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

GREG GALER
Executive Director

AllianceViews Blog

ArchitectureBoston Expo: November 19-21

November 8th, 2013  |  Posted by: Greg Galer

The Boston Preservation Alliance is excited to participate in the 2013 ArchitectureBoston Expo! ArchitectureBoston Expo (ABX) is one of the largest events for the design and construction industry in the country, and the largest regional conference and tradeshow. Drawing 95% of its attendance from New England, ABX’s regional reach is its greatest strength. Attendees hold on to their money (no airline fees, hotel costs or meal expenses) and spend their time building relationships and networks around physical proximity and the likelihood of follow-up work. With a booth in the Exhibit Hall, Alliance staff will be on site to talk with attendees about historic preservation, Boston architecture, and the important role the Alliance plays to promote sensitive development throughout the city. Stop by and see us! Use code BPA13 for FREE ADMISSION to the exhibit hall or drop by our office to pick up a free pass! Take a look at the large variety of workshops available throughout the conference, many of which relate directly to Boston’s historic resources. Take advantage of this opportunity to learn more about design and the built environment!

We can’t wait to see you there!

Boston Convention and Exhibition Center: Hall C

November 19-21, 2013

Visit www.abexpo.com for more details.

 

abx13_logo

Sharing Boston Preservation at the National Trust

November 5th, 2013  |  Posted by: Greg Galer

Last week I spent several days at the National Trust for Historic Preservation conference in Indianapolis. I was struck by several things. First, the remarkable preservation successes in Indiana managed by Indiana Landmarks, the statewide preservation organization there which is the equivalent of our Preservation Massachusetts.  In large part due to the very generous Cook Family, among others, Indiana Landmarks has eight field offices throughout the state, is housed in the beautifully restored Indian Landmarks Center (the former Central Avenue Methodist Church), and manages 33 staff and eight properties. They were gracious hosts and organizers to preservationists from throughout the country and even beyond.  (I had a fascinating discussion with the head of historic preservation for the entire country of Ukraine who was very interested to hear of our work in Boston and promises a visit to our fair city sometime soon.)

I was also struck by the warm reception I received from people when they heard I was from Boston. (And not just because we were there when the Sox won the World Series!)  Preservation successes and the good work of Mayor Menino are well known and many, many people commented on how much they love Boston and the historic character we’ve successfully maintained. I also realized over the course of these days how remarkably the field overall has matured over the years. We’re all recognizing that preservation needs to be more flexible, more open to new ideas and creative uses of historic resources, and less rigid in our demand for perfection in restoration in most cases.  In other words, we need to stay focused on the big picture. Everyone is saying what we’ve been saying for Boston (and can be found on the Indiana Landmarks website):

Because today historic preservation is much more about the future than the past. We believe saving landmarks enhances our quality of life and makes our communities attractive and meaningful places to live, work, and build a future for those who will come after us.

A Remarkable Night for Boston

October 23rd, 2013  |  Posted by: Greg Galer

Alliance President, Susan Park and Alliance Executive Director, Greg Galer present Mayor Menino with the John Codman Award for Lifetime Achievement

Alliance President, Susan Park, and Alliance Executive Director, Greg Galer, present Mayor Menino with the John Codman Award for Lifetime Achievement

This past Monday night the Preservation Alliance held its 25th Annual Preservation Achievement Awards at Emerson’s Paramount Theater. It was a remarkable showing of about 400 people covering a wide spectrum of those interested in the city’s preservation: local advocates, regulators from city staff and boards/commissions, craftsman and trades people, architects, engineers, property owners and financers, and on and on.  It was electrifying to look out from the stage or wade through the throngs at the reception and to feel that the Preservation Alliance has successfully engaged those in the city who really have made and continue to make a difference in the city’s success and vitality.

We all came together to celebrate and honor past award winners from 25 years, 12 new project winners, and to bestow upon Mayor Menino the Alliance’s Codman Lifetime Achievement award. At a time when our overall faith in government, particularly Congress, is insanely low and at a time when our city is on the cusp of a leadership change it hasn’t seen in decades, it is important to remind ourselves that despite the current state of national politics we can work together for community benefit and to reach successful outcomes.

