Mar 4, 2013

Mercy Medical Center, preservationist try to save Allis Mansion




Story and photos by Father Bill Pomerleau

SPRINGFIELD – Mercy Medical Center and local preservationists struck a more conciliatory tone this week as they announced a joint effort to seek a developer for the historic Allis Mansion for its possible redevelopment on the hospital campus.

A task force consisting of hospital representatives, city officials, and members of the private Springfield Preservation Trust announced that they now are soliciting redevelopment proposals from firms specializing in the reuse of historic properties. The firms contacted, or any other developers, have until April 22 to respond to the request for development.

If no viable proposals surface by that date, the medical center will resume its demolition of the building.

Also known as Allis House, the Second French Empire-style building was built by Waitsell Hastings Allis, the owner of the adjacent Hampden Brick Works on Carew Street. It was bought by the Diocese of Springfield in 1896 for $26,000 and the diocese  turned it over to the Sisters of Providence two years later to house their “House of Mercy,” the forerunner of Mercy Medical Center.

As the hospital developed from influenza patients lying in open wards, in what had been Allis’ living space, to a modern hospital, the building was used less and less by the medical center. It was last used more than a decade ago to house a hospital-sponsored day care center.

Mercy Medical Center broke ground last year on a new medical office building on the corner of Carew and Chestnut Streets, on the lower end of the medical center’s campus. Three hospital buildings closer to Chestnut Street – St. Mary’s Building, the Mercy Hearing Center Building and a maintenance garage – are slated for demolition to make room for the required parking for the 75,000-square-foot building.

The Allis Mansion, further up to hill towards the main hospital buildings, is not directly in the way of the construction project, according to Daniel P. Moen, chief executive officer of the Sisters of Providence Health System.

“If the Allis House comes down, it will probably become a grassy area,” Moen told But Moen again stressed that the medical center cannot afford to rehabilitate the house for its own use.

An engineering firm hired by Mercy estimated that it would take $6-7 million to rehabilitate the Allis Mansion for some use. By contrast, the entire budget for the medical center’s lower campus development is $20 million.

James Boone, a member of the Springfield Preservation Trust, said that the medical center is probably overestimating the cost of its rehabilitation. But he praised Mercy for its willingness to work with his group to search for possible developers.

If a developer is found, that party would own or lease the building, with Mercy retaining ownership of its land. For-profit developers who purchased the building would be eligible to receive state and federal tax credits of up to 40 percent of the cost of the rehabilitation.  “That’s a great incentive,” Boone told

Earlier in the year, Boone and others were actively lobbying city officials to intervene in their differences with Mercy, which had begun to remove interior furnishings from the building in preparation for its demolition.

The mounted an online petition protesting the planned demolition, and convinced the Springfield City Council’s Planning and Economic Development Committee to hold a public meeting to air their concerns. While the medical center had already obtained a demolition permit from the city, the dispute seemed headed for a further political battle.

But at a March 4 press conference on the site, Boone indicated that the battle over the Mansion may be nearing an end.

He told that his group and the Springfield Historical Commission has no plans to push for a designation of the Allis Mansion as a historical district if a suitable developer is not quickly found.

Local preservationists successfully lobbied the Springfield City Council to designate the former Our Lady of Hope Church as a single-building historic district in 2010, a designation that is now being challenged in a federal appeals court by the Diocese of Springfield on constitutional grounds.

The diocese opposes the historical designation of Our Lady of Hope Church because it hampers its ability to dispose of the religious elements of the former church in accordance with canon law.  It has also challenged what it calls the “religious gerrymandering” in the Our Lady of Hope case, although the propriety of single-building historic districts is not the main focus of the federal court case.

Both also seemed this week to agree on what might be an appropriate future use for the Allis Mansion.

Moen told reporters that the medical center would like to see the building used for health care, children’s services, or another purpose consistent with the Sisters of Providence Health System’s mission.

The health system is less open to the building’s reuse for housing, according to a posting on the Preservation Trust’s Facebook page.

Robert McCarroll, a member of the city’s Historical Commission, acknowledged that efforts to attract developers to acquire other 19th-century buildings in Springfield have ended in failure.

Alluding to a now-demolished building on Buckingham Street and the vacant Charles J. Blackstone-Peter S. Bailey House on Elliot Street, he said, “The buildings you alluded to were on very restricted pieces of property and in much poorer shape.

“This building is in an open, prominent site on Carew Street, and it’s in good structural shape,” said McCarroll.