Last Thursday evening at the Beacon Hill Architectural Commission meeting, an out-of-the-ordinary item was on the agenda – the demolition of a building in Beacon Hill. The loss of a historic building in Beacon Hill hasn’t occurred in decades. Last night, despite the testimonies of myself and other historic preservation experts, a demolition order from the city Inspectional Services Department (ISD) was allowed to move forward. This unprecedented and unfortunate decision demonstrates a flawed process.
The Samuel E. Guild/Sears Byron Condit House home at 124 Chestnut Street was constructed in the late nineteenth century with a new façade from the 1920s designed by Joseph Everett Chandler, a major Boston architect. Chandler was responsible for restoration of the Paul Revere House, the Old Corner Bookstore, and the Old State House. With its unique Colonial Revival façade, punctuated with leaded glass windows, the home at 124 Chestnut is an important contributing element to the Historic District.
The proponent, his engineer and consulting architect believe the building is so structurally unsound as to be unsafe. They attest that it cannot be repaired or stabilized, and must be demolished immediately. This information comes as a shock to those of us who remember back to January, when the Park Street School bid to purchase this property and had qualified engineers develop a plan to save the façade of the building. Is the new conclusion that none of the building can be saved due to dramatic structural changes in just a few months, or is it a matter of diverse opinions of how to understand historic structures? A highly experienced architect, Bill Barlow of the Alliance Board, testified that he had been personally involved when buildings far worse have been saved. I testified that there are far too many unanswered questions right now to have confidence that demolishing the building is the only option. It is especially important that we have all our facts straight and rule out all alternatives to demolition, given the irreversible nature of what is proposed.
Despite our best efforts, I.S.D.’s notion of unsafe conditions and insistence that demolition is necessary prevailed. Alliance board members pushed for an independent evaluation from a structural engineer with extensive experience regarding historic building issues and their complexities; however, there is no clear procedural mechanism to afford us the time needed for this evaluation. I.S.D. is the official city authority regarding safety, and on most situations that is fine. But we also know that these issues aren’t all black and white, and I felt we demonstrated that there are clearly a variety of opinions on the matter in this case.
Yet, there is no appeal process, and the Architectural Commission did not feel it has the power to overrule an I.S.D. ruling such as this. I give some Commission members credit, as they tried to find a way to delay the demolition to gather additional information. Yet we repeatedly heard how the City’s I.S.D. and their inspectors, who don’t necessarily have experience in the many subtleties of engineering issues with historic properties, are the body that decides such things. What if they are wrong? There seems to be no recourse short of a court injunction. While they understandably err on the side of public safety, we have a case here where such concern may cloud their recommendation.
It is hard for us to recognize that engineering, which seems so scientific, is as much art as science, and there are divergent opinions on the “right” solution. As someone who has studied the History of Technology for decades, I can show case after case of how our “scientific” understanding is so very culturally influenced. In this case today’s engineers often struggle to fully understand historic structures which were conceived under very different (not necessarily wrong) principles. There are many aspects of historic properties that don’t fit modern methods of building analysis. Although some of these idiosyncratic designs might function perfectly well, since they are unfamiliar and don’t align with modern concepts, many engineers are not comfortable signing their names to something they don’t fully understand, as it is a liability. For this reason, it is integral to have someone on the team who has experience evaluating and working with historic properties, so that Boston’s invaluable historic properties are not demolished.
This is demolition will be a huge, unprecedented loss to Beacon Hill and the City. Is it too late to save 124 Chestnut Street? At the least let’s hope we can learn a lesson here to avoid such a case in the future.