The Last Commander's Family Tours the Mansion at the Watertown Arsenal

The wife and son of Col. Oscar "Tony" Tonetti got to peek around their old home, in which they lived in the 1960s.

Most days, the staff of the C welcomes wedding parties and gatherings for area businesses, but Thursday they greeted the family of the last commander of the Commander’s Mansion.

Helen and John Tonetti lived in the house when Col. Oscar “Tony” Tonetti, (husband and father, respectively) was transferred there by the U.S. Army. They visited on a trip from Upstate New York, along with John's girlfriend Kathleen Norat.

“My father was the last commander of the Arsenal,” said John, who now splits his time between Poughkeepsie and Rochester. “We had been over in France, then he came back here to close the Arsenal.”

The home, which dates back to the Civil War era, seemed familiar to the Tonettis. Helen and Tony’s bedroom is now the bridal suite, and John found his old room.

Looking out the window brought back memories for John, who was about 12 when he lived in the house.

“This is the window I used to climb out,” John said. “There is a cast iron pipe on the corner and you could get on to the ledge, crawl out on ledge and then you could climb down pipe.”

Other things have changed, however. A doorway was placed in John’s old room. The doorway leads from the offices of the Commander’s Mansion, which used to be the servants quarters when the house was built, John said. Also, a cedar lined closet was removed from the house.

Some old sinks, banisters and marble pieces removed from the house now sit in the attic. John said he thought he remembered where some of the fixtures went, but he thought his brother Charlie could be more of a help.

He is now the preservation architect at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, where the Liberty Bell is kept, Helen said.

The Commander’s Mansion was not like most officers’ quarters in the military, said Helen, who now lives in Waterville, N.Y.

“In the Army you live in little tiny house, then you move to a place like this, then move back to a little tiny house,” Helen said.

When she was there, Helen said she had to do all the cooking and cleaning.

“I don’t remember having any help. I had help in other places,” Helen said.

Taking care of the Commander’s Mansion is quite a chore, said Rae Grassia, assistant function facility coordinator.

“It’s a big house to clean, we’ve done it,” Grassia said

After it closed, the house largely lay dormant, said Facility Manager Tammy McKenna.

“It opened for private events in 2000 or 2001,” McKenna said.

This weekend, the staff at the Watertown’s Commander’s Mansion is preparing for its big . Long before the Town of Watertown took over the home and it became a wedding venue, the historic house was home to the commanding officer of the Watertown Arsenal.

The U.S. Army facility was founded in 1816. In 1865, then Commander, Capt. Thomas Rodman, had the mansion built, which landed him in some hot water.

“As a result of building this is why Rodman transferred to the Rock Island Arsenal,” John said. “Then he built an even larger house there, which got him court martialled, as I understood.”

Tony came to the Arsenal after a long military career. He graduated from West Point in 1941, and served in World War II, as well as going to Korea at the end of the conflict, and to Vietnam when the U.S. was still serving as advisers, John said.
In the Second World War, Tony served in a mechanized artillery unit in the 7th Armored Battalion.

“They landed, I think, two week s after D-Day,” John said. “They were part of the break out of Normandy, went though France into Belgium, and were part of Battle of the Bulge.”

 The Army installation was largely gone by the time the Tonetti's moved in, John said.

"Most of the major armaments were taking out," John said. "There was the question of decontaminating stuff. I knew there were areas  hwere there were questions of radiation."

Helen recalled that some fo the buildings of the Arsenal, now the Arsenal Mall, had old glass, which was sought after.

"The Wayside Inn (in Sudbury), something happened and they broke one of the the windows there, and they came to the Arsenal to ask them for some of the glass," Helen said.

The assignment to close the Arsenal was the final one for Tony, who passed away in 2000.

“He said he had to retire and get a second job to put his five boys through college,” Helen said.

John is the middle brother, he said. He lived in the mansion with older brothers Charlie and Peter, and his younger siblings Fred and Stephen.

In the basement of the mansion, in some historical record being stored at the mansion, they found the Tonellis’ old school records. Some of the boys went to The Hosmer School, Coolidge School and also East Junior High School.

“It was a great place to be a kid because there was so much space,” John said.


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