Westwood has worked hard to preserve its past, town officials agree. So if the formerly vacant 140-year-old Colburn School on High Street could find new life as a bank, it shouldn’t be too hard to “re-home” the historic Obed Baker House, right?
Well, the jury will be out on that one until a Wednesday deadline for bids on the building, said Peter Paravalos, chairman of the town’s Historical Commission. But he said members of a reuse task force are optimistic that a good offer will come to lease or buy the 1812 antique at 909 High St.
“We are trying to set the standard for adaptive reuse,’’ said Paravalos, who cited the Colburn School — and its recent transformation — as an example of the kind of creative thinking that returned a historic property to local tax rolls.
Options for reusing the Obed Baker House could be anything from a professional office for a lawyer to a real estate firm or even a hair salon, said Peter Hechenbleikner, the town’s interim economic development director.
It could also be the new location for WestCAT, the town’s public access cable television station, which has expressed some interest, he said.
“And I’m sure there are other thoughts people have that haven’t come forward yet,’’ Hechenbleikner said. “We will encourage the market to tell us what the options are.’’
Guidelines for reuse include a minimum asking price of $260,000 and a plan for restoration, but Hechenbleikner said nothing is set in stone. “Let’s let people come in and tell us what they see happening with it,’’ he said, adding the main objective for the town is not money, but preservation.
The Baker house has had an interesting history. A Federal saltbox, it was built at 965 High St. by Obed Baker as a present for his bride, Betsy Metcalf Baker of Rhode Island, who, according to town lore, was a forward-thinking woman who started a cottage industry in 1798, at age 12, by copying the fashionable imported straw hats of the time and selling them.
The house was moved at some point to 1007 High St., and then seized by Westwood in 1999 for nonpayment of taxes, according to Town Administrator Mike Jaillet. At the time, owner Shirley Haywood was living in Maine and had a rent-to-own agreement with a tenant who defaulted.
Jaillet said the town claimed the house in a tax seizure, but ultimately allowed the Haywoods to take the property back and sell it to the town’s Housing Authority, which got a grant to rehab it into a duplex.
A plan later to convert the now two-family dwelling to affordable housing hit a snag, he said, when the Massachusetts Historical Commission said the interior’s original beehive oven and other unique features were too historically valuable to be lost. In 2001, the building was moved to a town-owned lot at 909 High St., at the entrance to Baker Cemetery, where it was to be renovated, and a replica was constructed at its former site at 1007 High St. to become rental units, he said.
But the saga didn’t stop there.
Jaillet said the town agency lost the funding it needed to renovate the Baker house, so it was donated in 2005 to the Westwood Historical Society, which had big plans to transform it into a center for female entrepreneurship in Betsy Baker’s honor.
But after investing hundreds of thousands on a reinforced concrete foundation, bringing in utilities, adding a new furnace, renovating the exterior, and performing some interior work, the money ran out — and the private group asked the town to take the house back last year.
Historical Society president Annie Jessup said it is more than unfortunate that the original vision for the Obed Baker House couldn’t be realized. But in the end, she said, the decision to return the building to the town was right.
“Some great people have worked so hard to preserve this building, but by donating it back it gives it so much opportunity to get a better use,’’ she said. “If we get the right bidder, we can present it to Town Meeting.”
Everything rides on Town Meeting, said Hechenbleikner and others, after a request in November to sell the house was rejected. Voters want more details, Jaillet said, so, like the process for the Colburn, the reuse task force will gather offers, settle on one that makes sense, and submit it to voters in the hope they approve.
“We have a fiduciary responsibility, but it is more about what fits, and what adds value to the community,’’ said Jaillet. “The town hopes to return the house to a functional use” — like in the time of Betsy Baker, who, according to historical accounts, made a difference in New England’s economy with the hats she first made with simple tools and straw from the family barn.
The entrepreneur never applied for a patent, according to her published diary, because she didn’t want her name to go before Congress. Instead, she taught women the craft at local churches and took quiet pride in her work.
“I learned them to braid from nearly all the towns around Providence and never received compensation for it,’’ she wrote in the diary. “I learned all who came to make bonnets free of expense. . . . I could easily earn a dollar a day and sometimes one dollar and fifty cents for several weeks at a time.”
Jessup said it is important to preserve stories like Baker’s, as well as the homes such families lived in.
“In the end, it’s our job and our duty to do this,’’ she said. “Hopefully, here, the next chapter is the last chapter.”Michele Morgan Bolton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.