House preservation questioned

November 17, 2006
By

JOHN RUCH

ARBORETUM—The leader of an effort to save Arnold Arboretum’s historic Jabez Lewis farmhouse found the building wide open to vandals the day after he was told it had been secured as part of a “mothballing” program.

Jamaica Hills Association (JHA) member Steve Lerman also complained that the house did not appear to have a promised dehumidifer, showed signs of continuing rot and remains in danger of “demolition by neglect.”

“If this is what passes for mothballing, the moths living in the farmhouse can relax,” said Lerman in an e-mail to Harvard University, which runs the arboretum, obtained by the Gazette.

Lerman and his wife reportedly were able to walk right into the 180-year-old house at 1090 Centre St. on Oct. 27 through an open gate and two unlocked basement doors.

“So much for security against vandalism!!” he wrote in the e-mail to Harvard spokesperson Kevin McCluskey, who on Oct. 26 had sent Lerman a list of supposedly completed mothballing efforts that included securing the house. McCluskey previously gave the Gazette the same information.

McCluskey acknowledged to the Gazette that the building was not secure, which he blamed on a careless contractor. He said the gate in a fence around the house, which Lerman also found open, is now also locked up.

“We’re not prosecuting Dr. Lerman for breaking and entering,” McCluskey said in apparent jest. “We’re being very gracious in not prosecuting. I don’t think he’d look good at the Suffolk County Jail.”

“I think it’s important to note that the building is secure,” McCluskey said. Referring to the chain now locking the gate, he said, “I’m sure that looks nice. I’m sure Jabez Lewis had a chain on there.”

McCluskey said there is indeed a dehumidifer in the basement of the house, but that it might not have been running when Lerman was inside. He said its use is probably dependent on weather or the season.

“I know Dr. Lerman is a very smart guy,” McCluskey said. “I don’t know what his expertise is on evaluating historic preservation measures.”

The Boston Landmarks Commission is considering the house for official landmark status. It has been vacant since 1993. The arboretum recently proposed demolishing it, but backed off after JHA activism. However, there is still no planned reuse for the building.

The recently issued arboretum Institutional Master Plan, an official estimate of all planned expansion for the next decade, says the house will be stabilized under federal guidelines for temporarily “mothballing” historic structures until its fate can be decided.

The guidelines include securing the building and protecting it from water and other damage.

“We’ll pay attention to all those issues,” McCluskey said. “Our commitment remains to take the proper mothballing measures.”

In his e-mail, Lerman suggested that JHA members and arboretum officials tour the house together to ensure it is being properly preserved.