How an LA transplant turned a ‘haunted’ mansion in Orange into the talk of the town

How an LA transplant turned a ‘haunted’ mansion in Orange into the talk of the town

They tried to warn her.

Not only was the historic building near downtown rotting away on its foundation, but residents in Orange were convinced it was probably occupied by ghosts — or so the rumors go.

Still, the 120-year-old Wheeler Mansion’s spooky reputation didn’t bother Cynthia Butler. In fact, it’s the reason she uprooted her life in Los Angeles and moved to the small Western Massachusetts community — one she’d previously never heard of — in the first place.

“One fireman came up and the first thing he says is, ‘You know this house is haunted, right?’” said Butler, 50. “And I was like, ‘I’m counting on it.’”

For the last two years, Butler has been hard at work restoring the abandoned landmark to its former glory, and transforming it into a hot spot for those intrigued byold-fashioned style and the otherworldly.

Butler, who worked in the entertainment industry and dabbled in real estate, had been scrolling endlessly through websites listing old homes in need of serious renovations. She hoped to find a spot off the beaten path that she could turn into a retreat for artists, musicians, and other creative individuals, like the places she’d visited on trips abroad.

Despite its many flaws, she felt drawn to the 15,000-square-foot home, built in the beaux arts revival style and sporting four grand columns outside its front door.

Its walls buckled and bulged, and the mansion’s roof leaked so badly that a tree was sprouting from the floor. But she was enamored by its charm and the potential lurking in its musty, shadowy halls.

“People travel from all over just to stay in a haunted house, have a drink at a haunted pub, or do ghost walks or tours,” she said. “I wanted to be a part of that.”

So she bought it for a bargain — $150,000 — and moved in with her 11-year-old daughter. Once they got settled, the hard work began.

Butler patched up the roof and replaced the aging walls. She pared the sprawling home’s 20 rooms down to 10 and is in the process of renovating them and filling each with antique furniture from local markets. Vintage photographs of “powerful women” — a tribute to the building’s past life as a home for older women with the Order of the Eastern Star — are going up.

She’s been documenting all of it on Instagram, where she’s gained a sizable following for the ambitious undertaking.

Residents of the town have watched with curiosity as this stranger from across the country swooped in to restore the property.

“I was dumfounded, to be honest with you,” said Thomas Smith, office manager at Witty’s Funeral Home and a volunteer with the Orange Merchants Group, a business collective. “Orange is a very small community where everybody kind of knows everybody. And I was like, ‘Who is this person?’”

Right away, the building lived up to its spooky reputation. In her first weeks living there, Butler is certain she heard her daughter calling out, “Mom, come here! I need you!” from a third-floor stairwell.

“I was unpacking some pots and pans and I just put everything away and went up the stairs and shook her awake,” Butler said. “She had been dead asleep.”

It happened again, she said, while working in her backyard, when her housemate said she heard Butler calling her from the garden. But Butler hadn’t said a word.

Later, a construction crew working on the house claimed they heard a window breaking somewhere in the mansion. But when they went to investigate, there were no glass shards to be found.

“I’m just going to accept the fact that I coexist with some incredibly eccentric, funny ladies,” she said, referring to the building’s former residents. “Now when things happen, I just talk to them.”

Under Butler’s tutelage, the Revival Wheeler Mansion, as she calls it, is leaning into these strange occurrences.

She’s invited paranormal investigators to tour the property and hosted a Witchy Wellness Bazaar, where vendors sold homemade crafts and potions. She’s planning a Pumpkin Festival closer to Halloween.

It’s also thrived outside the spooky season, with Easter egg hunts and events like “Return to Hogwarts,” an homage to the Harry Potter series.

Although they were initially skeptical about its new owner, the home’s transformation and regular activities have been a welcome surprise for residents who feared the building might be lost forever.

“Being yankees, we were all a little bit like, ‘What’s this going to turn into?’” said Jane Peirce, chairwoman of the Board of Selectmen. “I thought, if we’re lucky it’ll get carved into condos or something like that. But what she’s done is just so far beyond anything we would have even dared to hope for. It’s wonderful.”

Last year, when Butler volunteered to host the town’s annual Christmas event in the mansion’s ornate ballroom, locals jumped at the chance to get a peek inside.

“It was like ‘Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,’” Smith said. “People were lined up down the street.”

Eventually, Butler plans to rent out the mansion as an all-purpose event space and wedding venue with a 24-car lot and a cocktail bar. She’s even constructing a “Shining”-esque hedge maze in the backyard.

Everything will be on the table.

“My whole intention was to have a mentality of like, I don’t care what religion you are. I don’t care what you believe. I don’t care what you follow … my place will be open to you,” she said. “Witchcraft wedding? Sure. Bat mitzvah? Sure. Baptism? Sure. I will not say no.”

In the meantime, a fully renovated carriage house in the backyard can be booked on Airbnb.

This is hardly the first time the mansion has attracted attention for its haunting qualities. A few years ago, it was featured in the Stephen King-produced TV series “Castle Rock.” Butler said she’s invited writers and producers from Los Angeles to come see the property, and would gladly let film crews shoot there.

So what might the specters that roam the Wheeler mansion say about her plans? Butler likes to think they’re on board.

“I’m not being made to feel afraid like you see in horror movies. I like the idea that maybe they’re getting to see this beautiful property restored back to what they loved,” she said.

If not, she’s sure they’ll let her know.

This article was originally published on the Boston Globe by Spencer Buell. The article can be found here How an LA transplant turned a ‘haunted’ mansion in Orange into the talk of the town – The Boston Globe

Spencer Buell can be reached at Follow him @SpencerBuell.