Framingham ‘witch house’ may finally get new owner
FRAMINGHAM — Along a stretch of upscale, well-maintained properties at the edge of town, an important piece of local history is falling apart.
The Sarah and Peter Clayes House, built more than three centuries ago by a family fleeing witchcraft allegations in Salem, is up for auction Friday, presenting a group of preservationists with a long-awaited chance to save it.
The structure, which has been vacant and exposed to the elements for more than a decade, tells a meaningful story about a traumatic period in Massachusetts, said Janice Thompson, leader of the The Sarah and Peter Clayes House Preservation Project.
“This house is one of the most important historic buildings in Framingham,” she said. “It represents important stories having to do with early New England history, social justice, and the beginnings of a town.”
Sarah Clayes was one of three sisters who were accused and jailed for witchcraft. Only Clayes survived to leave Salem, according to the preservation project.
The preservation officials say it is unclear whether Clayes escaped or was set free, but she, her husband, and several family members wound up some 40 miles away in what would later become Framingham.
The area was then known as “Danforth’s Farms” because it was owned by deputy governor Thomas Danforth — who was one of the magistrates who oversaw a pretrial examination of Clayes in 1692.
A house was built on the site in 1693, though it has been altered and expanded over the years.
By 1700, when Framingham was incorporated, members of Clayes’s family were well-known community members, according to the project, and they would become early leaders and elected officials in town.
The unpretentious colonial-era structure was home to a series of families through the 1990s. But nobody has lived there in years, as a lengthy and complicated foreclosure process extended even beyond the death of the home’s last owner.
The mortgage on the Clayes house is owned by Goldman Sachs Mortgage Company, which plans to donate the property to the preservation group if nobody bids on it at the auction, according to company spokesman Michael DuVally.
The group then plans to find an owner who is willing to collaborate on restoration plans — potentially opening the site occasionally to the public.
But even if the home sells at the 11 a.m. auction, the buyer will have to preserve it under local historic preservation rules. The Clayes house is in its own small Framingham historic district, which means most exterior alterations must be reviewed by the historic commission.
Erika Oliver Jerram, deputy director of the Framingham Community & Economic Development Division, said she is eager to see a new owner reverse the long decline.
“We want to see somebody purchase it and stabilize it and then make some thoughtful plans about how to restore it,” she said.
For now, the house needs a lot of work — possibly as much as $1 million worth, according to Thompson — and it’s showing obvious scars of neglect. Its white paint is flaking, parts of the building have lost their structural integrity, and many doors and windows are boarded up.
It’s generally not safe to walk inside, though teenagers sometimes sneak in through broken windows — perhaps misinterpreting the term “witch house” to suggest the place is haunted.
Rather than a spectacle, Thompson and her colleagues see the house as a significant component of a historic area.
Even today, the area around the Clayes house bears reminders of the family’s journey. There’s a place in nearby Ashland Town Forest that many still refer to as the “witch caves,” because the settlers may have wintered there before building the house.
And, of course, the house is on Salem End Road, which has that name for a reason.
Steven J. Frank, who lives about a quarter-mile down the street, moved in in 1995. At that time, he said, the Clayes house was in good shape.
“It was a beautiful historical addition to the street,” said Frank, who has been working with the preservation group to try to stem the house’s decline. “It’s a real piece of history, and a unique marker for the street and deserves to be protected. We go by and it’s just sad to see.”
Jane Hovde, who moved to the house with her family as a high school student in 1948, recalls many irreplaceable details inside the house — curved, nautical doors, for instance, and a kitchen fireplace.
Hovde, who is now retired and living in Pennsylvania, has not been to the house for several years, but described its deterioration as “devastating.” As for any rumors that the house is haunted, Hovde has another possible explanation: her mother’s ashes are buried on the site.
“She absolutely loved that property,” Hovde said.
“I would hope that somebody who is very rich will buy it and restore it,” she said. “There are a lot of people who have a lot of money.”