HARVARD -- When the Hildreth House Improvement Committee came before selectmen to present its budget Tuesday night, the board had questions, which is par for the course during the budget review process leading up to Town Meeting each year. But this time, one selectman had a potential monkey wrench up his sleeve.

"I think it's a bad idea" to renovate Hildreth House, Leo Blair said, while acknowledging that it was "late in the game" to say so and that the committee wouldn't like to hear it after working on the plan for eight months. But this was the first time he had a chance to address the committee and he felt compelled to publicly state his opposition, he said.

Citing the site's "poor location" atop a hill and the rocky ledge the old manse sits on, Blair said the main issue is that "it's a house," center chimney and all, and not a public building, like, say Town Hall. Exterior challenges aside, it can be costly to tackle such makeovers, he said, given that rooms, hallways and other interior spaces were configured for a household and are not suited for a public facility, such as a senior center.

"Four million dollars is an enormous cost," he said, noting the total project price tag. Single items such as a trench for the sewer hook-up, for $175,000, which could be the first of many such hefty expenses that could crop up if the project moves ahead.


"I suspect a lot of hidden costs," Blair continued, and when viewed along with a controversial Town Hall renovation whose fate is still uncertain, voters who seem "less than confident" in the selectmen's ability to make good financial decisions, might balk. In that "environment," Blair predicted a "real tough sell" for the Hildreth House project.

In the larger sense, he sketched a "trend" toward spending so much on fixed assets that programs get cut when taxpayers get fed up. For now, he suggested considering better locations in town for the Council on Aging to set up shop.

The wave of the future in terms of elder services includes senior day care, Blair said, a service he wishes had been available in town when his brother, who suffered from Down's Syndrome, was stricken with Alzheimer's disease. Blair said he cared for his brother and tried to keep him at home during the last year of his life and an adult day care facility would have helped his family considerably during that difficult time. But there's no way, in his estimation, that Hildreth House could accommodate such a facility.

Despite his critical view of the renovation plan, Blair praised the HHIC for its work. "This group has done a "phenomenal job shepherding this through," Blair said, even if he disagrees with their recommendation to move forward with the project.

The updated renovation plan the HHIC hopes to present at Annual Town Meeting in April includes exterior improvements such as widening the driveway, with a revised cost estimate of $3.7 million, up from $3.5 million in the earlier version.

According to the HHIC report, the group has applied for about $200,000 in Community Preservation Act funding for items that fit the CPA profile, including new windows, porch improvements to bring the floor up to level with the access ramp, a wheelchair lift, renovating the upstairs bathroom and adding a handicap-accessible sink in the kitchen.

The group also plans to launch a private fundraising campaign to buy items not included in the cost estimate, such as new appliances and furniture, member Connie Larrabee said.