NORTHBOROUGH – The south chimney of the White Cliffs mansion in Northborough will be partially disassembled after town staff reported that the chimney has been deteriorating.
During a White Cliffs Committee meeting on May 26, Town Administrator John Coderre called the chimney a “safety hazard.”
As a result, Director of Public Works Scott Charpentier and Facility Manager Shawn Thompson have been working on assessing the chimney and securing quotes from contractors to remove it.
Chimney in ‘rough shape’
Built in 1886 as a summer home for Daniel Wesson and his wife, Cynthia, the town purchased White Cliffs in 2016, saving the mansion from demolition.
Since then, crews have been doing restoration work and making repairs to the building.
Convening last month, this was the first time that the White Cliffs Committee met since December 2020.
According to Coderre, the chimney was one of the items highlighted in an assessment done by DBVW Architects and submitted to the town on Dec. 7, 2020.
The architects noted that there are nine fireplaces in the mansion that rely on four chimneys.
“The south chimney, which is the most elaborate, displays severe damage,” they wrote.
The study noted that the chimney had “significant” brick displacement, structural cracks and “extreme” paint failure.
Coderre explained that the architects initially recommended that, if the budget permitted, the chimney should be rebuilt and repointed with some disassembly done as well.
“At the time, the committee decided not to pursue that due to the cost and the limited budget that we had while we were trying to figure out how to best proceed,” Coderre said.
He continued, “Unfortunately, the chimney did not do well in a recent storm.”
Coderre said the chimney was in “rough shape” and had lost some bricks.
When the bricks first let loose, Coderre signed a contract for a little over $6,000 for a mason to secure the chimney. However, when the mason arrived and used a lift to examine the chimney closely, Charpentier said they noticed that the back of the chimney was bowed out “substantially, as well.”
The mason, Charpentier said, realized they couldn’t support and secure the chimney as it is.
Town concerned about chimney collapse
Thompson said the town’s main concern is getting the chimney down before it falls into the building.
“The way it’s bowed out in the back it could really at any point fall either into that front porch or into the turret on the right hand side if you’re looking at the building,” he said.
As such, the town plans to disassemble the chimney down to the roofline.
Thompson said structure below the roofline seemed to still be “somewhat intact” meaning repairs may be limited to repointing.
Town staff proposed disassembling and capping the chimney to make it safe and watertight. Then, the town can get accurate numbers on how much it would cost to rebuild, Thompson said.
Committee approves $60,000 disassembly
Ultimately, the committee agreed to spend $60,000 for the disassembly work, with town staff estimating a pricetag of more than $150,000 to completely rebuild the chimney if the town chooses to pursue that option at a later date.
Committee member Norm Corbin advocated for a result where there isn’t water entering the building and where some of the chimney bricks are preserved.
“I’m not excited about rebuilding the chimney at this point,” Corbin said.
He said that, when the committee goes through its budget, there may be other things in the mansion that need to be addressed.
“If we had deep pockets, that’s a different topic,” Corbin said.
Fellow member Tom Reardon also voiced concerns about the prospect of rebuilding a 130-year-old chimney to meet current building requirements.
“I’m just cautioning everybody,” he said. “You can’t reconstruct what was there because it won’t meet current code, and what those implications are, we don’t know yet.”
Coderre added that those codes would apply if the town wanted the chimney to be functional, as opposed to being purely decorative.