The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

News

June 20, 2010

Auctioneer unsure what 'Chef Boyardee' mansion will net

MILTON — Even after he sold it, the mansion on Upper Market Street would draw him back.

Rozella Follmer would often see Hector Boiardi, hands clasped behind his back, walking the grounds. That was in late '60s, after she and her husband, Harvey, bought the place.

Once Hector rang the doorbell and asked if he could look around inside, Mrs. Follmer said.

"It," she said, "was just a sentimental visit."

The house, which will be auctioned Saturday, was built in 1941-42 for Boiardi and his wife, Helen, who realized the ultimate American dream.

Boiardi was an Italian immigrant who went from Ellis Island to the kitchen of the Plaza Hotel in New York. After gravitating to Cleveland, he began operating a restaurant.

Beginning in the 1920s, people clamored for his sauce, so he bottled it. But they wanted more, so he opened a food factory.

Then a second. Then a third, which his company outgrew.

Boiardi and his associates sought an additional location closer to tomato growers, and heard that Central Pennsylvania had fertile soil and top-quality crops.

He moved his operation to Milton in 1938, and the rest is history.

Boiardi's canned products fed the American troops overseas during World War II. He would become immortalized as "Chef Boyardee."

While the war was still in full swing, he had enough money to build his manor on the hill overlooking Market Street.

The architectural details show that he spared no expense:

Coined corners on the brickwork outside, leaded glass windows, curved staircase, recessed alcoves, multiple fireplaces with stylish brickwork, an etched glass-framed seating area off the living room, recessed ovals in ceilings, etched wall panels in the baths, brick oven enclosure, and a front portico that could grace the cover of a Southern novel — two story high white pillars with second floor balcony overlooking a half-circle stone patio.

The furnishings, most which will be auctioned separately, are eclectic, many formerly owned by the Boiardis. The Spanish revival dining room set, with table and chairs and sideboard, will be of particular interest. So will a large oriental vase enveloped by a serpent, a gift to the Boiardis in the 1940s.

On that one sentimental visit, Mrs. Follmer said, Hector told her the pewter-like living room chandelier came from Czechoslovakia.

Uncommon end-laid bricks make up the fireplace in the upstairs family room. Natural wood walls and window seats overlook the back of the 2.8-acre property, where there's an in-ground pool and bath house.

Possibly the liveliest spot in the house, over the years, has been the downstairs recreation room.

"It's one of the most entertaining family rooms I've ever seen," auctioneer Neil Courtney said. "Forties and '50s-themed, anyway."

The room is set up just the way it was when the Boiardis entertained there, Mrs. Follmer attested: Three square game tables and a fourth long table — total seating for about 20 — with orange vinyl-upholstered chairs finished with fancy nailheads.

At one end there's a curved wet bar with mirrored back wall, curved brass footrest in front of the original six red-topped stools. A seating area off the main room brings to mind relaxed conversation, clinking glasses set on coasters and crackling logs in the large fireplace.

You can almost imagine the old gentleman, Boiardi, hosting parties there, opening a bottle of wine and serving a good Italian meal.

A pool table and player piano dress up the room for fun, and there's an handy extra kitchen toward the back, leading to a work room, three-car garage and maid's quarters.

Mrs. Follmer used to sew back there. She didn't have a maid, she said.

In the early days of their ownership, the mortgage on their $45,000 purchase kept them home and frugal, she said. Later, she and her husband, Harvey Follmer Jr., traveled a lot, she said.

Follmer sold Mack trucks. He died in 2000.

Her grown children have homes of their own.

"It's time to downsize," she admitted.

Doesn't she really want to leave?

"I don't," she said. "I lived here for 45 years. It's my home."

But she's already mostly moved into a three-bedroom townhouse in the Rolling Ridge development.

The new place seems small, she said, even though it's still comparatively large. She just can't take all the items of sentimental attachment she'd like to keep. Downstairs in the mansion she looked at the forsaken white enameled kitchen table with black edging and leaves that can be pulled out on each side.

"You grew up around this table," she told her son, Harvey III.

He was 8 when they moved in, and her daughter, Yolanda, 9½. Harvey said it was great growing up on the estate, but time marches on. He doesn't have any use for the house, nor does his sister, who lives in Florida.

Still, he looked around with nostalgia.

"There's those velvet-covered banisters," he said while walking upstairs. "They're original."

Red.

Intact, too.

"We weren't very destructive kids," he said.

Boiardi had another home in Ohio when he sold the Milton estate.

"In Shaker Heights," Mrs. Follmer said. "And he came back here because his brother lived here. His nephew Paul, still does,"

Boiardi sold his product line to American Home Foods in 1946 for $5 million or $6 million. He wanted to spend more time with his wife, the story goes.

Sixty-eight years after their 800 Upper Market Street home was built, it will be passed on to its third owner on Saturday.

Boiardi's brand — dubbed "Chef Boyardee" so Americans would have an easier time pronouncing the name — was sold to International Home Foods in 1996 and to ConAgra Foods in 2000. Packaging still bears Boiardi's likeness and his name, internationally recognizable.

As for the mansion, many Milton grownups remember being entertained at parties there when they were children.

"It will be an important fixture in Northumberland County for years to come," said Courtney, who couldn't guess what price it will bring.

For more information about the real estate auction, which begins at noon, and contents auction, which starts at 9 a.m., call 539-8791 or go to www.neil@hassingercourtney.com.

n E-mail comments to dianepetryk@dailyitem.com

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