During the year of the Stock Market Crash in 1929, construction
began that spring on a beautiful brick-faced mansion in
Centerville, Massachusetts known as the “Cornish
Estate.” Forty-four years later the Eastern College Athletic
Conference moved its cramped headquarters from New York City to
Cape Cod to that same location.
The building was completed in the spring of 1930 at a total cost
of $180,000. Slightly more than $100,000 went into the house
itself, with an additional $40,000 to $50,000 spent on site
preparation and landscaping. With the exception of several large
trees, every tree on the property was planted after construction.
The “Old Hundred House,” a rambling Captain’s
Home which at that time was over 100 years old, was moved from its
location on the South Main Street corner of the 6.5 acre plot of
land to its present location farther down on Craigville Beach
The architect for the present-day Bushnell Center was John Barnard of Boston, and the construction was done by the firm of Howard Marshall, also of Boston. The style of the home is patterned after George Washington's Mount Vernon, complete with the big white pillars on the front side overlooking the water.
Among the highlights of the construction are: all of the door hardware was made by hand for the home; the brass light fixtures are copies of Williamsburg fixtures, and all were handmade in Boston’s North Bennett Street Industrial School; underneath the carpeting, the floors are solid oak; the woodwork and windows are all natural pine; there are eight wells on the property and there is also a converter system so that either the well water or town water may be used; the house has six heating zones, 17 rooms, eight bathrooms, an incinerator and a large basement formerly used as a five-car garage.
John J. Cornish was the original owner. The Cornish family was one of the founding families of the Village of Centerville, and the family’s wealth had been made in the marine insurance field. Mr. Cornish was a director of Eagle Insurance Company, which later became a part of Royal Insurance Company. He had two daughters and a son; one daughter was a contralto with both the Boston Symphony and the San Francisco Opera Company. In fact, a concert grand piano occupied one of the corners of the living room. During the 1930’s and 1940’s, noted opera singers used to rehearse at the Cornish estate, and much of the social activity revolved around the opera set.
The Cornish family used this home only as a summer retreat, although a live-in caretaker and staff resided in the home year-round. Among the inside staff, there was a cook, laundress, chambermaid and second maid. The caretaker and his two sons were responsible for the upkeep of the property. The caretaker is credited by the Cornishes as being the one who saved all of the trees on the property after the devastating 1938 hurricane. As soon as the storm had subsided (the water had swept boats, parts of cottages and even a grand piano halfway up the hill), the caretaker and one of the Cornish daughters began to try to upright the trees which had been blown down using the family LaSalle. Luckily, most of the trees survived.
With both parents in ill health, the Cornish daughters reluctantly decided to sell the estate in 1957. The property passed through the hands of several owners, and over the next 15 years the condition of the estate generally declined. The previous owner to the ECAC, John Morrison of Boston, restored the home and property to its former splendor by the early 1970’s.
Meanwhile the ECAC was conducting a search for larger headquarters in 1972 for its staff after being housed in the Hotel Roosevelt, the Biltmore Hotel and the Royal Manhattan Hotel in New York City.
Robert M. (Scotty) Whitelaw, took over as ECAC commissioner in 1972. Bill Flynn, director of athletics at Boston College, was the ECAC president-elect and Peter Carlesimo of Fordham was the chair of a search committee for new site headquarters.
Flynn was a friend of Morrison, whose mansion was utilized as a retreat for Jesuits and was up for sale. When Flynn first suggested that the ECAC purchase the beautiful estate on Cape Cod, it was met with resistance by the membership, who felt that New York was the center of its universe with events such as the ECAC Holiday Festival and IC4A Track & Field championships at Madison Square Garden, along with the National Invitational Tournament (NIT) which the ECAC coordinated from 1938-1980.
But with Flynn and Whitelaw acting as catalysts, the ECAC Executive Council approved the purchase of the mansion and accompanying 6.5 acres of land for the sum of $210,000. The ECAC staff officially moved into its spacious headquarters in January of 1973 and one year later dedicated the building the Asa. S. Bushnell Center after its first commissioner, who served the conference from 1938 to 1970.
Beginning in the mid-1970’s, the ECAC began to hold its fall convention on Cape Cod, one of the most successful gatherings in collegiate athletic circles. This tradition continues with over 350 athletics administrators descending on Cape Cod in October to attend the convention. One of the highlights is the clambake sponsored by the NIT/ESPN, held outside the Bushnell Center.
One of the most memorable events occurred in August of 1991 when Hurricane Bob swept through Cape Cod, creating millions of dollars in damage. One of the most devastated areas were the grounds surrounding the Bushnell Center, which lost a total of 60 trees on its grounds. Luckily there was only minimal damage to the building itself, mostly to the old slate roof which has since been replaced.
Thanks to the leadership of commissioner Clayton Chapman, business manager Rich Dalrymple, resident property manager Al Nagle and the rest of the staff, plus the support of several benefactors, the grounds were restored and the lawn had a new, wide-open look that enhanced the image of the estate.
There are several memorials dedicated to individuals on the grounds. The monument in the middle of the island next to the flagpole is for Asa S. Bushnell, first ECAC commissioner and a founding father. In front of the Bushnell dedication are several bricks dedicated to past ECAC presidents and commissioners. On the lawn along the parking area are three memorials: one for Josh Hardy, late son of former assistant commissioner Steve Hardy; one for Scott Whitelaw, late son of Scotty Whitelaw and Shirley Whitelaw; another for Sam Gwynne, who served as the director of marketing from 1990 until his death in July of 1998.