Farmhouse may be landmarked

October 6, 2006
By

JOHN RUCH

JAMAICA HILLS—The 180-year-old Jabez Lewis farmhouse in Arnold Arboretum—once threatened to be demolished to make way for an equipment barn—is officially under consideration by the Boston Landmarks Commission (BLC) for landmark status.

“This is an extraordinary landmark of American horticultural history…[and] a rare example of Federal-style architecture,” said commissioner William Marchione at a Sept. 26 hearing where the BLC unanimously voted to accept a landmark petition for “further study.”

The petition was collected by the Jamaica Hills Association (JHA) and presented by member Steve Lerman, who warned that the now vacant farmhouse remains “precariously vulnerable to demolition by neglect.”

Landmark status would impose city review of any demolition or exterior changes. Lerman said the JHA hopes it would also pressure Harvard University, which runs the arboretum and owns the house, to not let it decay.

No one from Harvard spoke at the hearing and no comment letters from the university were recorded. Arboretum Director Bob Cook told the Gazette he was aware the petition was going before the BLC, but said he has been instructed to refer all questions to Harvard’s public relations department. Harvard spokesperson Kevin McCluskey was not immediately available for comment.

Sarah Kelly, executive director of the Boston Preservation Alliance, said that group “strongly and passionately” endorses the landmark consideration. BLC Executive Director Ellen Lipsey noted several letters of support, including from state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson, state Rep. Jeffrey Sánchez and Boston City Councilor Steve Murphy.

The farmhouse, which dates to between 1822 and 1827, sits at 1090 Centre St., at the intersection with Westchester Road and next to the arboretum’s greenhouses. While Harvard leases most of the arboretum land from the City of Boston, it actually owns the farmhouse, which it acquired in 1927, according to BLC staff.

Last year, Harvard proposed demolishing the house to build an equipment barn as part of its facilities expansion plan. It backed off after JHA activism led to condemnation of the move by the Boston City Council and the house’s nomination as one of the 10 most endangered historic sites in Massachusetts by the group PreservationMass.

But Harvard has “refused” to find a reuse for the building, which has been vacant for about 10 years, according to Lerman, who noted that could mean it will simply rot away.

“I’m truly ashamed of Harvard’s behavior in this matter,” said Lerman, noting he is on the Harvard Medical School faculty. “It has been arrogant and dismissive.”

“Collectively, the belief is that Harvard University, as owner of the property, has the responsibility to preserve the farmhouse for future generations,” he said.

The house was built by Jabez and Lucretia Lewis, farmers and produce-sellers who previously lived in the house across Centre Street with Lucretia’s brother, according to a historic presentation by BLC staff member Roysin Bennett Younkin.

The former Adams Nervine Asylum (now converted to condominiums) later bought the land, and Harvard eventually leased the house. It became the home of Jackson Dawson, a renowned horticulturist who oversaw plants and created new hybrids for over 43 years.

Harvard purchased the house in 1927. According to Bennett Younkin, the house was in bad shape at that time, but Harvard fixed it up and placed staff in it.

The house’s overall condition remains good, including architectural details and a stable structure, according to Bennett Younkin.

The house already has several historic designations stemming from the arboretum’s general status as a National Historic Site. However, only BLC landmarking would actually protect it.

A 1980s study deemed the house “significant,” Bennett Younkin said, adding that it was conducted with “limited data.”

The BLC first voted to elevate the house to “further study” status, meaning it is more important and worthy of landmark consideration. That let the BLC accept and consider the landmark petition.

Lipsey said the house now goes onto a list of potential landmarks. The BLC usually examines the list once or twice a year and selects sites for an active landmark recommendation from the BLC staff.