Historic house saved by demo crew

May 11, 2007
By

JOHN RUCH


Gazette Photo by John Swan
Instructor Steve O’Shaughnessy (left) helps North Bennet Street School student Adam Reitano prepare strapping to move a foundation beam at 33 Bynner St.

HYDE SQ.—They came to demolish part of the historic house. They ended up rescuing it with painstaking handiwork.

Steven O’Shaughnessy said he and his preservation carpentry students from the North Bennet Street School fell in love with the small wing of the 1813-era farmhouse at 33 Bynner St., one of Jamaica Plain’s oldest houses.

The current team of owners, led by Gary Martell, initially contacted the school to suggest a hands-on lesson in “sensitive demolition,” O’Shaughnessy said.

“We came on site for a couple of days and started peeling away some bad 1970s [work],” he said. Then they saw outstanding 1820-era woodwork underneath, including a frame held together by wooden pins. “We said, ‘Why not let us save the wing?’”

Martell agreed, and the 13 students were scheduled to complete a remarkable re-framing of the wing this week after a month on the job, largely using old-school hand tools.

It’s a surprising turn of events—not only for a wing that the community expected to see torn down, but for Martell, who has been vilified as historically insensitive by some residents for various aspects of the project.

Martell did not return a Gazette phone call for this article.

Last year, Martell ignited a controversy by cutting down old trees and demolishing a historic rock outcropping on the site, which helped spark a local effort to preserve trees.

Then Martell proposed tearing down the two-story wing on the house, saying it was too damaged to save. The Boston Landmarks Commission placed a 90-day demolition delay on the property so alternatives could be considered, but that expired in January with no new rescue plan.

But the owners remained history-minded, O’Shaughnessy said, noting they contacted the school’s preservation carpenters about at least doing the
demolition right.

“They just couldn’t see it fitting in…to the scope of the main dwelling. They felt it was a liability to the main house,” O’Shaughnessy said.

But they quickly agreed to save the wing when the students said it was possible—a decision made “partly because of the reaction in the neighborhood” against the demolition idea, O’Shaughnessy said.

It was a decision that in some ways cost more in special materials and
time, he added. “They’ve been really great hosts. They put up with our slow pace,” he said.

Martell wasn’t exaggerating about the condition of the wing, O’Shaughnessy said. The frame was sagging, badly damaged by insects and dry rot. The students had to replace an entire corner post supporting the wing, the fieldstone foundation and some of the sills.

“There were no mechanical fasteners, no nails,” O’Shaughnessy said. His students copied the historic techniques, crafting wooden pins and cutting mortise-and-tenon joints.

The work also required custom-cut timber. For example, the corner of a modern house is made by nailing a few 2-by-4s together. But this project required a replacement corner post that was a single 9 ½-by-8 ½-inch pine log 14 feet long.

“It’s not just something you can get at Home Depot,” O’Shaughnessy said.

The students only worked on replacing the frame. Martell, a contractor, will do the finish work.

Founded in 1885, the North Bennet Street School is the oldest trade school in the country and remains in its original North End headquarters. Its courses include such trades as violin-making and bookbinding—“Old World hand skills, skills that have died out a long time ago,” O’Shaughnessy said.

The preservation carpentry trade involves learning to work with and recondition historic hand tools, and carpentry “bordering on the skill level of cabinet-makers,” he said.

O’Shaughnessy is a graduate of the school and a former preservation carpenter for the preservation group Historic New England. He now teaches first-year preservation carpentry students.

The students have no trouble finding hands-on field experiences in the Boston area, he said. Owners of historic properties can hire a class for a “nominal” service charge and the cost of materials.

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