Ever since it was first built in 1885, the Wilmarth Mansion, a stately two-story Georgian Revival structure, has been one of Ashland’s showcase buildings.
Built in the mid 1880s by one of Ashland’s most prominent founding citizens and first banker, Lewis Cass Wilmarth, this grand residence remains a tribute to Ashland’s 19th century period of economic boom. Over its 130-year history, the Mansion has gone on to be used as the Ashland General Hospital, Trinity Lutheran Hospital, Memorial Medical Treatment Center and exhibition space for the Ashland Historical Society.
The structure is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, marking it as one of the nation’s most historic sites, and a place worthy of preservation.
However, since 1997, the mansion has been empty, awaiting a rebirth while the owner of the property, Impact Seven, a non-profit community development financial institution, put its energies into the construction and operation of a pair of affordable housing developments, The Daniel Kimball Villa and the Robert Holmes Villa located on the mansion grounds.
According to Impact Seven Ashland Manager Nick Ertz, it has taken those 18 years “to get it right.” He noted that although the mansion has been empty, Impact Seven has taken care, through roof repairs and infrastructure work, to keep the building in good repair, awaiting the time when they could repurpose the building in a manner that was in keeping with it’s historic character.
“It has been a long and patient process to get where we are now,” he said.
The process of rebuilding began a couple of years ago with historically correct reworking of part of the façade, including work on the cornices, eves and soffits, and a paint job that cost well over $50,000. That work was done under the guidance of Ashland Architect Steve Schraufnagel of C&S Design and Engineering of Ashland.
That work will be completed this spring as cleaning the building’s brick and work on the wood and the columns on the portico on the north side of the building will be undertaken.
For the last two years, the work has moved into the interior of the building, where it has not been in the view of the public.
That will all change on Jan. 28, as the public has been invited to a grand opening reception for the Mansion’s event spaces.
The occasion will include music, complimentary appetizers and refreshments from 4-6 p.m. with formal remarks at 5 p.m. Speakers include Ashland Mayor Deb Lewis, and Impact Seven Chief Executive Officer, Brett Gerber.
Ertz said much of the work in the early years of Impact Seven’s ownership of the mansion involved trying to create partnerships and developing the funding, “in order to do it right,” he said.
“It was not just a mater of patching and making sure it was standing, it was getting it back to what it would have been, back in the 1880s and 1890s when the Wilmarth family built the complex and restoring that grandeur.”
Ertz said one reason for the deliberate pace of the rebuilding was a desire to see the job done correctly, not getting it done fast.
According to Ertz, there are about 3,600 square feet on each floor of the building.
“The second floor has been designed and rebuilt in a way that will be most likely used for private uses, a single tenant, in space for private offices,” he said.
On the first floor, the kitchen was rebuilt as a prep kitchen for catering, something that would allow caterers to prepare for a wedding or reception. The former music room will have a new incarnation as a ballroom, suitable for dining and other activities. The balance of the space will be available for presentations, meetings and corporate events.
“Anything the community can find a use for,” Ertz said.
It was a project that required not only sensitivity for the historical past, but the imagination to vision future uses.
“It did certainly present challenges along the way, as you can imagine,” said Ertz. “But while our main bread and butter is multi-family housing development, in addition to the lending, banking and investment sides of the business, at the core of it, community is in our mission and any challenge that we have, that makes sense for the organization and provides opportunity to invest in the community. And this being an important part of Ashland’s history, it was a real opportunity to meet that mission.”
When dealing with a property like the Wilmarth Mansion, there is always the potential to wind up with a white elephant, and Ertz said one of the reasons for the long delay in development was the need to find a project that worked financially. He said with the way this project has turned out, both the financial realities and the need for historical preservation have been served.
“When we get it finished off and really get the word out, and set up some events in there, I really think the sky is the limit on how successful that can be,” he said. “I think it is really going to find a home as a really elegant option for events, but also to draw people into the area who are looking to have special events.”