Greta Gerwig’s ‘Little Women’ filmed in historic Lancaster mansion

The Thayer Mansion in Lancaster was used recently in the new movie “Little Women” that came out in 2019. Martha Colby sits on the stairs where one of the actors sat for a scene. She is one of the caretakers of the house and land that lives in the house. SENTINEL & ENTERPRISE/JOHN LOVE
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LANCASTER — Great pains were taken to prepare the old Thayer Mansion on George Hill Road for filming after director Greta Gerwig and her production team selected it as a set location for her 2019 movie adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s mid-19th century novel, “Little Women.”

For several weeks in the fall of 2018, crews fixed up a portion of the first floor, updating hardwood flooring, stuffing bookcases with period-appropriate books, replacing electric lights with candles and painting walls darker.

“They put cupcake papers inside to catch the wax, and then put a candle,” groundskeeper Alan Colby said during a tour of the first floor on Friday, motioning to light fixtures in a sitting room that was used as a library during filming.

The crew’s investment into the property was not for nothing — fans of the film would quickly recognize several rooms near the property’s main entrance as the backdrop for more than one pivotal scene, most of which take place inside the Laurence home. (For the uninitiated, the story’s plot centers around the lives of the four March sisters during and after the American Civil War, following them from their teen years and through young adulthood, as well as tracking their family’s relationship with their wealthy and generous neighbors, the Laurences.)

The mansion’s carriage house also makes a notable appearance — although in the movie, it’s transformed to appear as a train station.

The Thayer Mansion in Lancaster was used recently in the new movie “Little Women” that came out in 2019. Alan Colby talks about the movie filling in the house and on the grounds as he stands in front of one of the window that still had curtains that had been put up for the movie. SENTINEL & ENTERPRISE/JOHN LOVE

Colby, a retired history teacher and private school principal, along with his wife, Martha Colby, have been affiliated with the property since 2011. After Colby was initially hired to do an assessment of the property for its owners, he was then hired as the operations manager, and shortly thereafter, as a live-in groundskeeper. They have lived on the premises ever since.

The mansion, built in 1904 by Bayard Thayer, has been on the market since 2012, and is currently for sale for $2.5 million, following several price drops. Although people frequently request viewings, realtor Dan Loring, of the Apple Country Team, said few are serious buyers.

The property itself has lived many lives — first as a summer home, then under the ownership of the Catholic Church. After it sold in 1985, it became a meditation retreat destination known as the Maharishi Ayruveda Health Center. The house is currently owned by a nonprofit and is still used to host transcendental meditation retreats — a practice that Colby teaches. He said some of the “Little Women” crew participated while on location.

Among them were Gerwig and Saoirse Ronan, who played the leading role of Jo March in the film.

“I think I talked to Greta Gerwig a little more than anyone else, mostly about her practice in transcendental meditation,” Colby said. “I was encouraging her to be regular.”

During filming, Colby said, Gerwig heeded his advice.

The Thayer Mansion in Lancaster was used recently in the new movie “Little Women” that came out in 2019. This painting was brought in and hung for the movie and was left behind after they left. SENTINEL & ENTERPRISE/JOHN LOVE

“And she did take breaks,” he said. “I mean, they essentially shut down and she’d go meditate because any kind of tension or stress, it kind of dissipates it.”

The Colbys were already fans of the novel, which was first published in 1868 and whose legacy has endured through more than a half-dozen film adaptations.

But while they were excited and said that hosting the film crew was a generally positive experience, Colby said he wasn’t particularly starstruck by the A-list cast, which included, aside from Ronan, the likes of Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern, Chris Cooper and Timothée Chalamet. (Meryl Streep was also cast in the movie, although she did not appear in any scenes set at the Thayer Mansion, according to Colby.)

“They’re just talented people. Some people think they’re like — whoa — gods or something. But … mostly they’re pleasant, nice people and they don’t like it if you go gaga,” Colby said.

That didn’t stop some locals from attempting to infiltrate the set, however. Although security was stationed at every entrance, at least a few people attempted to gain access once the crew had arrived.

One person went so far as to pose as a deliveryman with a package, Colby said.

“But the box didn’t have a label on it,” Colby said. “It was just a box in his car.”

Excitement aside, Colby and Martha both professed admiration for the film’s end product, praising Gerwig for her decision to tell the story out of chronological order, as well as for the sheer number of women the director employed to get the project done — a testament to the story’s overtly feminist energy.

The Thayer Mansion in Lancaster was used recently in the new movie “Little Women” that came out in 2019. SENTINEL & ENTERPRISE/JOHN LOVE

“The theme of the movie is, I think, very contemporary,” Colby said. “And I mean, that’s why Greta Gerwig wanted to do it, not just because it’s a classic. It kind of shows that this theme of women trying to realize their dreams and be who they are, and not be sort of stifled by an overly male culture — it goes way back. It’s not just a modern thing.”

And of course, he said, it was special to have the film — which has had a near-uniformly positive reception — filmed in northern Massachusetts, where Alcott herself grew up, and where she set the story in the first place. It’s impossible, Colby said, to truly replicate the region elsewhere.

“New England is New England because of its history,” Colby said.

Gerwig’s “Little Women” was released Dec. 25 and is showing in theaters around the country.