Pinebank comes down brick by loose brick


Gazette Photo by John Swan
Pinebank mansion awaits more demolition after the first layer of bricks has been removed from the back of the historic building.

Pinebank, the decaying, abandoned mansion overlooking Jamaica Pond, will be gone by the end of the month.

Its existence spanned three centuries. Failed attempts to preserve it spanned three decades.

When the house was built in 1870, Jamaica Plain wasn’t a part of Boston and the Emerald Necklace park system hadn’t been thought of yet. By 2005, its dangerously crumbling remains could be safely explored only by an engineer’s Space Age robot.

When perhaps the most promising preservation attempt was made in the early 1990s, Margaret Dyson was president of Historic Massachusetts, Inc. and a leading member of a Pinebank citizens advisory committee. Now, she’s the city’s director of historic parks, fated to oversee the mansion’s demolition.

Times have changed during Pinebank’s lifetime. Now, its time is up.

On Jan. 3, exactly 51 weeks after announcing that Pinebank was too weather- and fire-ravaged to save, the city began demolishing it.

It’s a slow-motion demolition that involves salvaging some of the imported English brick and terra cotta decorations, possibly for use in a rebuilt Pinebank, and more likely in a modest memorial the city is planning on the site. Memorial construction could start this spring.

The only active advocate for rebuilding the mansion is the Brookline-based Friends of Pinebank, which envisions it as an arts center. But the group needs to add a couple of zeroes to the $40,000 bottom line of its bank account to approach the realm of financial feasibility.

A week into the demolition, most of the decorative elements had been removed, along with all of the exterior brick from the western wall. The rear portico was gone. Dyson told the Gazette last week that the building was in such bad shape, workers were able to simply yank bricks out of the wall.

“It’s relatively rare to be able to dismantle a building with your bare hands,” she said.

The current Pinebank is the last of three mansions with that name built on the site by the wealthy Perkins family, for whom the nearby street is named. The first went up in 1806, then was demolished to make way for a fancier second Pinebank in 1848.

Pinebank II burned in 1868. The current version was built on its foundation.

The site is atop the high embankment along the north side of the pond. Conifers still grow in the area, which is presumably the origin of the Pinebank name.

The city took over the property in the 1890s. Frederick Law Olmsted intended the mansion to be a “refectory,” or a place to get light refreshments, in his Emerald Necklace design, but that never happened. A fire, one of Pinebank’s many, gutted the building in 1895.

From about 1914 to 1936, the mansion was the home of the Boston Children’s Museum. Mostly, it served various Boston Parks and Recreation Department uses, including providing arts courses and a theater program that staged productions in the dell outside the mansion’s front door.

Pinebank was boarded up and abandoned in 1978 after another huge fire. Reuse proposals were numerous, but all foundered on a lack of money and many complex site issues, including a lack of parking and park impact concerns. The 1990s process culminated in a nationwide request for proposals that only drew an infeasible idea for a wine bar.

Meanwhile, the mansion found unofficial reuse as a graffiti billboard and “haunted house” for thrill-seeking kids.

As Pinebank became a fenced-off eyesore in the park, many activists gradually and grudgingly came to believe that it should go.

Last year, the parks department announced that there is no way to save the building, and the city’s Inspectional Services Department ordered its demolition for safety reasons. The building was crumbling rapidly. On Jan. 1, the Gazette observed what appeared to be a recent fall of bricks from the west facade, and an existing hole that had recently become much larger.

The parks department and the Emerald Necklace Conservancy held a long string of meetings about planning some kind of memorial to replace Pinebank. The city’s general idea involves rebuilding low walls and some kind of informational displays. That would also leave open the possibility of reconstruction.

The Boston Landmarks Commission (BLC), which authorized the demolition, continues to oversee the entire process. It heard the latest update last week.

Workers are salvaging all of the white terra cotta decorations; all of the west side exterior brick, which is the wall in the best shape; and as many carved stone pieces as possible, according to Dyson.

That includes the “date stone,” a stone above the mansion’s door that bears the dates of all three Pinebanks. The date stone is especially desirable for a memorial, she said.

But, Dyson warned, even the salvaged material may fall apart, as old masonry sometimes does when it’s no longer held together by the weight of the building. The date stone is going to a conservator for special examination, she said.

“In some ways, we need to do the deconstruction piece to even know what we have to work with,” Dyson said.

Dyson said it’s already known that none of the decorative yellow brick can be used in an outdoor memorial, because it will continue to crumble.

She also acknowledged that reusing any of the material in a memorial is controversial to Friends of Pinebank, which argues that it would reduce the amount of original material available for a reconstruction.

After the salvaged materials are examined, a memorial plan will be presented to the BLC, Dyson said, adding that if there is a significant new problem with reusing materials or the site itself, another round of public meetings might come first.

A memorial isn’t the only place for salvaged material. The city will archive samples of the materials along with “study packets”—CDs containing detailed plans, photos and other information about Pinebank. Samples would go to city and state archives, and possibly the Jamaica Plain Historical Society.

“[Someone] could, with that information, possibly rebuild the building,” Dyson said. That would involve recasting the bricks and decorations to match the surviving samples.

Boston Children’s Museum curators were on the site last week, attempting to examine and perhaps acquire some salvaged material for its archives, according to spokesperson Rick Stockwood. The idea, he said, is for the museum to keep a sample in its permanent collection and possibly use it somehow in the museum’s 100th anniversary celebration in 2013.

The material is not being handed out that way on the fenced-off site, and Dyson said she was unaware of the museum’s interest. But, she added, “I think it’s a great idea.” Stockwood said the museum is now in discussion with the parks department about acquiring a sample.

Archiving samples still leaves the vast majority of salvaged material. Dyson said the city still hopes to bury it on the site as a preservation measure.

“The goal is to keep [salvaged materials] on the property in the foundation so if
reconstruction was going to happen the material will still be on site,” she said. BLC commissioners have expressed mixed opinions about the idea.

In the short term, salvaged material is being stored in a locked container on the site, which was also guarded during a recent Gazette visit.

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