Farmhouse named a landmark

July 6, 2007
By

John Ruch

Apartment demo OK’ed

MOSS HILL—The 180-year-old Lewis-Dawson Farmhouse in Arnold Arboretum was named a historic landmark last week by the Boston Landmarks Commission (BLC), protecting it from demolition or defacement.

Several audience members at the June 26 BLC hearing at City Hall broke into applause at the long-awaited landmarking of the historic house, which was once slated for demolition. The BLC vote was unanimous.

The farmhouse sits at 1090 Centre St. at the intersection with Westchester Road and next to the arboretum’s greenhouses.

BLC Executive Director noted that it is “the last vestige of the working farms of the Federal period that predated the arboretum grounds.”

The house was built between 1822 and 1827 by farmers Jabez and Lucretia Lewis. Harvard University, which runs the arboretum, rented the house for many years before buying it in 1927. The house was home to Jackson Dawson, a renowned arboretum horticulturist.

More recently, from the 1930s to the 1960s, it was home to Ernest Jesse Palmer, an influential arboretum plant expert.

Despite the history, Harvard announced plans to demolish the house to make way for an equipment barn as part of an expansion of the arboretum’s academic facilities. The house has been vacant for almost 15 years.

More recently, Harvard agreed to save the house and “mothball” it until a reuse can be found. That decision was pushed by the Jamaica Hills Association (JHA). Steve Lerman, a JHA member, filed the petition that led to the landmarking.

Landmarking gives the BLC review of any exterior changes, including demolition. This particular designation comes with other restrictions as well, barring the house from being moved off its current 5-acre parcel, and prohibiting new construction or paving near it.

The designation also gives the BLC review of the mothballing, or short-term preservation, measures. Lerman expressed concerns about mothballing last year when he and his wife found the house unlocked.

All of this specific language was tweaked in a meeting with Harvard officials and approved by the BLC just before the landmarking vote.

The landmark status is not official until the City Council and the mayor approve it, which is usually a formality.
266-268 Centre St.

A late-1800s apartment building at 266-268 Centre St. in Jackson Square did not fare so well before the BLC, which approved its demolition.

The Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation (JPNDC) plans a new mixed-use building on the site, which includes surrounding vacant lots between Lamartine and Wise streets.

Albert Rex, the JPNDC’s historic consultant, acknowledged the six-unit building’s significance. The earliest record of its existence is from 1888, and it was likely built in the 1870s, he said. The building was part of an Italian-American and later a German Jewish-American neighborhood along the Stony Brook and a railroad. It faced the long-gone Lowell estate mansion across Centre Street, where the Bromley Park housing development now stands.

While time-battered, the building still has Italianate architectural detail and a partial mansard roof.

BLC Executive Director Ellen Lipsey called it “the last remaining historic structure on Centre Street along that block.”

But the BLC also accepted evidence that preserving the building is financially infeasible.

The JPNDC originally wanted to save the building by moving it to the back of the site and renovating it into housing, according to project architect Gail Sullivan. But, she said, even with major reconfiguration, the units weren’t big enough to meet the city Department of Neighborhood Development (DND) guidelines for affordable housing. Therefore, DND wouldn’t fund the project, she said.

A DND official spoke in favor of the project at the BLC hearing.

Sullivan said the building has other code-related problems as well as major physical problems, including rotted foundation sills and the need for total replacement siding.

Mission Hill resident Alison Pultinas spoke in favor of exploring preservation alternatives further. “The phrase ‘last remaining’ is evocative,” she said, referring to Lipsey’s description. “It’s neighborhoods like this that need those little details.”

A community meeting is usually required before demolition can be waived. But the BLC accepted a Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services request, backed by the Boston Redevelopment Authority, to waive the meeting requirement. They cited a March, 2006 community meeting where demolition was discussed.

Pultinas had asked for a new community meeting specifically about the demolition proposal, citing changes in the neighborhood context over the past year such as definitive Jackson Square redevelopment plans.

Half of the building is still occupied, according to the JPNDC. Those tenants will be forced to move. One tenant complained to the Gazette last year that he didn’t understand the redevelopment plans and didn’t want to move.

The new building will have 30 units of affordable housing, retail space and a new home for Hyde/Jackson Square Main Street. A fall construction start is expected.

Best of JP 2014