The people in Paramount were unified in support of the common goal to make Boston a better city — unified in seeing real value in the unique character of the city derived from its historic resources. And unified in celebrating the unique character of the city and its continued vitality which builds from our Boston’s distinctiveness.  Sure, we don’t all agree all the time on each preservation issue, and that’s ok.  Debate and dialog is healthy and constructive.  As Anthony Pangaro of Millennium Partners reminded us, the poking and prodding from preservationists leads in the end to more successful projects for developers and owners and for the city. The beauty of the Alliance’s Annual Preservation Awards is that this event allows us to celebrate these collaborative efforts, reminds us of our common goals and our recent successes, and prods us to strive for projects to be rewarded next year.

The group assembled Monday night in support of the Alliance says in volumes what many words cannot. Preservation is alive and well in Boston!

Oh, so many, many thanks to all the attendees, sponsors including our lead sponsors Millennium Partners, Related Beal and Suffolk construction (68 total sponsors this year!). And of course congratulations to our project award winners and Mayor Menino.

 

Award Winners

131 Clarendon Street — Brookline Bank

234 Berkeley Street — WS Development

951 Boylston Street — Boston Architectural College

Boston Common Men’s Convenience Station/ Earl of Sandwich — Planet Hollywood International & Boston Parks & Recreation Department

Brighton Mile Marker — MA Department of Transportation

Dorcas Window Restoration — Church of the Covenant

Gordon Hall Window Restoration — Harvard University Medical School

Hayden Building — Historic Boston Incorporated

Hostelling International Boston — American Youth Hostels- Boston Hostels

Second Brazer Building — Fidelity Investments

Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital — Partners Healthcare Real Estate & Facilities

St. Joseph-St. Lazarus Church — Archdiocese of Boston

 

Honorary Committee

Anthony Pangaro  – Millennium Partners

Robert Beal – Related Beal

John Fish – Suffolk Construction

Peter Diana – Carpenter & Company

Joseph Geller – Stantec

Thomas Goemaat – Shawmut Design and Construction

Frederick Kramer – ADD, Inc.

David Manfredi – Elkus Manfredi Architects

Jan Miller – Eastern Bank

Judith Nitsch – Nitsch Engineering

Byron Rushing – MA House of Representatives

Robert Walsh – R.F. Walsh Company

Karen Whiteknact – Liberty Mutual

 

Sponsors

Alliance Leader

Millennium Partners

Related Beal

Suffolk Construction

Underwriter

Historic Boston, Inc.

The Druker Company

The Boston Red Sox

Advocate

AFL-CIO Housing Investment Trust

Carpenter & Company, Inc.

Elkus Manfredi Architects

Liberty Mutual

Shawmut Construction

Steward

ADD, Inc.

Bay Contracting, Inc.

Boston Private Bank & Trust Company

D.L. Saunders Real Estate

Eastern Bank

John Moriarty & Associates

Nauset Construction

NER Construction Management

Nitsch Engineering

S & F Concrete

Stantec

The Abbey Group

Torrey Architecture

Wessling Architects

Winn Development

Sustainer

American Plumbing and Heating

Bilt-Rite Construction

Bruner/Cott Architects and Planners

Building Conservation Associates

Cambridge Seven Associates

Canning Studios

CBT Architects

Cheviot Corporation

Commercial Construction Consulting, Inc.

Component Assembly Systems

Consigli Construction Company

CWC Builders

Edwards Wildman

Egan’s Church Furnishings & Restorations

Epsilon Associates

Fannin-Lehner  Preservation Consultants

The Freedom Trail Foundation

Goedecke & Company

Grande Masonry

Handel Architects

Haven Restoration

Howard/Stein-Hudson Associates

JDC Demolition

Kavanagh Advisory Group

Klein Hornig

Landmark Structures Corporation

MacRostie Historic Advisors

Marc Truant & Associates

McCall & Almy

McDonald Electrical Corporation

Milan Church Restorations

Murphy Specialty, Inc.

New Atlantic Development

Northeastern University

Renaissance Properties

Ryan Iron Works

Samiotes Consultants, Inc.

Sea-Dar Construction

Serpentino Stained Glass StudioThe Selwyn Foundation

Simpson Gumpertz & Heger

Studley

Vanasse Hangen Brustlin, Inc.

