Estate Planning

Estate Planning

I’ve always fantasized about owning a gorgeous manor home on a sprawling, bucolic estate. So did Chuck Mascola, who grew up in the East Shore community of New Haven coveting “Raynham,” the jewel of his neighborhood. Built in 1804 by local merchants Isaac and Kneeland Townshend, this 19-room Gothic Revival beauty is surrounded by 26 acres of outbuildings, gardens, a vineyard, specimen trees, wetlands and woods.

My fantasies, however, have never included performing all the maintenance and improvement that such an investment might require. That’s where Mascola and I differ. When Raynham was put up for sale in 2021—after the death of Doris “Deb” Biesterfeld Townshend at age 98, the last of many Townshends to summer or, as Deb did, reside in the home—Mascola and his wife, Marcella, along with partner Sal Marottoli saw the potential to turn the house, which hadn’t been updated in nearly 100 years, into a self-sustaining business—and endow the property with enough value and utility to sustain it for generations to come. Other interested buyers wanted to tear down the house, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, and erect condominiums, but a letter Mascola wrote to Townshend’s son, Hervey, earned the family’s blessing as long as Mascola and company could meet the asking price: $2.25 million.

They could, and thus was conceived The Estate, an events venue with both an exclusive air and a communal spirit. The Estate’s website touts the site’s versatility as a wedding venue that can accommodate small and large affairs with equal aplomb. So far, intimate first-floor gatherings, such as the Morris Cove Garden Club’s 100th anniversary tea party, have been centered around the dining room, reception room, north and south parlor (the north parlor features a baby grand piano) and an indoor barroom. A fully modernized kitchen includes an up-to-date refrigerator, six-burner gas stove and oven, dishwasher and pass-through window, which keeps chefs and servers out of each other’s hair, and unlike at many venues, event hosts can bring in any “qualified” catering team they’d like.

A tent in the site’s courtyard helps accommodate large occasions of up to 150 guests, and the property offers acres of features to explore and use for photo ops. Close by the tent, in the midst of the courtyard, is a magnificent tiered water fountain believed to date back to the 1700s. Ashley Gervais, The Estate’s director of special events, believes the fountain, now functioning for the first time in 50 years, was purchased by the Townshends and relocated from a downtown New Haven estate: “We’re trying to track its lineage,” she says. One of my favorite spots is the patio adjacent to the house kitchen, which, at this time of year, features a graceful, dazzlingly red Chinese maple as a natural canopy.

Wedding couples in particular can avail themselves of several upstairs rooms as prep areas. The bride’s suite includes a dressing area and a pantry with coffeemaker and microwave; a hair and makeup room is yet to come. On the other side of the upstairs layout is a groom’s suite with a comfy sitting room and armoire that will eventually be turned into a beverage bar.

This year, The Estate initiated a Kentucky Derby Soiree for the Melissa Marottoli Hogan Foundation—dedicated to lung cancer research—that welcomed 135 guests, offering live music, an open bar, hors d’oeuvres and dessert for $125. The Run for the Roses was aired on two 85-inch LED screens and attendees dressed for the affair as though the East Shore had suddenly morphed into Churchill Downs. This has whetted the owners’ appetites to host more public-facing events. In addition to another Derby Day next year, they want to offer speakeasy nights, speaker series and wine dinners. “We’re really just getting our feet wet,” Gervais says.

Overall, a three-stage redevelopment is in the works for the property. Stage one, involving improvements to the house, has largely been completed, outside of a few more refinements (including the installation of air conditioning on the second floor).

Stage two focuses on how to make public use of the outbuildings and other features on the 12 cultivated acres surrounding the house. Plans are already afoot to turn the carriage house/garage into a public tavern called The Horse and Hound and to renovate the back barn into a suitable alternate rental space, and a small tan building set alongside the outdoor reception tent, once used as a Townshend family office, is slated to become an outdoor bar with a patio and walk-up window. Grapes from the estate’s replanted vineyard, now in its second year, will become the basis of an estate wine. My idea of the ideal hangout is a small slate patio toward the back of the property that has already been turned into a fire pit where visitors are welcome to sit and relax. “We’ve already had some ladies bring lawn chairs there, enjoy some drinks and play bocce for a couple of hours,” Gervais says.

Stage three concerns what to do with the remainder of the historic estate. While the property’s wetlands will remain untouched, the rest of its undeveloped 14 acres—particularly its woods beyond the tree line—may be converted into housing. “The idea is to create a sort of mini neighborhood,” Chuck Mascola says. The current thinking is that these new constructions would range from 1,800 to 3,200 square feet. “If someone buys a home, they will have access to all of the estate’s land as their property,” he adds, except for dates when some major event, such as a wedding, is occupying the grounds.

Existing residents of the East Shore have had chances to kick the tires; two open house tours have welcomed hundreds of visitors. “It gave us a lot of joy to see their reactions,” Gervais says. I’m told local dog walkers are welcome to make passive use of the grounds unless an event is underway. “It’s great to see people using the property when it’s open—obviously much better than having it lay vacant,” Gervais says. As for the event planning process, she loves it when, much like the Mascolas and Marottoli once did, “people see the place as a blank canvas for their ideas. We want them to make the space whatever they want, and it’s neat to see what they come up with.”

Written by Patricia Grandjean. Images 1-8 provided courtesy of The Estate. Image 9, of the fledgling vineyard, photographed by Patricia Grandjean. Image 5 features Marcella and Chuck Mascola at the Kentucky Derby Soiree.

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Anyone interested in the long view of Townshend family history is advised to check out Townshend Heritage, a 1971 tome written by Deb, who produced roughly 12 more books during a life that reads like an encyclopedia of civic engagement, both in New Haven and beyond Connecticut’s borders. Published by the New Haven Museum (when it was still known as the New Haven Colony Historical Society), Heritage contains accounts of two major renovations in Raynham’s history. The first, in 1856, remodeled the home from its original Federal style to Gothic Revival, which she notes was “sweeping the country” at the time.

One of the main features of this conversion was a two-tiered tower surrounded by a widow’s walk, the top level of which afforded views stretching out to Long Island on a clear day. Family members carved their initials on its walls for posterity. Other home developments included rosewood furniture designed by renowned New York cabinetmaker John Henry Belter of New York, as well as a dining room in the style of Louis Quatorze, with walnut sideboards that sported carved game birds on the doors (one also served, in part, as the household’s safe). While much of the furniture that was added to the house at that time was later sold at auction, most of its Gothic flourishes are intact: ornate chandeliers, stone tracery at the windows, pointed arches for windows and passageways, asymmetrical floor plans, steeply pitched roofs, elaborate wood carvings and finials everywhere.

The 1925 renovation, according to Townshend, fully transformed Raynham from what the family considered a farm into a traditional manor estate. Bathrooms were added, doors redesigned to let in more light, outdoor porches appended, an outdoor courtyard reconfigured, gardens and barn expanded and the carriage house turned into a garage with chauffeur’s accommodations. After Deb married Henry Townshend Jr. in 1942, the estate changed from a family summer home into a full-time residence that accommodated five children.

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