It takes a special type of person to own a haunted mansion, especially one as paranormally active and famous as the S.K. Pierce Haunted Victorian Mansion in Gardner, Massachusetts.
The Pierce mansion was built in 1875 by furniture magnate, S.K. Pierce in the town that came to be known as “Chair City” due to its abundant production of furniture. During its 140 year history, the 6,661 square foot mansion was witness to a variety of lifestyles. Starting out as a luxurious family mansion during the Guided Era, it took a slow decline as a boarding house through the Depression years, before landing in the hands of a wealthy, if not eccentric, artist. When he abandoned the mansion in the 1970s, the house sat vacant for thirty years until a private buyer decided to transform it into a private home once again. While the Veau family was aware of the haunting and frequently saw the ghost of a little boy race up the grand staircase, they didn’t experience the same level of terror that the next owners did. Edwin Gonzalez and Lillian Otero only lived in the house for two and a half years before the extreme haunting drove them out.
By May of 2015, the house was back on the market. People speculated about who the new owners would be. Some hoped the house would remain a private residence, while others wished it would be opened for tours and paranormal investigations. The reality landed somewhere in the middle.
In June of 2015, after only being on the real estate market for two weeks, the house was purchased sight-unseen by a couple from New Jersey.
On the surface, you wouldn’t peg Rob and Allison Conti as your typical haunted house buyers. The parents of three young children, Rob is a dentist, while Allison is a former investigator for a commercial investigative company. They live in a nice house in the suburbs of central New Jersey with a family dog named Capone and a pool in the backyard. If you dig a bit deeper though, you’ll see the reason.
Rob always wanted to run a haunted attraction. The dream started in childhood and followed him through his adulthood. Once he finally had the opportunity to realize his dream, fate stepped in and handed him a major obstacle.
Due to a tragic fire at the Six Flags Haunted Castle In 1984, where eight teenagers died, the laws for freestanding haunted attractions were dauntingly strict, essentially preventing anyone from opening another haunted house of its kind in the state of New Jersey. Even though he had the mental image of his ideal haunted attraction set firmly in his mind, he pushed it aside and came up with a completely different concept.
In 2010, the Conti’s opened The Dark Carnival in Freehold, New Jersey, a carnival-themed attraction held in an 8,000 square foot open-air circus arena, along with several other structures. Visitors to the amusement enjoy a winding maze filled with terrifying clowns, as well as attractions like The Meat Grinder, The Sanatorium, and a dark hallway filled with frights known as Night Terrors.
The Dark Carnival is heavy on creepy clowns, something that impacted Rob at an early age. When he was six years-old, his parents brought him to Madison Square Garden for the circus. The clowns came into the audience, looking for a volunteer to bring onto the stage. Despite the fact that he was hysterically crying, they were persistent about dragging him onto the stage. It was a traumatic experience for him, making him now appreciate why so many people are fearful of clowns.
When the S.K. Pierce Mansion went on the market, a friend of his wife sent them the MLS listing, thinking they might be interested, knowing about Rob’s childhood dream. Rob was astounded. “It was the house out of my head and the price was relatively affordable,” he said.
When he showed the listing to his wife, her reaction was a bit different. “Absolutely not!” she laughingly told him. After some further discussion, they decided to at least look into it and see if it was even feasible. Rob called the real estate agency the next day and immediately met with resistance. Known for its haunted history after being featured on numerous paranormal television shows, as well as the subject for my 2014 book Bones in the Basement – Surviving the S.K. Pierce Haunted Victorian Mansion, many people were calling the agency hoping for a peek inside the haunted mansion. The agency was careful about only showing the house to serious buyers.
After doing extensive research into the property, the Contis finally set the wheels in motion and put in an offer on the house.The real estate agency was astounded. In 25 years of business they had never sold a house sight-unseen. Rob knew what he was getting himself into though. It was the house of his dreams.
The Contis plan to fully restore the house, starting with the outside. Restoration on the crumbling soffits will begin within the next few weeks, with power washing and repainting soon following. Interior work will include the installation of a sprinkler system and some upgrades to the electrical and plumbing, as well as restoration to some of the plaster work. After a year of renovations, they will open the house to the public.
“Everything needs to be original looking,” he said. He will restore the Victorian to its former glory, down to the smallest details, such as having reproduction iron roof finials made for the top of the infamous widows walk. He was pleasantly pleased to learn that, besides the exterior decay, the house is structurally sound and in excellent condition.
The current plan is to open the house up for daily, weekly, or monthly rentals for eleven months of the year. People who have always wanted to spend the night in a haunted mansion will have an opportunity to do so. During the month of October, the house will be transformed into a weekend haunted attraction, complete with hired actors and high-end props. They are currently working on obtaining off-site parking options, as well.
Rob has been astounded by the attention his purchase has generated. “People are already trying to make reservations, even though the opening is still a year out,” he said. He was recently interviewed by Channel 7 News in Boston, in addition to being a guest on several paranormal radio shows. “Everyone has been amazingly supportive,” he said, of the town and the mansion’s multitude of fans.
(above) New owners, Rob and Allison Conti, with former owners, Lillian Otero and Edwin Gonzales
Rob understands the way people feel about the mansion. “It almost seems like it’s a community house. We own it, but it’s our responsibility to fix the house, so that needs to be done,” he said. Will they open it for paranormal investigations? Rob is still pondering the idea, knowing that it will require different handling from a normal rental. His primary focus, for now, is to fix the house. “Once we get that done, we can consider all the other options,” he said. One thing’s for certain: there won’t be any clowns, something that was hashed and rehashed by fans on social media.
During our hour long interview, one question kept rising to my mind. I waited until nearly the end of our conversation to ask it. Does he believe in ghosts?
“I’m starting to now. I’ve never been in this situation before. It’s hard to not to because there are tons of people all telling me the same story. I find it hard to believe that hundreds of people are in on the same hoax,” he said with a laugh. I’m fairly certain his opinion will be solidified in the coming years, if the Victorian ghosts are true to form.
The Conti’s set up a website, as well as a Facebook page where fans of the house can keep track of the progress. If you’d like to read more about the mansion’s dark history, check out my book by clicking the photo below.
Joni Mayhan is a paranormal investigator and the author of 11 books. For more information about her, check out her website Jonimayhan.com or her terrifying true paranormal books on Amazon.com, including Dark and Scary Things, Devil’s Toy Box, The Soul Collector or Bones in the Basement.