who lives in New Jersey and works in the film industry, wants to eventually open a bed and breakfast using five of the home’s eight bedrooms. He also envisions living there full-time once the glint of Hollywood fades. The state issued a permit allowing the installation of a septic system designed to serve a five-bedroom bed and breakfast and an ancillary 72-person conference center.
The cease-and-desist order was issued earlier this month after a series of period-style pole lights were erected on the property and construction of a series of stone retaining walls and cut granite steps commenced.
As a result of the stop-work order, Dolan lamented that four guys are out of work during the height of the construction season.
Adding to Dolan’s woes is a recent decision by the selectmen that under the town’s zoning ordinance that the project is an inn, not a bed and breakfast. The Zoning Board of Adjustment must now decide whether to agree with that interpretation or to overturn it.
Attorney Regina Nadeau, who met with selectmen on Monday on Dolan’s behalf, said the interior of the house has been gutted and that the work on the site has been ongoing for four years.
“For now, (the proposed bed and breakfast) is an intent, but there is no likelihood that it will come to fruition anytime soon,” Nadeau said. “You can’t penalize someone for what they might or might not do.”
Selectman Chris Boldt, himself a land-use lawyer, said Dolan needs to submit a general plan detailing the proposed use of the property as the outside work that is the subject of the stop work order is impacting the owner of the abutting Wentworth Mansion.
As he was just elected in March, Boldt said he hadn’t been privy to the state septic approval.
“At some point the scales tipped from a residential project. A 72-person septic system is clearly more than a residence,” Boldt said.
“Our sincerest desire is to have the zoning board tell us what we are,” Nadeau said.
Selectman Bob Rowan said he visited the property and agreed that Dolan was “doing a great job,” but also expressed his desire for more concrete plans on what is to come.
“We can’t live on maybes,” he said.
Chairman Bud Martin said he hoped that Dolan would accept the guidance of the board, allowing the project to stay on track.
One of the many unique features of the property is its towering red windmill. During a tour of the interior, contractor Jim Gehrke who restored the structure with his son, Tom, points out two large shadowbox style frames hanging on the wall.
“They’re signatures of the carpenters who originally built it and are dated Sept. 23, 1885,” Gehrke said.
They were discovered beneath the rotted shingles as they were being stripped. Working on such a historic project and having the chance to uncover the exacting construction method used and figuring out how to mimic them as part of the restoration is rewarding, Gehrke said.
The estate’s original owner was born in 1802, of the same family of John, Samuel and John Quincy Adams. Working as a cabinet maker, he was convinced he could make his fortunate in Boston and approached his neighbors to help defray the stagecoach fare.
History records that he was not well liked, or perhaps his neighbors had no money to spare, but no one lent him anything. He vowed he would return to Sandwich a wealthy man, buy up his neighbors’ farms and tear them down.
He made good on his threat and used the cut granite blocks from the foundations of the razed homes to have a great wall built that can still be seen today if you drive along Little Pond Road.