PONDSIDE—The Boston Landmarks Commission (BLC) unanimously approved the demolition of the decaying Pinebank mansion at Jamaica Pond and replacing it with some kind of memorial at a contentious hearing last week.
“It seems to me it has to come down,” said BLC chair Susan Pranger at the Sept. 26 hearing at Boston City Hall. The hearing included an early meeting of the BLC design review committee, and then a later vote by the full BLC.
Antonia Pollak, commissioner of the Boston Parks and Recreation Department, also announced that the Inspectional Services Department has declared Pinebank unsafe and ordered its demolition.
“They have inspected the building and they have ordered us to take the building down,” Pollak said, adding that the demolition will likely happen before the end of the year.
The BLC accepted the demolition grudgingly. Commissioners David Berarducci and William Marchione looked especially conflicted, scowling as they voted yes.
The decision did not approve any particular memorial design, early versions of which were presented in a public meeting last month. The memorial ideas will undergo continuing BLC design review. All of the design ideas basically involve leaving an outline of the mansion on the ground.
However, some commissioners spoke strongly against “Alternative A,” the design that previously got the most positive community response, and which involves rebuilding the mansion’s front and back doorways. Instead, they liked Alternative B, which involves showing the mansion’s outline with a wall about 30 inches high made of original bricks.
The approval also came with provisos that the parks department gets special BLC advice on salvaging the mansion’s material; that the memorial should not preclude a possible reconstruction of the mansion later; that the parks department be “encouraged to consider” reconstruction; and that the parks department review the condition of all its Emerald Necklace parks buildings so that they do not decay as well.
All of those provisos were essentially in response to Friends of Pinebank, a Brookline-based group that hopes to rebuild the mansion as some type of arts center and café. Many commissioners clearly favored the idea of eventual reconstruction, but also noted that the Friends plan specifically is still “speculative” and should not delay the demolition and memorial.
“There’s no way we can sit here today and know whether the group will succeed or not,” Pranger said.
Friends members showed up in force, often attempting to insert comments and question the demolition idea. Pranger and BLC Executive Director Ellen Lipsey repeatedly had to remind them that the application under consideration did not include preserving the mansion intact.
“We ask that you do not tear this building down,” said Friends vice president Anne Lusk, explaining that the group is about to begin fund-raising.
Pinebank dates to the 1870s and was incorporated into Jamaica Pond Park, which is itself a historic landmark. The mansion previously had city uses, but was abandoned in the 1970s and damaged by repeated fires.
In the 1990s, the city issued a nationwide request for proposals for reuse of the building that resulted in no feasible plans. Feasibility aside, the community has never reached consensus on what type of reuse would be appropriate.
Those divisions continued at the meeting. As Friends sought to prevent demolition, John Iappini of the Jamaica Pond Association and Gerry Wright of the Jamaica Pond Project argued in favor of the city’s plan as at least a way to return the now fenced-off area to some kind of immediate use.
Sarah Kelly, executive director of the Boston Preservation Alliance (BPA), also spoke in favor of the city’s plans, as long as Pinebank is fully documented first.
Also in support of the city’s plan is the Emerald Necklace Conservancy and the Solomon Fund, which funded the latest public meetings on the memorial design. Lipsey read many public comments against the plan. Friends also submitted a letter against demolition provided by the Washington, D.C.-based National Association of Olmsted Parks.
The BLC and virtually all the residents condemned what they called Pinebank’s “demolition by neglect” by the city.
Several Friends members questioned the validity of engineer John Wathne’s report that Pinebank is beyond saving, though the group previously accepted it. However, Pranger noted that Wathne is the BLC’s own provider of second opinions on demolitions, and they trust his judgment.
Margaret Dyson of the parks department revealed that Historic Boston Inc. earlier had also discussed getting a second opinion, but were satisfied when they found out Wathne had conducted the study. Kelly previously told the Gazette the BPA sought a second opinion from some of its own board members, who agreed that the building cannot be saved.
While approving demolition, the BLC also wanted to make sure that future reconstruction is possible on the site with as much original material as possible.
In general, they told the parks department to attempt to save much more original material than it appeared to be planning. Dyson talked about saving relatively little material, instead making molds of key decorative elements so they could be recreated later if necessary.
There was also some dispute over whether it’s a good idea to bury some original debris on the site, entombing it in the mansion’s foundation.
Several commissioners agreed with Friends’ worry that using original material to construct signs for a historic educational display, or in the rebuilt doorways design, could spoil the material for an eventual reconstruction.
Marchione called the rebuilt doorways idea a “monument to failure.” One of the reasons Alternative B was praised by some commissioners is because it preserves more of the mansion’s foundation, which would help in reconstruction.
BLC enthusiasm for the idea of reconstruction was high. Pranger and several other members almost agreed to an idea called out by a Friends member to add a proviso to “encourage” reconstruction.
“You’re kind of going outside the application. I would caution you not to do that,” Lipsey warned, suggesting a proviso to “encourage them to consider it. Couch it.”
Commissioners agreed with that language.
In part, that was because they recongized economic feasibility is also a factor. Pranger noted that one question will be, “How much effort is reasonable…when there are people who want to restore the building but haven’t really gotten there yet.” And, she said, hopes for reconstruction shouldn’t force the memorial to turn into something “half-done.”
A special subcommittee of the BLC will advise the parks department on salvage and documentation options, and the final advice will go to the full BLC for approval.