William Gallagher Associates

 

 

Boston’s Next Mayor and Historic Resources – Surveying the Candidates

September 17th, 2013  |  Posted by: Greg Galer

As Boston’s mayoral candidates sprint towards the primary, they are constantly finding themselves in neighborhoods whose very character is defined by historic buildings and landscapes. A recent survey by the Boston Preservation Alliance shows that the candidates universally acknowledge the positive role of historic buildings and preservation efforts on the city’s growth and success. With 9 of the 12 candidates responding, most state that preservation is important to the city’s character and an important part of the role of the mayor, though there is not a consensus on how to fund, regulate and promote preservation efforts going forward.

Every candidate responding to the survey (see below for a full list) indicates that historic preservation plays a positive role in Boston’s success and enhances the city’s desirability as a place to work and play. The majority of the candidates believe that historic preservation has “enhanced a great deal” the city’s desirability as a place to work, operate a business and invest in real estate, echoing a common theme of the Alliance. Only candidates Michael Ross and Robert Consalvo believe that preservation plays only “some role” in enhancing Boston as a good place to work/operate a business and Ross sees only “ little” impact of preservation as a good place to invest in real estate and development. Others feel that preservation has a “great deal” of influence in those investments.

The candidates were almost evenly split on the question of whether Boston’s historic resources have been adequately protected in the past decade (Conley, Consalvo, Ross, Richie – yes) (Arroyo, Barros, Walsh, Connolly, Walczak – no) — possibly reflecting the dichotomy between the current Mayor’s many preservation successes and the simultaneous limitations of the current system with respect to analysis, planning and funding. All but one candidate would strive for greater protection of Boston’s historic resources (Walsh choosing “no opinion”) and additional funding (Consalvo choosing “no opinion”).

In a city known for successfully blending historic buildings and new development, these answers aren’t particularly surprising. The survey results become more nuanced when candidates address issues associated with financially supporting historic resources and the tools available to manage the threat of demolition of historic buildings to make way for new development.

To enhance the stability, longevity and benefit associated with some of the City’s most well-known historic structures (i.e. Old State House, Paul Revere House, etc.):

  • 80% of the respondents would focus first on actively promoting greater private foundation and corporate philanthropic support (all but Barros and Golar Richie).
  • Nearly half (44%) indicate increasing city funding as their second choice (Conley, Connolly, Ross, Walczak).
  • Creating a new revenue stream (such as development, hotel or other tax/fee) is Golar Richie’s first choice, but second or third for everyone else.
  • All but Consalvo consider “maintaining the status quo” as their least desirable solution.

Most candidates support Boston adopting the CPA. (The Community Preservation Act offers enhanced funding for historic preservation, affordable housing, and open space.)

  • Only Conley and Consalvo oppose adoption.
  • Conley was also alone among the Mayoral candidates in not supporting state and federal historic tax credit programs.

The candidates all are open to changes in the City’s Article 85-Demolition Delay, the process by which the city can postpone owner-requested demolition of buildings over 50 years old to provide more sufficient time to seek alternatives to loss.

  • Most are open to the idea of extending the period from 90 days to 180, but they feel more analysis is needed.
  • Consalvo offers a delay based on building age: “For buildings that are 50 years old, keep the 90 day delay; for buildings that are 51-99 years old set the delay at 180 days; for buildings 100 years old and older make it one year.”
  • Connolly recognizes a related problem, that we need to better define the “standard for what constitutes a complete demolition.”

Almost universally, the candidates disagree with the idea that preservation regulations tend to unnecessarily cost the city money or impede progress (with Ross/Walsh having no opinion on the issue).

The balance between the BRA’s planning and development division impacts the way the city shapes the make-up and character of Boston’s future.

  • Consalvo and Richie believe this balance is fine as is.
  • Arroyo and Barros feel the development wing should be stronger.
  • The rest of the candidates support a strong position for planning.

