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In-Depth: Demolition of beloved mansion 'bittersweet' as lakefront revitalization project begins in Vermilion

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Posted at 5:54 PM, Apr 22, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-22 19:26:55-04

VERMILION, Ohio — It was once a family mansion then a museum but eventually became an empty relic. Now, the beloved Wakefield Mansion, which has gazed over Lake Erie for 112 years, will soon make way for a new chapter in Vermilion's history.

Built in 1909, the Wakefield Mansion was picked of its architectural artifacts Thursday afternoon before heavy machinery began the demolition process. The concrete-clad estate, which sits north of downtown Vermilion and overlooks Main Street Beach, will soon cease to exist by the weekend. While bittersweet for the town's residents, the demolition of the mansion will provide additional real estate for a much-anticipated rejuvenation of the lakefront park.

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"This is a really important project for Vermilion because this will turn this space into public land," said Marilou Suszko, the director for Main Street Vermilion, the town's chamber of commerce organization. "I think it's going to take a long time for our hearts and our eyes to adjust to not seeing this here. But what's to come? I think that's the exciting part."

For the past several weeks, crews have had the tedious task of removing large amounts of asbestos from the mansion, which was used as the Inland Seas Maritime Museum and Great Lakes Historical Society for several decades. The museum moved to a larger space in Toledo in 2014. Prior to the museum's move, the city of Vermilion raised enough money to purchase the property in order to prevent it from being privately developed.

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However, after study and review of potential future uses for the palatial estate, city officials came to the conclusion that it simply wasn't economically viable to remediate, restore and re-purpose the century-old building. Perhaps it was a blessing in disguise.

"It's the Main Street Beach Revitalization Project. I think that word, revitalization, really captures the goal of this project," said Jared Saylor, the director of communications for the Western Reserve Land Conservancy, which has been intimately involved in the planned development. "Although I think a lot of folks in the city and land conservancy included would have preferred to preserve this property [if it was economically viable]. I think what we're going to put here in its place is going to be really special for the people of Vermilion."

As part of the revitalization project, the Wakefield Mansion will be demolished and an ancillary building will be dismantled and auctioned off. Two smaller parcels of land that feature two modest homes will also be absorbed into the development's footprint. The two homes will also be demolished. The beloved lighthouse will remain in place, officials said.

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The additional real estate will allow for the expansion of Main Street near the adjacent beach. In addition to a widened roadway, additional parking spaces will also be constructed, along with walkways and boardwalks leading to the beach. The redevelopment plan also includes the construction of new public restrooms, changing rooms, a snack bar, and other amenities. All in all, the project will drastically improve public access to the beach, creating a park-like atmosphere that could draw in visitors from throughout the region, providing Vermillion businesses with increased economic activity.

"I think it's really an opportunity to brighten the diamond that is this beach. In the state of Ohio, only 17% of shorelines on Lake Erie are publicly accessible," Saylor said. "There's so much potential."

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The demolition of the Wakefield Mansion also bookends a decade-long journey that captivated Vermilion residents, who frequently wondered what the future held for the homestead.

"It served a lot of different purposes and there are a lot of memories that leave with this building. It's bittersweet," Suszko said. "On the other hand, we're about to make new history here. What is the new history going to be?"

As demolition crews began making large incisions to the century-old facade, curious onlookers gathered to watch. The building, which stood for 112 years, won't last another few days. Nan Gregory, a longtime resident of Vermilion that also helped with fundraising efforts, described the mansion as a special place. As sad as she was to see the building torn down, she remains excited for what's to come.

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"I understand that it is bittersweet but I'll take the sweet attitude," Gregory said.

Main Street Beach will remain open throughout the summer. During the off-season, construction on the widened roadway and round-a-bout will commence. The entire project is expected to be complete by May 2022.