Peabody couple fights to save historic house

Jim and Peggy Unruh of Peabody are fighting desperately for an 11th-hour stay of execution for what they see as a historic structure that has been rightly condemned to die but deserves a second chance.

The Peabody City Council, meanwhile, wants to remove a dilapidated, long-abandoned house that has been designated by the courts as a public nuisance and by the public as an eyesore.

And, at least to this point, a majority of the city’s five-member council isn’t convinced the Unruhs’ good intentions are enough to complete the necessary transformation.

The focus of their attention is a large, rundown two-story house on the south edge of the Peabody limits at 1722 60th Street.

Known originally as Town View Farms, then as White’s Dairy, and more recently as the Old Palmer Place, the house, as it stands now, has seen much better days. The house may have been built as early as 1871, though the Unruhs have not had time to document the history yet.

But they have had their eye on the property since they moved into their place across the road 12 years ago, and see it as a treasure waiting to be restored.

Only within the past month have they been able to reach an agreement to purchase the property from the former owner.

“We would really like to save it,” Peggy said. “It’s a nice location. We love our house across the road, but this is a nice location, too.”

Jim’s attachment to the place borders on passionate.

“I’ve dreamed for so long what this place could be,” he said. “I never saw it for the dilapidated- nuisance-eyesore that everybody else did. I always see things as the could be.”

The difference with their proposal is that they believe they have the experience and are prepared to make the financial commitment to see it through.

Unruh has been involved in numerous other restoration projects, including the historic Morgan House in downtown Peabody which now stands a treasured artifact for the city. He’s also restored several other old homes in Peabody.

“It’s been one of my passions and trades,” he said of carpentry and restoration. “I love doing artsy-craftsy things. Then I kind of got into the historical restoration thing in Massachusetts. We did a lot of houses that were 200, 300 and 400 years old.”

When he looks at the Old Palmer Place, he sees something quite different than the causal observer does.

“What I see back here is a quaint little farmstead restored to its facsimile,” Jim said. “I’m not going to make a museum out of it. But I want to see the little farm buildings and stuff that were once here.

“I want, possibly, to have a wildflower farm and also make it available for the City of Peabody when they have their antique shows and all the people come-so they can come out and sit under the trees here.”

The Unruhs say they may live in the house themselves, or perhaps turn it into a bed and breakfast.

Members of the council said they have been prodded to take action on dilapidated properties for some time.

Some fours years ago, they began addressing the problems posed by the Old Palmer Place. Their requests for improvements or for demolition by the owner at the time produced no response. They then took the matter to court and have been given the authority to see that the house is demolished and hauled away.

Even though the property is under new ownership, some council members aren’t convinced yet that the situation will dramatically change, as promised by the Unruhs.

The council has been down that road before, according to Randy Dallke, who voted against the Unruhs’ proposal at the council’s Sept. 11 meeting. When a house is about to be demolished, promises have frequently been made but not kept, he said.

“The worst thing is, people always want to do something and think they can save something, but they don’t realize the cost of construction.

“Bottom line is, it takes dollars and cents to fix it up,” he added. “As of this time, even the banker who was at the meeting (with the Unruhs) did not state he was going to put in the amount of dollars down.”

The Unruhs said they acquired the property so recently and haven’t been given time by the council to put together a formal proposal.

“I would love to prepare a formal plan, complete with watercolors, of what I see could possibly happen here,” Jim said. “They’re not willing to listen to that-at least three of the council members aren’t.”

He told the council that he believes the project is financially feasible. If it proves otherwise, he will have the house demolished at his own expense.

In addition to Dallke, Steve Rose and David Oursler voted against the Unruhs’ idea at the Sept. 11 meeting. Gene Schmill and Jay Cook supported the Unruhs’ plan.

Unruh said the funding for the project will come through Homestead Enterprises, a business he began that landscapes state roadways to prevent erosion and maintain sediment control.

Because of the funding the project will require, the Unruhs have decided that Jim will continue working at his business and they will contract with others to do much of the actual restoration.

“We have the people in place, we just have them on hold,” Peggy said.

The Unruhs feel they have already expressed their intentions for the house by the investment of time, energy and finances they’ve already poured into the property during the brief time they’ve owned it.

“I’ve spent over $4,000 so far just cleaning it out, cutting the brush down and stripping off the roof,” Jim said. The couple have made some 37 trips to the dump to dispose of the trash and brush they’ve come across.

Unruh is convinced the house is structurally sound and worth restoring.

“There seems to be some thought that it was built originally for a lumber baron, and obviously he understood lumber,” Unruh said. “We have full-dimension 2×6 studs in the walls and heavy, heavy ceiling joists.

“This will be a labor of love, but I think I have enough people supporting me and behind me that I believe it’s a do-able thing,” he said.

“I believe it can be good for the town,” he added. “I think the front door of the city leaves a little bit to be desired, as far as being attractive. So let me make the back door to the city attractive.

The Unruhs, who have recently launched a petition drive to save the house, hope citizens who support their cause will attend the city council’s Oct. 9 meeting.

“We want to mass the people in there,” Jim said. “We want (the council) to see support like they’ve never seen before.”

Adds Peggy: “We want them to realize the community is behind us in saving it.”

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