With all of the candidates recognizing that preservation is an important aspect of the Mayoral role, it is clear that questions of how to fund these efforts, create policies and marry preservation with forward progress will be important areas of engagement for advocates like the Alliance. We must maintain a presence and work actively with a new mayoral team to enhance the process.
It is encouraging that all the candidates recognize that preservation of the city’s historic buildings and landscapes are central to the city’s character and its success. The Boston Preservation Alliance looks forward to continued discussion on preservation issues with the two candidates surviving the primary and reporting that information to continue to educate the electorate.

Quotes from the Candidate Survey
“Each time we lose a piece of our history, it is unfortunate, but that is why it is important to work with developers and the community to preserve as much of our history while also moving our city forward.”
– Arroyo

“Preservation is critical to the survival of Boston, as we know it.” – Barros

“I believe the preservation work related to Boston’s historic theaters has been extraordinary and have shown the capacity for preservation projects to act not merely as museums or monuments to the past … but how they can also be living, thriving centers in a community.” – Conley

“We are fortunate that for most of Boston’s history, the economic and technological forces that shaped our city’s development created a built environment that is blessed with beautiful public spaces and dignified architecture. … it’s exactly this kind of environment that people want for themselves… Preserving this built environment has contributed to Boston’s success…” – Connolly

“Imagine Boston without historic preservation; not just for tourism but for creating and enhancing a special character that distinguishes Boston from other cities… … There is no doubt, however, that some businesses consider historic preservation a burden… and maybe we don’t want those kinds of businesses anyway.” – Consalvo

“Preservation has played a positive role and has given Boston a specific identity as it has protected the things that make Boston unique. Boston is a city that has always embraced its past as it moves forward. We have a nice collection of old and new buildings.” – Richie

“Our history and internationally-known landmarks are a key driver of tourism and add vibrancy to our city.” — Ross

“Many of our older, historic sections of the city have been rediscovered and are being redeveloped as historic districts rather than demolished… Preservation is essential to Boston’s identity.” – Walczak

“Historic tourism is a major economic driver for the city of Boston, and it is vital to the region as a whole. Cultural organizations/businesses and higher education entities are drawn to a historic city with enriching cultural sites. The cachet of operating a business in a city of firsts … draws investment.” — Walsh

**The following candidates participated in the poll: Felix Arroyo, John Barros, Daniel Conley, John Connolly, Robert Consalvo, Charlotte Golar Richie, Michael Ross, Martin Walsh, Bill Walczak..

The Power of Landmarking

July 31st, 2013  |  Posted by: Greg Galer

To formally declare a building a Boston Landmark or a contributing element of a Landmark District is the most powerful tool we have in preservation.  Many people don’t realize that a designation on the local level (local landmark, local historic district, etc.) is in fact the mostpowerful tool at our disposal to protect historic buildings. These local designations are more powerful than listing on the National Register of Historic Places (which provides no regulatory control or protection for an historic resource except under very specific situations) or even a building declared a National Landmark, which provides little more protection than the National Register.

The threshold, process, and rules for creating such a local landmark vary.  In Boston the process is controlled by the Boston Landmarks Commission (BLC), and information on the process can be found here:  http://www.cityofboston.gov/landmarks/process.asp .   The Alliance works closely with the BLC on many issues, and we frequently submit formal comment and testify at their meetings.

A recent blog posting provides an interesting discussion regarding landmarking in New York City which certainly applies to Boston as well.  We certainly can’t nor do we want to landmark the whole city and hamper the city’s ability to develop and evolve.  But we are far from a point where we’ve locked the city up with Landmarks.  According to the BLC web site we have only 87 Landmark properties and 10 districts (including Beacon Hill and Back Bay) in the entire city and all its neighborhoods.  I believe we need to utilize this process to protect more important resources, but others will inevitably disagree.

Take a look at this thoughtful piece about landmarking and the evolution of property costs and wealth distribution in cities.  See what you think!

http://www.worldarchitecture.org/blog-links/pgvve/is-new-york-city-landmarking-too-many-buildings.html

 

 

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 (http://www.bostonpreservation.org/allianceviews/2013/05/demolition-on-beacon-hill/) 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.

One man’s renovation can be another man’s demolition

July 5th, 2013  |  Posted by: Greg Galer

When does a project cross the line from “renovation” to demolition”?  This is a question with which many communities and preservationists have struggled for some time. Perhaps you too have seen an instance in which one tiny wall is saved and an entirely new structure built around it, clearly an effort to utilize some loophole in local zoning.  Check out today’s Jamaica Plain Gazette – http://tinyurl.com/okjacp2 discussing the issue here in Boston and some of my thoughts on the matter.

