Alliance Archives

About AllianceViews

This blog is a place for dialogue on issues and actions relating to Boston's unique built environment and the preservation and continuing evolution of historic resources within it. My goal, as the Executive Director of the Boston Preservation Alliance, is to post timely, relevant and thought-provoking intelligence, ideas, and insights that will engage conversations, inform our actions, and broaden perspectives on preservation.

We want to hear from you — so start a conversation, share a thought or comment, and let us know what you think.

Greg Galer, Executive Director, Boston Preservation Alliance

Executive Director

AllianceViews Blog

When a historic building has to come down – then what?

July 19th, 2013  |  Posted by: Greg Galer

Last night the Beacon Hill Architectural Commission HAC met to discuss a rather complex issue – how to deal with 124 Chestnut Street where they recently allowed to move forward the city’s order for demolition of a contributing element of one of the nation’s most significant historic districts.  The Beacon Hill District was formed in 1955 by an act of the Mass. Legislature. It’s the oldest historic district in the state. It predates the Boston Landmarks Commission and some argue is one of the most important historic districts in the nation.

I previously wrote about this project back in May ( where I expressed frustration that the demolition was being allowed to move forward without opportunity for an independent assessment to satisfy questions from the community and the Alliance and provide confidence that demolition was really and truly the only option. The frustrating thing is that removal of the building didn’t began in earnest until just a few days ago:

There was plenty of time for another engineering review which would have had no effect on the construction schedule.  If done we would have had one of two answers which would have made this process oh so much easier:  1) agreement that in fact the building was in such bad condition that it had to come down 2) a creative recommendation to save the façade where other engineers saw no solution.

Nonetheless, there we were last night, debating how to replace the loss of an historic building.  The Alliance board discussed and debated this issue at a meeting earlier this week.  The question on the table is not an easy one, for this is a unique situation.  First of all losses in Beacon Hill just don’t occur.  Second, as we noted in a letter we submitted for the meeting:

This is not a typical situation where a new building is proposed to infill a loss that occurred long ago, to fill in a so-called “missing tooth,” and where limited historic photographs are all that are available to guide a reconstruction. This is not a situation where we propose to bring back an historic look that has not existed for many years if not decades or even longer – to bring something back from a long-ago past. In this  situation the building was known; it was here just the other day. We therefore do not need to rely on poor documentation and great speculation. We are not looking to return to a past from long-ago, but to return to a condition from last week.

As I noted in my oral testimony:

This is not about a decision how to replace something we don’t know what it looked like.  This is not a new addition attached to an old building – new massing appended to old – massing or design that never existed.  This is none of those things.  If it were, the designs presented could serve quite well.

The Alliance typically supports new construction (not reconstruction) that speaks to today in an infill project, but in this case we just don’t see it as an infill project or a new addition to an old building.  I cited the Commission’s own guidelines, “In the event that replacement of existing materials or features is necessary, the new materials shall match the materials being replaced in composition, deign, color, texture and other visible qualities.” The Alliance believes that 124 Chestnut represents an extreme case of deteriorated features requiring replacement and repair according to these guidelines.  One twenty-four Chestnut is an extreme case of repair, much like the façades of historic buildings are commonly disassembled and reconstructed due to condition or other issues.  At 124 Chestnut we understand that much of the brick was not in re-usable condition and therefore replacement of those elements isn’t possible, but other elements such as historic windows and doors is in order.

I’m pleased to report that our argument was persuasive. It’s also important to note that our recommendation really had nothing to do with the new, alternative designs presented by a skilled, and an Alliance-award-winning architect.  Our opinion is simply that a new design for the façade isn’t in order. A historic design was there and can be returned.

We thank the Commission for supporting our opinion and directing the proponent to come back with more details in this direction.

Please follow and like us:

Leave a Comment