Penguin Hall, soon to become a luxurious senior independent living community, is the gem of Wenham that started with a Ruby. By Susan Soule Shulins // photographs by Zoe Isaac
If Penguin Hall, a 20,000- square-foot manor house nestled on a 50-acre wooded estate in Wenham, could talk, it would tell a story that begins in 1929 with Ruby Boyer Miller. A wealthy, married socialite from Grosse Point, MI, Miller hired renowned architect Harrie T. Lindeberg to design the opulent 1930s-style mansion, where she spent many summers with her alleged—and also married—lover, Admiral Richard Byrd.
In a nod to his famous exploration of Antarctica, the Admiral lavished upon Miller a pair of bronze penguins, which inspired the elegant summer estate’s name and still flank its entrance. Other symbols of the couple’s affections can be seen in the evocative spider-web door, the curious zodiac symbols around the entrance, and the suggestive hearts built into the roof drains. There are even twin urns outside the entrance that, when the carriage lamps are lit, form a perfect heart with their shadows.
The opulent mansion also features Classical period details like wall-to-ceiling leaded glass windows and Jacobean linen-fold wood paneling; silver sconces made uniquely for Miller by Boston’s Shreve, Crump & Low; exquisite dark oak carved doors; vaulted coffered ceilings; whimsical hidden cabinets; and a 360-degree "flying" staircase.
Unfortunately, all seasons must end and, after 30 years of lavishly indulgent summers, Ruby Miller passed away. In 1960, a Miller heir sold Penguin Hall to the Boston Archdiocese for $330,000, after which it housed religious novices until it became a retirement home for The Sisters of Notre Dame. (It later served as a conference center for an insurance company.)
Over the years, Penguin Hall and its magnificent grounds began to show their age, and they were in great need of restoration and a triumphant return to an opulent past. Enter advertising titan and all-around Renaissance man Jim Mullen of Mullen Communications, one of the nation’s top 20 advertising agencies. Mullen needed a new location for his employees after the ad agency’s office in Beverly—the Loeb Estate in Prides Crossing—was destroyed by a fire. Mullen bought Penguin Hall for a reported $7.5 million in 1987 and began the arduous restoration of the manor house, transforming it into his corporation’s new headquarters.
Left to right: Liz Blodgett-Smith, director of sales and marketing; Chris Wise, CEO of Wise Living; Jim Mullen; and Lynne Willetts, director of special projects.
Mullen, who lives in a historic home in Manchester-by-the-Sea, conveys an easy-going, humble demeanor, even though a check of his extensive resume would list him as a trained biophysicist, advertising mogul, competitive racecar driver, and a renowned racing sailor. Of his renovation of Penguin Hall, which took place from 1987 to 1990, Mullen says with quiet passion, "I’m a preservationist, and [Penguin Hall] deserves to be maintained."
Mullen tells of the painstaking process involved in bringing Penguin Hall up—literally—to code. "Because three percent of the insulation [in the walls and roof] was found to be asbestos, the entire insulation had to be removed," Mullen says. "I had to carefully remove all the historic items, fully insulate the building, install sprinkler systems...then put everything back together again. Everything you see is original, including the hinges, nuts, and bolts." Even the ornate, original light switches—along with all the utilities—were refurbished to meet current code. Approaching the jaw-dropping spiral "flying" staircase—a staircase with no apparent means of support—Mullen says that "half of it was missing" when he first bought the property. It was completely renovated for over a year, thanks to a group effort by a gunsmith, woodworkers, and local machinist Henry Szostek. "Now, it’s strong enough to hold the entire [New England] Patriots team," Mullen says proudly.
For more than 20 years, Mullen Communications enjoyed success in the refurbished Penguin Hall, which included 46,000 square feet of additional office space and the installation of state-of-the-art technology. In the "Emily Dickinson" room (Mullen named several rooms in the mansion after his personal heroes and heroines), Mullen presses a button and, like magic, a cherry-paneled wall rises to reveal a large projector screen and related equipment.