While leaving a tiny piece of wall isn’t what happened in Boston, the question of what is and what isn’t demolition has raised its head here. The Dr. Marie E. Zakrzewska House in Jamaica Plain has been the subject of much conversation in the community, a multitude of emails flying behind the scenes, and coverage in the print media as well. In this case the city approved a renovation/expansion project for the historic home.

Dr. Marie Zakrzewska (1829-1902) founded the New England Hospital for Women and Children (now Dimock Center) in 1862. This was the first hospital in the city to employ women as doctors. She was also active in the women’s suffrage movement, working alongside well-knowns such as Lucy Stone, William Lloyd Garrison, and Julia Ward Howe.  (You can read more about her here:  http://tinyurl.com/n8k35qr)

The issue regarding the project at her home is that while the city followed procedures and process for alterations to the home (including public hearings), the city’s Inspectional Services Division didn’t consider the project a demolition. However, the extent of the work and dramatic alterations are so extensive that many not involved feel that the work is effectively demolition, as the final result will bear little resemblance to the historic structure.

Article 85, Boston’s Demolition Delay Bylaw is triggered by a request for a demolition permit for any building at least 50 years old, with “Demolition” defined as “any act of pulling down, destroying, razing, or removing a building, or the commencement of such work with the intent to complete the same.”  When does extensive renovation become demolition?  Sometimes it’s hard to tell. And we must take the situation here on Peter Parley Road in Jamaica Plain as a learning opportunity and a sign that we need to enhance the process.  The Alliance has begun discussions to do that very thing.  Stay tuned!

 

Some related material:

Take a look at a lead editorial in the Boston Globe, June 12, 2013:  “Failure to preserve JP home shows cracks in landmarks law”   http://tinyurl.com/mo37sq2

And my reply, Boston Globe, June 16, 2013: “System for historic preservation needs to be buttressed”  http://tinyurl.com/ldvnxf9

Again, be sure to see the article in the July 5, 2013  Jamaica Plain Gazette – “Historic demolition process reviewed” http://tinyurl.com/okjacp2   discussing the issue.

If you are interested in seeing the City’s Demolition Delay bylaw, take a look here: http://www.bostonredevelopmentauthority.org/pdf/zoningcode/article85.pdf

 

 

 

City Hall – Another Round?

May 30th, 2013  |  Posted by: Greg Galer

Two recent articles once again raise the cause of Boston City Hall, a long-debated aspect of the city’s built environment.  It’s a polarizing building – most people either love it or hate it.

Just last week a piece by Jim Borgesani on WBUR’s “Cogniscenti” web site challenges the new Mayor to take action and remove and replace City Hall (“How to Win the Mayor’s Race and Do Us a Favor in the Process” (http://tinyurl.com/p43fjge)

Yet is that all that City Hall deserves?  Is it really so simple that we just throw the baby out with the bath water (at huge expense, I must add), and say “Wipe it off the face of the earth and move on?”  This week another opinion emerged, as it always seems to do when this topic comes up.  The Boston Globe’s May 29 “Boston Calling festival  reinvigorates City Hall Plaza” points to a more positive perspective gained on City Hall during a recent festival.  (http://tinyurl.com/nhe59ws)  A musician is quoted as saying “That building over there gets a bad rap… But from here, it looks beautiful.”  See, it isn’t always so bad.  I suggest there is another way to look at the situation.

Perhaps the problem is that we’ve been beating up on City Hall and its Plaza for way too long. Rather than sprucing it up, making changes and alterations to address its admitted flaws, we’ve exacerbated the problem with mistreatment.  Vehicles randomly park all over the poorly-kempt plaza, a variety of barriers and make-shift security additions litter the grounds and the building’s first floor, stairways are closed, etc.  The general lack of repair, lack of upkeep, and absence of normal rounds of organized upgrades piled upon this building would make the best of buildings look bad.  It’s as if we purchased a suit that needed alterations and instead of heading to a skilled tailor dragged out the sewing box and tacked on pieces willy-nilly.  Lived in the suit for years, never brought it to the cleaners, made more bad alterations, then complained it was a bad suit.  Of course it looks bad and functions poorly given how it’s been treated!  Let’s take a serious stab at rejuvenating City Hall and the plaza and you may be surprised by the results.

