From Apprentice to Developer
Builder of Wyndhurst Ties Visions to Designs
By Kris Hachadourian
December 3, 1989
What began as a child’s favorite playtime has become a serious, although far from solemn, business for Leslie Clement. “There’s nothing I’d rather do than be here on the site,” the developer said, grinning, as she sat on a sunny unfinished stair landing at the Wyndhurst on Crescent Hill development. “This is so creative on such a big scale!” Clement’s partner, Kevin McCarthy, calls construction, like football, “chess on the move.”
The developers, then, are in the midst of the biggest match of their careers so far: the $8 million 26-unit Wyndhurst luxury development, which offers the buyer design control down to the placemetn of interior walls. The first phase is rising up off Maple Street. The huge grey gabled building overlooking downtown Springfield is already a landmark to Route 91 drivers. Four units in the nine-unit building have been sold, Clement said, and will be ready for occupancy next spring. Prices range from $300,000 to $475,000.
While McCarthy has taken command of the daunting engineering required of the project --- raod and sewer work, designing the complex underground parking garage system --- Clement oversees the … details. Details are what define the quality and eventually the success of the development, details like making sure the insulation completely fills the gaps between the party walls, like deciding on the correct placement of electrical outlets, like shepherding the buyers of the units as they themselves are faced, often for the first time, with the hundreds of decisions involved in building a custom home.
As she slips between the unfinished condominium walls from residence to resident, Clement easily shifts gears to keep straight the concerns of the four buyers who, she says, she has turned into “design junkies”. For them, Clement has become first lieutenant, and confidante. “We’re stealing some of the neatest people from the suburbs,” Clement says about her buyers. “But that’s what Springfield needs, a shot of confidence.”
Clement came to Springfield ten years ago, choosing the city because there was a lot going on and she thought it would be a terrific place for a young person to make a start. A Pittsfield natives, as a teenager Clement moved to Indiana with her family, finished school and zoomed through college in two years, earning a degree in political science and women’s studies. But finding work was another matter and she waitressed in Boston for several years. Construction had been one of her earliest fascinations. “I always had a little workroom in the basement as a kid with handsaws and hammers.” Clement came to Springfield at the age of 22 and begged the local business carpenter’s union to let her become an apprentice. “The business agent agreed on the condition that I find someone willing to give me a job,” she said. She quickly found work on Route 391 bridges. “I worked for the union for four years and loved it, but I had developed a sudden fear of heights and knew my career in daredevil construction was over.”
When asked how she felt about working in a non-traditional field, Clement said to the contrary, construction and particularly home building are very natural work for a woman. “Women have always made the home. They are seen as having a special talent for paying attention to detail, and they are manually dexterous. It seems in fact that being a builder is a natural thing for a woman. Well, at least for me!”
When she graduated from the apprenticeship program, she took the step that defined her career. For $7000, Clement bought a rundown Queen Anne style home on Central Street and renovated it with loans from the Springfield Redevelopment Authority. Several others in the neighborhood came on the market, which Clement snatched up with the help of financing from BayBank and HUD rehab loans. This is not her first step into the condominium market as she recently restored a tin-ceilinged 24-room twin townhouse in Holyoke, converting it into six two-bedroom condos.
Wyndhurst, however, was more difficult to finance. “Condominiums are hard to finance. The Boston based banks wouldn’t touch the project because of their experiences with the extremely soft condo market in Boston. But we finally got financing from Springfield Institute of Savings and Ludlow Savings Bank. Despite working in what some call an old-boy industry, Clement says real estate developers are only judged on whether they build what other people want to buy. “And construction people are some of the fairest I’ve ever met. They didn’t inherit their jobs.”
Her favorite part of working on Wyndhurst has been the evolving relationships with the buyers, whose enthusiasm has created a lively atmosphere at the site and a creative mode of construction. In an essay she wrote about her experiences with the development, Clement said she becomes privy to wonderful family anecdotes which are offered up while designing a custom living space. “I am the coordinator of the buyers’ smallest needs --- the center of complex living dramas. No personal needs are too petty, nor any solutions too far-fetched,” she said.
Marie Stebbins, however, said Clement’s own contagious enthusiasm helped carry them through when the project was little more than piles of blueprints scattered about her dining room table. “Just when you think, ‘Oh, my goodness, what are we doing?’ Leslie can get us all fired up again,” she said. Stebbins and her husband, BayBank Valley President Richard Stebbins, were some of the earliest to sign onto the Wyndhurst project. Their 3000 square foot, three-floor unit is the centerpieces of the first building with sweeping views to the north and west. The custom layout includes loft spaces, a three-story entry, curving walls and ceilings graduated in height that lead the visitor to a spacious great room.
“We never wanted to build a house and never expected to. We never wanted to have to pick out doorknobs and cabinets and lights,” Stebbins said. “This is a new adventure for both of us. But you learn as you go, and you really start to know what you’re doing. Now we have literally hundreds of magazines littering every corner of our current home.” For most, the decision to move into a condominium is based on a desire to save money or to live in a place that requires less maintenance. “None of the usual reasons applied to us.” She said the decision to leave their Longmeadow house of 17 years was a difficult one. “We’ve loved Longmeadow, raising our children there and being involved with a number of organizations. We have an unusual home that will be hard to leave in a lot of ways,” she said. “But now I find myself becoming more involved with Springfield --- both of us are very involved with the United Way, which is right across the street. Also, both of us have always liked the idea of living in a city. We have never talked about moving to the country, and we have no dreams of someday retiring to a bucolic setting.”
Only months remain to the day when the Stebbins and others move into their Wyndhurst homes. Clement said she is eager to see the work finished, but will be unhappy to walk away from her position with the work and her clients. “In my moments of deepest self-pity, I humorously imagine myself standing outside, wishing I could go in and visit the architecture, like being hungry and staring into a restaurant window, watching other people eat. Surely there will be faucets that need adjusting and door hinges that need oiling. Then I can go back and revisit these spaces I built.”
And there are still 17 units to build, she says. “The fun is just beginning!”