Restoring the old to bring something new to Franklin

  • Part of the fret accent molding on the front porch that Kerry and Mabel Brown restored as part of the renovation of the 1872 French Second Empire house at 236 Sanborn Street in Franklin. The Browns made three apartments out of the old home and plan to make another apartment out of the barn. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Kerry Brown stands on the stairs of the 1872 French Second Empire house he and his wife Mabel restored in Franklin. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Kerry Brown points to the fret accents on the porch of the 1872 French Second Empire house he and his wife Mabel restored at 236 Sanborn Street in Franklin. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • The Browns plan on making another apartment out of the barn with the Mansard roof. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • The third floor of the 1872 French Second Empire apartment has a circular staircase that goes up into the cupula of roof. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Kerry Brown walks up to the 1872 French Second Empire house he and his wife Mabel restored at 236 Sanborn Street in Franklin. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 9/11/2019 4:16:07 PM

Mabel and Kerry Brown got a lot of reaction from people in Franklin when they brought in construction crews to start renovating the Babbitt Mansion on Sanborn Street.

The Windham couple said it was common for people to pull over in their cars to look at the home built in the French Second Empire architectural style and strike up a conversation with the people working there.

“Neighbors keep stopping by, wanting to tell us stories about the house,” Mabel Brown said. “People just thanked us for saving it. It’s such a unique part of Franklin history.”

The grand home was built in 1872 by Charles Babbitt, an investor in the Franklin Power Company who built many homes in the city. Babbitt lived in the home until he died in 1928.

It is especially known for the ornate features on its front porch. The white railings curve up to create a circular pattern that Mabel Brown, a history teacher, said she hasn’t seen replicated in her research of other homes from that era.

But in the century since Babbitt lived in the home, it fell into disrepair. It was abandoned for 10 years before the Browns purchased it at auction for $67,000 in 2018, Mabel Brown said. There was a family of raccoons living inside at the time. The insulation had been stolen as well as the home’s copper piping. Dirty clothes and trash lined the hallways.

The couple saw potential in the home, and hoped to renovate it to create three unique apartments that honored the history of the house. They saw potential in Franklin, too. The Browns said this is their second renovation project in the city. They also own an apartment building on Pine Street.

“We see Franklin as a really up-and-coming area for housing and development, and to see what a treasure this is for Franklin is awesome,” Mabel Brown said. “You can’t find this kind of house somewhere else.”

History

Charles Babbitt came to Franklin from Enfield where he was working in the lumber industry in the May of 1872, said Paul Doucette, of the Franklin Historical Society. He started building the mansion on Sanborn Street that year.

Babbitt, then 37, wanted to invest in water power along the river, where woolen mills, paper mills, and sawmills were a lucrative industry.

Franklin was mostly a farming community at that time, Doucette said. The major railroad in town that stretched from Franklin to Tilton wouldn’t be built until 1890. There were only two families who lived on that area of Sanborn Street.

By then and today’s standards, the house was impressive.

“It was an outstanding dwelling, there’s no question about it,” Doucette said. “The eye appeal, just the sheer massiveness of it was not something Franklin had seen before.”

After Babbitt’s death, the house changed hands a number of times. New owners built floors onto the house and added a barn to the back .

It deteriorated in the last few decades. In recent years, the house was mostly inhabited by squatters and critters.

Doucette said when he was growing up in Franklin, all of the neighborhood kids thought the home was haunted.

“Kids would dare each other to go on the porch and look into the window,” he said. “It was pretty run down.”

Renovating

The Browns spent a lot the last year of gutting, insulating and updating the home.

“In a lot of places, it just had to be ripped to the studs,” Kerry Brown said.

He said the goal was to save every historic element of the home that they could while adding a modern twist. The outcome was three apartments on each of the three floors, each with a district personality.

The bottom floor, which was original to Babbitt’s era, had the most historic features the Browns wanted to highlight.

They maintained all the historic trim and all of the hand-carved millwork, which was done in Franklin, as well as the lead glass windows.

A hand-carved wooden newel post with decorative lion heads and flowers sits at the bottom of the staircase that leads to the second floor, which Mabel Brown said is one of her favorite features of the home.

A pair of original French doors that open to a large bedroom are a focal point of the floor.

The second-floor apartment is the largest of the three is an open concept design. It has some hand-crafted millwork that was added onto the home after Babbitt’s time. Both the first and second floor apartments were put on the market for $1,800 a month.

The top floor apartment has one of Mabel Brown’s favorite spots – a spiral staircase that leads to a cupola that was added on in the 1970s or 80s.

“If it were me, I would put a bunch of plants up there, and just sit up there and read,” she said.

She said that a woman who grew up in the neighborhood is going to rent out that space. The third apartment was listed for $1,750 a month.

The outside of the home has been a major project too – there were a lot of improvements that needed to be made to the porch. The home has been painted a fresh coat of yellow and red.

“Now, you have this queen that’s been restored to her glory,” Mabel Brown said.

The Browns said they hope to eventually restore the barn at the back of the house and make it into another large apartment.

A lot to offer

Kerry Brown said he thinks properties like the Babbitt Mansion have a lot to offer the community.

“A lot of people have been driving by that place for 10 years while vacant and watching it deteriorate – it had a lot of historical value to it and it had a lot of sophisticated elegance about it,” he said. “It would have been a shame to lose all of the trim, the corbels the drop work and rip it down and make a cookie-cutter building.”

Franklin city planner Dick Lewis said Franklin, like all communities in the state, is grappling with how to develop for the future and also preserve its historic structures.

“When they aren’t being used and they fall into disrepair, that doesn’t help the neighborhood and that doesn’t help the city in general,” he said. “Having someone come in and spend the time and energy to restore and to renovate, that has multiple layers of benefits.”

Lewis said Franklin is seeing more renovations in the downtown and more residential units crop up, part of a wave of development in the city in recent years. He pointed to the renovation project with the J.P. Stephens Mill by Eric Chinburg.

“It’s part of a trend we’re seeing of new folks coming to the city of Franklin who see it’s potential and want to invest in it,” he said.




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