Admittedly, Mid-Century modern buildings are a challenge. Even those who focus on their significance within the long timeline of architectural history would admit that. Many were built as experiments that were recognized as far from home-run successes soon after they opened.  But does that mean we should add insult to injury by piling on?  Let’s takes what’s good and works and make changes to address the problems.

The next time you walk by City Hall think of how much a little TLC and some creative thinking could do.  Yes, the time has come, but not to demolish but to give this building the attention it deserves. Let’s make it right rather than make it go away.

Demolition On Beacon Hill!

May 20th, 2013  |  Posted by: Greg Galer

 

 

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.

“Tikkun Olam” – Repairing the World in Our Own Small Way

April 21st, 2013  |  Posted by: Greg Galer

It has been obviously quite a strange week for Boston. Like everyone else, I’ve been struck by the resolve of the entire city: the resolve to do what we all know is right, whether that be to step forward and help others, to place the common good ahead of individual needs (we do live in the “Common-wealth” of Massachusetts, after all), and to thank and appreciate the people and all the wonderful aspects of our community.  Despite the terrible tragedy that occurred, it’s comforting to take solace that in a time when such sadness and terror occurred the good so far, far outshines the evil. Good work, kindness and efforts to improve ourselves as a community always are ultimately more powerful than the few who try to bring us down.

I was immediately struck amongst all the beautiful and thought-provoking words uttered over the last week of the comments of Cardinal Sean O’Malley who referenced the Jewish tradition of tikkun olam, the concept of repairing or healing the world – striving to leave the world better than we found it.  Given that this term comes from my traditions, and one that is not an uncommon theme in my congregation, I was pleased to hear it placed in a greater light at the Marathon Tragedy Healing Service.  For those unfamiliar, it to me is much like the good-old Golden Rule, a most basic of human precepts that if followed allows so many of our ideas about morality, law, and righteousness to flow from it.  If we all simply act as we would want others to act to us, if we seek in our actions to make ourselves and the world around us a better place, think of how improved all our lives and our society would be.

In modern times tikkun olam has been used to refer to social action work. The Jewish activities of tzedakah (charitable giving) and gemilut hasadim (acts of kindness), so long part of Jewish tradition as ways to improve the world and help our fellow man also include progressive approaches to social issues; volunteering, working for causes which you believe strongly improve the world and are examples of tikkun olam. These can be small simple acts of kindness at home or in your community, larger volunteer efforts, or even broader global-affecting social and political activities. The spectrum is huge.

For me, one of the reasons I have always worked in the non-profit sector, and in particular have focused on historic preservation issues is because I feel strongly that this work makes the world a better place. I generally don’t think of tikkun olam when I’m sitting at a meeting of the Boston Landmarks Commission or the BRA, when I’m discussing with a developer how to make his project better enhance the city’s special historic character, or when I’m in a neighborhood meeting discussing how we can best work together to save a historic church building so central to their community’s sense of self-identity.  But, in fact that really is what I do day-to-day – working in my small way to make our little slice of the world a better place.

Let us not forget that despite differences of opinion on so many items, from the small and insignificant, to the large and seemingly overpowering, that overall people are good. It is generally not helpful to focus on those on the opposite side of the table as evil, mean-spirited, greedy, or dishonest when they come with different ideas that may oppose our own. Remember each has his or her own perspective, and it is more helpful to consider their reasoning and try to convince them that there is a different way of seeing things — that there are options.  Perhaps by sharing perspectives and alternatives we can find an agreeable way that can make the world, our city, our community a better place for all.

It sadly takes event’s like this past week’s to remind us why we do the work we do.  I’m honored to have been given the opportunity to lead the Boston Preservation Alliance to do our part in improving our little corner of the world.  Boston demonstrated to the world this week it’s resolve, grit, and special character reflected in its people, traditions and special places. Let us work together to continue to improve the world and together heal the wounds of this past week.