As the Larchwood Inn is torn down and becomes a heap of debris, its memories seem to have been released into the air like ghosts: A wedding celebrated in the yard. A weekly meeting in the Rotary Room. Being treated like a regular when Michael Healy was manning the bar in the Tam O’Shanter Lounge.
Owner Roland Fiore, who received a demolition permit for the building in March, began the process of tearing it down Monday, within hours of a Washington County Superior Court hearing that decided who would be considered an intervenor in Post Acute Partners’ appeal of the South Kingstown Planning Board’s denial of its master plan for a 72-bed, 69,000-square-foot, Alzheimer’s assisted living facility on the property.
Fiore did not return a call for comment.
But the legal case was not on people’s minds this week. Instead, they were recalling the stately old inn, and its role in Wakefield’s history.
The Larchwood Inn was not always an inn. It was built as The Larches in 1831, as a private residence for Wakefield Mill owner James Robinson. It was not as grand an edifice in those days – that came later, after 1850, when Stephen Wright, a blacksmith who made his fortune in the Gold Rush, renovated it, adding the granite wall in front with the wrought-iron fence, the circular entrance and the flagstone walkway. After his death, the property had a series of owners until 1925, when George Phillips, live-in caretaker of the Kingston Jail, opened it as Larchwood Inn. It had passed from owner to owner, always operating as an inn until 2006. Hugh and Louise Cameron bought it in 1947, and added many of the Scottish touches that made it so memorable to people today.
“The Camerons’ Scottish ancestry loomed large not only in their own lives but also in the atmosphere they created at the inn,” said Helene Gersuny, in memories of the Larchwood Inn preserved by South County History Center, which is located in the old jail Phillips once tended. “The waitstaff wore plaid; the bar was the Tam O’Shanter Lounge. The annual Robert Burns birthday celebration was always sold out; indeed it was so popular that without a ticket one needed to wait for a death to make room for one’s admission. The walls of the restaurant contained the symbols of the clans that had participated in the historic battle of Culloden (including the Camerons!) where Bonnie Prince Charlie met his defeat.”
Frank and Diann Browning bought the inn from Louise Cameron in 1971, after Hugh died and she could no longer operate it herself. For 30 years, they hosted weddings, parties, the Rotary Club and other community groups. In 2005, after Frank died, Diann was in the same position, and facing $500,000 in renovations to meet the fire code.
“The Larchwood was varianced out of everything in the late 1970s and 1980s,” Union Fire District Fire Marshal Robert Emmott told The Independent in 2007. “It had no legitimate exits for hotel occupancy, no sprinklers, no fire alarm, no corridor rating.”
The variances were removed after the Station Nightclub fire killed 100 people and the state tightened up its fire code requirements. The Brownings went to the Variance Board, a subcommittee of the State Fire Safety Code Board, asking for the variances to be restored. Some were, but only on the condition that sprinklers be installed, which would cost approximately $500,000. Diann closed the inn and sold the property to developers who hoped to renovate it as a boutique inn and restaurant, but the Great Recession foiled those plans.
The Larchwood Inn has stood empty since 2005. In 2007, the developers held a yard sale, stripping the interior for architectural salvage, and selling the contents, down to the salt-and-pepper shakers and muffin tins that remained in its kitchen.
In 2008, the developers donated the property to a Chicago nonprofit that in turn sold it in 2009 to its current owner, Roland Fiore, who holds it as 521 Main St. LLC. Fiore has had the property on and off the market since that time. In 2014, he entered into an agreement with Post Acute Partners, the company that also owns Elderwood of Scallop Shell, a nursing and rehabilitation center in Peace Dale. Post Acute Partners proposed demolishing the Larchwood Inn and building a 69,000-square-foot, 72-bed Alzheimer’s assisted living facility on the property.
Neighbors and historical preservation advocates fought the proposal, which they called too large for the property, and unsuited for this location on Main Street, which is considered a gateway to downtown Wakefield. Out of that opposition, an advocacy group, Preserve Wakefield, formed. After lengthy, often contentious meetings, the Planning Board initially approved the master plan. But Preserve Wakefield members, in doing door-to-door advocacy, had met an abutter who had recently moved in, and was not properly notified of the proposal. That caused the Planning Board decision to be nullified.
After a second hearing, the Planning Board, on a split decision, voted down the proposed master plan. Post Acute Partners appealed to the Zoning Board, which sits as the Planning Board of Appeal, and that board upheld the Planning Board decision.
The court appeal
In Superior Court Monday, Preserve Wakefield lawyer Paul Ryan cited a case involving Save The Bay as he argued that since his client had two members whose properties abut the Larchwood Inn property, it should be allowed status as an aggrieved party.
Jeffrey Brenner, lawyer for Post Acute Partners Acquisition LLC, argued Preserve Wakefield did not formally exist until it registered with the Secretary of State’s office in May, after the Zoning Board appeal. Since Rhode Island law states an aggrieved party in a Zoning Board appeal must be a person or entity who can demonstrate they would be injured or anyone who required notice for a hearing, and Preserve Wakefield owned no real estate abutting the property and its primary members were not abutters, it should not be given standing, he said.
Judge Luis Matos dismissed the motion to grant Preserve Wakefield intervenor status, stating there was nothing to indicate the group would be injured. It was dismissed without prejudice. Matos indicated Preserve Wakefield could file an amicus brief. After a review of briefs submitted in the case, Matos will rule on the appeal without a trial.
Reporter Matthew Enright contributed to this story.