With clients that including the likes of General Motors, Mullen Communications had become an advertising powerhouse, with reported billings of more than $250 billion and a roster of nearly 500 employees. In 1999, Mullen sold the company to Interpublic Group. When the company decided to move to Boston in 2009, Mullen was left with the empty, sprawling Penguin Hall estate. At a time when most men would consider retiring and hitting the links, Mullen, still owner of the Penguin Hall building, was ready for his next business endeavor, as well as a new adventure for one of the last parkland estates to be developed on the North Shore.
"I became committed to the idea of senior living and began working with Deaconess Abundant Life," Mullen says. He went on to explain that after a few years of working together, construction plans were canceled over a lack of financing due to the real estate crash of 2008. Undeterred, Mullen remained devoted to finding a project that would fit with Penguin Hall’s rich, dignified past. He eventually met up with Chris Wise, CEO of Wise Living and another entrepreneur who had passion and expertise to share and who could help realize Mullen’s dream. A partnership was born and a project put into place to transform Penguin Hall yet again—this time, from the campus of an advertising agency to a luxurious senior independent living community.
Wise, now co-principal of Penguin Hall with Mullen, is a maverick in the world of senior independent living. He has already enjoyed success in the building, managing, and marketing of six Wise Living Senior Independent Communities on Cape Cod. With a full head of salt-and-pepper hair, ocean blue eyes, and remarkable enthusiasm, Wise’s passion for the Penguin Hall project is contagious. "I first became interested in care for seniors when my grandmother in New York City couldn’t live on her own anymore but didn’t want to ‘move in with old people,’" Wise says. "So I came up with a solution that worked for her...it evolved into several Wise Living Communities."
For over 20 years, Wise Living has endorsed a strong preference for in-home healthcare—exactly where healthcare covered by insurance appears to be heading—and emphasized the importance of equity, choice, and control for seniors. "There’s been a demise of the Walton generation...but we don’t believe seniors should have to sacrifice their lifestyles or give up their connection with community to transition into retirement," Wise asserts.
In its latest incarnation, Penguin Hall will be a senior independent living community—with the emphasis on living—where active adults over the age of 55 will enjoy home ownership in the form of fully equipped, luxury condominium residences and engage in a wide spectrum of owner-driven amenities and activities. Residents will also have full access to luxe common rooms in Penguin Hall and 24/7 concierge service. Offerings will include a gourmet restaurant, a fitness center, pools, bistros and cafes, walking trails, classes at nearby Gordon College, and flower and vegetable gardens. Even pets will be allowed.
"We want residents to feel they live in neighborhoods that all connect," says Mullen. Adds Wise with a smile: "But the offerings will be raised up a notch from when Ruby lived here."
Mullen and Wise say they’re well on their way to making Penguin Hall Senior Independent Living a reality and are working with Windover Construction of Manchester-by-the-Sea and EGA Architects of Newburyport. "We’re using North Shore resources, keeping it local," Wise says. The project could add up to 270,000 square feet of housing.
The centerpiece of the new community will be the now 83-year-old mansion, which will serve as a grand lobby and common area for residents. Approximately 192 two- and three-bedroom condominiums, four of which will be situated in Penguin Hall, are planned. "Each condo will have its own sunroom," promises Mullen, adding, "The restaurant and common areas will be owned and enjoyed by residents—but everything else is à la carte." As many as three additional 1930s-style manor houses, each encompassing 12 to 16 lavish residences, are planned as well.
Mullen and Wise have plans to demolish the large brick buildings on the property, which were built in the 1950s. Parking lots will be removed and replaced with elevator-serviced, heated garages. Construction could begin as early as next summer or early fall. "We’re hoping to be open in three years," says Wise. "[Mullen] has an eye for detail and a passion for retaining history. His goal is to preserve Penguin Hall for another 100 years."
Surely, somewhere, Ruby Miller and Admiral Byrd are toasting another wonderful century for their beloved Penguin Hall.