State offers rent-free living, but renovations required

Associated Press / April 19, 2009
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NORTH EASTON - 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 porch that is currently missing its screen.

The state has handed over the property to Folkman and Crisman - for free - with one big catch. They must 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 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," said Folkman, a real estate developer and home builder who plans to put $200,000 to $300,000 into renovating the farmhouse with Crisman. 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 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.

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.