Norwood couple turn a foreclosed property, circa 1870, into a showcase

NORWOOD — They can’t help it.

Many people driving along Pleasant Street lately are doing a double take, wondering whether they’ve actually just seen a nearly seven-foot-tall lion and unicorn adorning what had formerly been a dilapidated, foreclosed house.

Not only are they gawking at the fanciful creatures on the lower roofs, they are probably also checking out the house itself, which has undergone a magical transformation.

Owner Jacinta Murphy and her fiancé, Jim Murray, who runs his own construction company, recently moved in, after more than nine months restoring the Victorian clapboard structure to much of its original late-19th-century glory.

Murphy, a Norwood native who works as a nursing director at a retirement community in Westwood, said people have been stopping by to view the statues and share their recollections of the house at 46 Pleasant St.

“Everybody has a story,” she said, including that the house was said to be haunted. (She said they have heard noises, but aren’t scared yet.)

Murphy said she first thought Murray was crazy when he suggested buying the ramshackle house for them and their three daughters, dog, and cats, but began to love it as she explored the inside and saw its potential.

Murray said the work he and his employees have put in, as well as work by others he’s hired, would probably cost more than $250,000 if someone were to hire a contractor to do it. That’s in addition to the $385,000 the couple paid for the property at the corner of Pleasant and Oxford.

“We stripped this house to bare wood and then put it back together,” said John Hurley, one of those overseeing the work.

“I love the way the stairs came out, and the widow’s peak,” Murray said, adding that the stairway in the middle of the house had been mostly covered up. He said his 7-year-old daughter loves to slide down the railing.

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Murray said his company, J. Murray & Sons Construction, founded with his electrician brother and named in honor of their union electrician father, does a lot of restoration work in Boston’s Back Bay and the South End, and he was able to salvage moldings and railings that complemented the house. The University of Massachusetts Lowell alum, who originally intended to get an engineering degree but instead graduated in finance and initially went to work for Merrill Lynch, describes the house, with its mansard roofs and turret, as Victorian, with Italianate and Greek Revival features.

Though he and Murphy aren’t sure of the exact year their house was built, town archives have helped them narrow it to around 1870. A less elaborate back apartment section was added some time later, perhaps to accommodate relatives. A 1989 Norwood Historical Commission assessment of the house written by Ed Gordon noted that it might have been eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

“Architecturally, 46 Pleasant St. ranks among Norwood’s most ornate Second Empire or Mansard houses. Only the F.O. Winslow House at 219 Walpole St. surpasses this house in terms of complexity of form and richness of ornamentation,” he wrote. “Much of this house’s charm lies in the builder’s stylish, academic aspirations for what is essentially a farm homestead.”

Gordon noted that the house was built in the post-Civil War era when properties were being subdivided and used less for farming. Norwood, originally part of Dedham, was incorporated in 1872. While settled mostly by farmers, the town saw great industrial activity toward the end of the 19th century, according to a brief history of the town posted on its website. It would later shift more to light manufacturing and then retail, particularly along Route 1, with housing moving toward single-family residences, many of them more affordable apartments. The property at 46 Pleasant St., originally 6 acres, is now just more than a third of an acre and in a neighborhood of primarily 20th-century ranch houses.

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The assessment indicated that there may have been a house on the property as early as 1856, and that the six acres were sold by Ellis Fuller to Asa Savels for $400. Savels, thought to have been a carpenter, is believed to have built the house with its mansard roof and sold it in 1870 for $1,600 to Sophia and George Cottle, a wharf builder from Charlestown, possibly for his retirement. The Cottles are listed as residents until at least the mid-1880s. By the early 1890s, the owner was William Tuttle, a gardener, who lived there at least until the early 1900s. The Historical Commission assessment noted that by the late 1980s, it had been subdivided into many apartments. Murphy and Murray returned the main house to one residence and plan to use some of the back portion to expand it, while keeping one apartment in the rear.

Murray said rain had come in through the roof, which had fallen into disrepair, and caused a good deal of rot, but he maintained as much of the original work as he could.

The house as it appeared in October of 2013 when renovations began.

Judith Howard, chairwoman of the Historical Commission, said work on the house stopped her in her tracks, even before the lion and unicorn were put up. “My car automatically stopped short, and thank goodness no one was in back of me,” she said. “I knew something was going on, and it was just absolutely wonderful.”

Norwood Building Inspector Mark Chubet said he was impressed as well with the transformation of the house. “It’s a beautiful building,” he said. “I’d live there in a heartbeat.”

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While Murphy and Murray looked to preserve as much of the house’s historic charm as they could, they didn’t scrimp on modern-day luxuries. The kitchen features the latest appliances, and beautiful tile work graces the bathrooms, one of which sports a chandeliered turret as its 14-foot ceiling.

As for the fiberglass lion and the unicorn? Murray says he saw them when he was browsing online for odds and ends and thought his artistic wife would like them. The statues were being sold off in New Hampshire after the closure of a store.

“We were just trying to have fun. I thought it was unique to the house,’’ Murray said.

The couple said they eventually want to put the figures in the garden they intend to plant.

“It fits the house,” he said.

By Jean Lang Globe Correspondent,

July 31, 2014 – The Boston Globe