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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.

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Greg Galer, Executive Director, Boston Preservation Alliance

Executive Director

AllianceViews Blog

Access + Beacon Hill Shouldn’t = Conflict, Should = Compromise

September 3rd, 2014  |  Posted by: Greg Galer

Beacon Hill


The recent, and well-publicized, debate in Beacon Hill regarding accessibility ramps highlights the inherent tensions that come part and parcel with historic preservation.  The work we do is always about compromise one way or another. Anyone who thinks even our most well “preserved” and “authentically” historic sites come to us unchanged from their original state, unfiltered by generations of interpretation and adjusted by the morals, judgments, and standards of the day in which they were made is simply naive. Would George Washington recognize Mount Vernon? Would Thomas Jefferson say that Monticello matches his well-planned home? Would Paul Revere feel comfortable in “his” house we all know so well?

Every day at the Alliance, at the Boston Landmarks Commission, at the Massachusetts Historical Commission, at Historic New England, at the National Park Service we agree and support change and alteration.  And preservationists have been doing so from the very beginning of the field.  Most of our most iconic properties were “brought back” – redesigned to a look from a previous time in a process of trying to unwind the clock. But brought back to an appearance often poorly documented and in many cases for which the evidence of details was slim or non-existent. Staff, architects and specialist consultants had to make thousands of assumptions about how things looked and worked, starting of course with trying to select a time period to which one was restoring.  Let’s not forget that historic buildings and landscapes are organic both on their own and with the hand of man. They change over time, evolving nearly constantly.

Add to these uncertainties and challenges the necessity to modify these places to meet our modern needs. Today we wouldn’t argue about the need for fire protection, despite the challenges they introduce for historic interiors, but that was a major point of debate not all that long ago.  What about heating and air conditioning? Bathrooms? Electricity and lighting?  The list goes on and on. And with each property the discussion varies, but each modern modification requires compromise of the historic site.

At the Alliance we often deal with adaptive reuse projects — historic buildings finding new, economically viable, and productive uses in our city. Warehouses in Fort Point turned into offices, hotels, and living spaces. Abandoned churches converted to housing. Of course change is required. Even projects that look back to original plans of the designing architect as the root of their new design recognize change is inevitable – original designs failed, new  and better performing materials are available and our demands and expectations are different. The recently restored Filene’s Building is a case in point. The Millennium team started with Daniel Burnham’s original drawings, then asked what needed to be changed, then justified those changes with the Boston Landmarks Commission, who worked with the Millennium team to give us the amazing results we see today. Change — yes? Preservation — yes.  These are certainly not mutually exclusive demands. There are tensions, but the needs need not be mutually exclusive. Give and take are necessary as is a mutual respect that change and preservation both hold validity and the best result is somewhere between.

So, back to Beacon Hill. Accommodations to modern needs are part and parcel of the preservation business. And the folks at Beacon Hill have clearly said they are open to change to enhance access to their streets and sidewalks. Their debate (as is often the case) is how much change and the details. The devil is always in the details. The sticking point is when those details effectively block the entire project.

We often look at some key issues when in the heat of these debates.  Is the change proposed reversible or will we will be stuck with it forever?  I would say on the city side of the debate, the changes are reversible. At some point down the road if/when a new methodology develops something else can be done. Another common thought process is to step back and determine if we are overly focusing on a detail and “losing the forest for the trees.” So, is the accessibility ramp really the issue?  There are a variety of broader access challenges in Beacon Hill that need to be addressed – the sidewalks themselves are an impediment – many too narrow or with terribly uneven surfaces. Trees limiting sidewalk access are an impediment as well.

These additional challenges are part of the Beacon Hill concern, for as the city plowed their way to get the ramps will they do the same to address these additional access issues? It’s that precedent argument. Allow  the ramps, than what next? To me these bigger issues are where we should all be focusing, and what should have been the focus from the beginning. Ramps don’t solve the problem, really. So why the big fight there?  What a distraction this has been from the real issue – how to improve access to the district as a whole and how to do so in a way that strikes an appropriate compromise between change to meet modern needs and respect for and preservation of an essential element of the character that makes Boston the place we love. But instead we get sucked down the rabbit hole debating details of materials and polarized to the class battles that have been used to characterize Beacon Hill for generations.

You may wonder why the Alliance has not weighed in publicly on this issue.  We’ve had several behind the scenes discussions. And, believe me, it’s not that we haven’t considered nor discussed how to make a statement that would be helpful.  I’ve written various versions of letters to the editor of the Globe several times, but always end up setting them aside for fear of fanning the flames. If we can’t be helpful and productive there is no sense adding to the cacophony.

So what to do? We need to all:

a) Acknowledge that there is some level of validity on both sides

b) Recognize that change is a part of preservation

c) Agree that Beacon Hill is one of the most important historic districts in the nation and an essential part of the character of the city (no disrespect to other historic districts in the city)

d) Step back and focus on the bigger issues of access – the ramps only being one piece

e) Support the fact that local historic district commissions play an important and legal role in managing the preservation and, yes, the change in their districts and work to improve the process rather than gut their authority.

I plead with everyone to step back, take a deep breath, and re-engage in a productive dialog. The Alliance offers itself as common ground to have a respectful discussion that moves us forward as preservationists have from the beginning — accepting and managing change while preserving the essential aspects of the city we love.


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4 Responses

  1. Eric says:

    Well said, Greg.

  2. Frances Duffly says:

    Good article, but we need some clarification here.
    Who are the participants who will engage in productive dialogue. Preservationists have these discussions constantly, and while viewpoints differ it is mostly a matter of degree.
    But that’s not dialogue, that’s discussion. How to engage the city in productive and respectful dialogue becomes the sticking point. Until that happens residents in architectural and landmark districts will overreact to change that is dictated from the top down.

  3. Ben says:

    Well written. Major issue that seems lost on the media is the short circuiting of an established process that is a terrible precedent.

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