Farmhouse reuse pushed

John Ruch

JAMAICA HILLS—Mayor Thomas Menino and the Boston City Council are joining local activists in a call for Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum to reuse its recently landmarked Lewis-Dawson Farmhouse to prevent its “demolition by neglect.”

The 180-year-old farmhouse at 1090 Centre St. has been vacant for almost 15 years, and the arboretum says it has no planned reuse for at least another 10 years.

In an Aug. 8 letter to Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust, Menino urged Harvard to “find a solution that does not leave the residents with a boarded-up structure in the middle of their community.”

The arboretum proposed tearing down the house in 2004, leading to Jamaica Hills Association (JHA) advocacy that got the house landmarked last month. But landmarking is only the first step, preservationists argue, saying that active reuse is what will truly save the house.

“If Harvard does not renovate and maintain the building, it will remain an eyesore and a public safety hazard, will be disrespectful to Boston’s historic heritage, and will waste a valuable Harvard property,” wrote the JHA’s Stephen Lerman in a letter delivered last week to Faust.

The letter was signed by most of the City Council; state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson; state Rep. Jeffrey Sánchez; the Boston Preservation Alliance (BPA) and Preservation Massachusetts; and various neighborhood associations and local institutions, including Faulkner Hospital, the Italian Home for Children, the Manning School and Showa Boston/British School of Boston. The Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council postponed discussion of the matter until its September meeting.

Menino and City Councilor Rob Consalvo sent their own letters to Faust.

Harvard spokesperson Kevin McCluskey last week told the Gazette he had not yet seen the JHA letter and did not have immediate comment about it.

McCluskey noted that Harvard has taken appropriate steps to “mothball” the house according to National Park Service guidelines and will work with the Boston Landmarks Commission (BLC) on further preservation.

He added that reuse “has been considered” and that for now, the arboretum is focused on its plans for a new research and administration building. [See related story.]

The new building reflects a major sticking point in reuse of the farmhouse. First, the arboretum is focused on centralizing its facilities for efficiency. Second, arboretum research is now highly laboratory-based. (The arboretum is operated by Harvard but is self-funded.)

The last use of the building, in 1993, was as temporary office space during renovation of the historic Hunnewell Building, the arboretum’s current administrative headquarters.

In 2004, Harvard hired architects to study the possible reuse of the farmhouse as offices. While the architects reported it is possible in terms of structural integrity and building codes, it did not match the arboretum’s centralization plans. Instead, the arboretum proposed demolishing the farmhouse to make way for a centralized equipment barn.

BPA Executive Director Sarah Kelly said the farmhouse could still make good offices, or possibly a residence for a caretaker or visiting scholars.

“There’s no reason why that couldn’t be a residence,” she said.

“Our number one issue is just that we want to see an active use for the building, period,” Kelly said. “We haven’t even been able to have a conversation at all.”

The JHA letter calls for Harvard to form a committee of Harvard/arboretum officials and preservationists to brainstorm reuse possibilities.

The federal “mothballing” guidelines essentially call for an unused historic building to be secured and maintained. McCluskey noted that Harvard has taken various steps to do that. However, the quality of the mothballing has been controversial, with Lerman reporting last fall that he found the house unlocked.

In any case, the federal guidelines also make it clear that mothballing should be a temporary solution pending reuse. Otherwise, a building can fall apart anyway, or at least to the point that it becomes too expensive to renovate.

A classic example of this “demolition by neglect” is the former historic Pinebank mansion at Jamaica Pond. Left vacant for years by the city, Pinebank also suffered from extreme difficulties in finding any feasible reuse. Thirty years later, it was beyond repair and was demolished earlier this year.

The farmhouse’s landmark designation prevents any kind of demolition, including demolition by neglect, which the BLC can punish by taking property owners to court. But, Kelly noted, that option is often too late to save the property anyway.

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