Rent-Free Living Comes With a Catch

Fri April 24, 2009 - Northeast Edition
Kelsey Abbruzzese



NORTH EASTON, Mass. (AP) Raccoons have eaten holes into the plaster ceiling and bats have taken to nesting in the walls of the Borderland State Park’s Smith Farmhouse, a historic two-story Cape Cod-style home built around 1880.

But beyond the ripped ceilings, peeling white paint and cracking linoleum floors, Paul Folkman and Carrie Crisman see a holistic learning center and retreat where visitors can do yoga, stargaze, or even hold weddings.

“This is where my hammock’s going,’’ Folkman said with a laugh, pointing to a screened-in porch that is currently missing its screen.

The state of Massachusetts has handed over the property to Folkman and Crisman — for free — with one big catch.

They must now renovate the home and open it to the public.

The “historic curatorship’’ program of the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation aims to help the state preserve historic homes, without spending money. Similar programs operate in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Delaware.

In Massachusetts, those who have committed to renovating the homes have construction or historic restoration experience. They say the economic downturn provides good timing to use their skills as their own work diminishes in the hard-hit construction industry and gives them a chance to explore other interests. The state allows them to open businesses within the buildings, so long as the business is compatible with the park and the property.

“One of the pluses of a down economy is I have more time to think and be creative. I’m not necessarily dealing with day-to-day issues and the hubbub of being a developer,’’ said Folkman, a real estate developer and home builder who plans to put $200,000 to $300,000 into renovating the Smith Farmhouse with Crisman.

“I do feel that the recession has created a sort of reigniting of my creativity and that’s been a really good thing,’’ he said.

The program has been welcomed by officials who would otherwise have trouble finding money for such projects.

“Especially in these tough times, when you have competing interests, this is an issue and historic renovation would be in jeopardy of not being funded,’’ said Massachusetts Commissioner Rick Sullivan.

Applications to the Massachusetts program have remained flat with the economic downturn, Sullivan said, because those who apply tend to have specific skills for restoration, and it’s a “labor of love’’ with no financial windfall.

But in Pennsylvania, where the program is run by the Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park Historic Preservation Trust, executive director Lucy Strackhouse said she’s seen a 50 percent increase in unsolicited applications for the park’s 30 properties over the past six months.

And Lee Jennings, who oversees Delaware’s resident curator program, said the program seems to be getting more calls lately, but he can’t explain why. The program has a handful of properties for residential use, and only one of them has been restored. But Jennings said the program recently has generated interest among for-profit entities looking for commercial space.

“With for-profits, it adds up to less than what purchase or rent would be,’’ he said.

David Luberoff, executive director of Harvard University’s Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston, said the curatorship program is a creative way to pay for renovations since parks departments have limited resources and large responsibility.

“This is a really interesting approach, and they’ve clearly been able to leverage some money for stuff that wouldn’t otherwise get done,’’ Luberoff said.

Sullivan said curators have spent almost $5 million restoring nine homes since the program began in 1994. Without the program, Sullivan said the state would lose these historic properties.

The department’s historic curatorship office will make sure they are following strict guidelines, developed by the department and the Massachusetts Historical Commission, to keep the historic nature of the house.

Folkman’s 25 years in the construction business connected him to subcontractors who will help rewire and replumb the house, regrade ground around the house that’s susceptible to septic flooding and replace the exterior siding, some of which Folkman labeled unsalvageable. Workers will strip the insides “down to the studs,’’ Folkman said, putting in new walls and new flooring.

And that’s just the house. Folkman said creating a lecture hall inside the barn — the “big tamale,’’ with gaping holes in the back siding and cluttered with dusty tools — will require insulating the building and installing a unisex handicapped-accessible bathroom, hardwood flooring and a temporary heating system.

The two friends hope to make up the money by offering meditation classes during the state’s 40-year lease, operating as a nonprofit. Crisman, a certified life coach with a doctorate in metaphysics, will live onsite, and Folkman will work on administration and maintenance.

Folkman said the economic downturn and his acceptance into the program intersected with what he described as working on his spiritual path, seeing a Reiki master for Japanese relaxation and healing practices, going to Kabbalah classes and reading Eastern philosophy.

At Smith Farm, there are the expansive hay fields for scenery. There are the shingles with a weathered oceanside look that Folkman loves and hopes to duplicate. There also is the coincidence that Smith Farmhouse was built by a clairvoyant healer and Crisman and Folkman are trying to do something similar.

“I think it’s all connecting in a strange way to Smith Farm,’’ Folkman said.

Standing in the hay fields surrounding the house, Folkman and Crisman imagined how it would look after reshingling the house, removing the shed that was supposed to draw the bats out of the house, and installing a large glass window in the barn that looks out to Leach Pond. They hope to start nine months of construction in July.

“This was a gift,’’ Folkman said. “We can turn this into something special.’’