St. Andrew’s lacks historic protection

September 7, 2007
By

John Ruch


Gazette Photo by John SwanThe bell from the former steeple of St. Andrew the Apostle Church on Walk Hill Street sits beside a plaque marking a time capsule of items buried in 2001.

FOREST HILLS—The former St. Andrew the Apostle Church complex at Walk Hill and Wachusett streets lacks any kind of historic protection, leaving a developer free to alter or demolish any of the buildings, including the 1921 stone church.

A 2003 historic survey recommended the complex for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

The survey, conducted by the Boston Preservation Alliance (BPA), praised the complex as “a collection of religious buildings significant for their contribution to the history and architecture of Jamaica Plain specifically and Boston generally.”

As the Gazette revealed last month, the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston has chosen a developer for the site, but is keeping their identity and plans confidential for now. The Gazette has learned that the local Bethel AME Church “expressed interest” in acquiring the complex, according to a source there, but does not appear to be the winning bidder.

Meanwhile, it appears anyone could have had St. Andrew’s all to themselves for quite some time. A Watertown newspaper editor who lives in Jamaica Plain recently reported that he discovered a box containing all of the church’s keys laying outside.

History

The most significant protection St. Andrew’s could have—but doesn’t—is Boston landmark status. That would give the Boston Landmarks Commission (BLC) power over any demolition or exterior alteration.

Hyde Square’s Blessed Sacrament Church complex—also sold off by the archdiocese for redevelopment—similarly had no historic protections. A local resident three years ago petitioned the BLC to landmark the complex. The landmark status is expected to be granted but is still pending. Meanwhile, the BLC has used the petition as leverage to conduct extensive design review on the redevelopment—including preserving the rectory, which the developers planned to demolish.

St. Andrew’s is not as prominent or spectacular as Blessed Sacrament, but it has older surviving buildings. The St. Andrew’s rectory and convent buildings are actually old houses dating to around 1865—before the founding of the church on the site.

According to the BPA survey, the land for the church was purchased around 1908 by the St. Thomas Aquinas parish on South Street. At the time, the land was part of the Clark family farm. The rectory at 38 Walk Hill is the old farmhouse, which was moved to a new position on the site.

The convent at 84 Wachusett is around the same age as the farmhouse, with a 1947 addition tacked on.

The St. Andrew’s parish was established in August, 1918 from pieces of St. Thomas Aquinas and Roslindale’s Sacred Heart territory, as the Catholic population exploded.

The new parish included most of the former Boston State Hospital site, and a St. Andrew’s priest traditionally served as chaplain there, according to the survey.

Construction of the English Revival stone church building at 40 Walk Hill began in 1919 and lasted until 1921, with interior decorations taking until 1937 to finish off. For the parish’s first few years, services were held at “Minton Hall at Forest Hills Square,” the location of which is unclear. The first Mass was held in the new church on Sept. 11, 1921.

The church’s steeple was removed in 1978, but the survey found plenty to praise in the stained glass windows and statue of St. Andrew’s on the facade.

“A highly significant survival on the church is the wealth of original wood doors,” the survey notes.

The church school at 46 Wachusett was built in 1942. The survey was most interested in it for its stone wall at street level, which echoes the church building’s material.

The vinyl-sided parish hall/kindergarten building at 0 Wachusett, directly across Walk Hill from the church, dates to about 1950. Sometimes known as the “community building,” it gets no love from the survey. “The building does not appear to retain any historic integrity,” it says.

Facing declining attendance, the church closed in 2000, with the parish being swallowed by Sacred Heart. The school remained open until 2005, when the archdiocese was in the midst of a massive property liquidation.

Kathy Kottaridis, executive director of the preservation group Historic Boston Incorporated (HBI) and a Forest Hills resident, noted that St. Andrew’s is a place where people “have really strong memories—good memories and bad memories.”

Eighty years of weddings and other religious ceremonies surely produced good memories. And students and parents fought hard against the closure of the school.

On the other hand, St. Andrew’s is also a place of infamy. From 1974 to 1980, it was home to the notorious child-molesting priest John Geoghan, who committed many of his crimes there.

It remains to be seen how this conflicted history will play out in preservation attempts.

In any case, the BPA survey declared the complex historical on a number of grounds. The site memorializes the expansion of the Catholic Church shortly after the 1875 establishment of the Boston archdiocese. It constitutes a “visually cohesive and well preserved collection of parish buildings, including a farmhouse.” It is praised for “retaining integrity of location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling and association.”

“St. Andrew parish complex is particularly significant among Catholic parish complexes in Boston for the manner in which the building cluster complements the surrounding residential neighborhood in size, scale, materials and landscaping,” the survey said.

Protections

The BPA survey of St. Andrew’s was just part of a citywide survey of archdiocese properties, funded by a Massachusetts Historical Commission grant, carried out as talk of a mass property liquidation was beginning.

“This was exactly the type of thing we were anticipating when we did this work,” BPA Executive Director Sarah Kelly said of the St. Andrew’s redevelopment.

The survey is meant to inform both developers and preservationists of the historic significance of the former church properties.

Right now, a developer isn’t bound to preserve anything. BLC Executive Director Ellen Lipsey confirmed that St. Andrew’s has no landmark status, nor has anyone submitted a request to landmark it.

If a developer did propose demolishing the complex’s older buildings, the BLC could institute a 90-day demolition delay, which includes a public hearing and a community meeting. The purpose of demolition delay is to consider possible alternatives to demolition. But ultimately, the process cannot halt demolition by itself, even if there are alternatives.

The complex also has no National Register listing. Listing is an honorary designation that would not prohibit demolition or exterior changes anyway, but it would make the development eligible for federal and state historic tax credits.

Much of the Woodbourne neighborhood is a historic district on the National Register. But, as Kottaridis noted, the main St. Andrew’s complex lies just outside its boundary, even though the church surely contributed to the neighborhood’s development. The parish hall/kindergarten building is within the historic district, but is listed as “non-contributing.” In any case, listing wouldn’t prevent demolition or other changes.

“Technically speaking, you could knock it down” under National Register listing, Kottaridis said.

While Kelly and Kottaridis advocated the preservation of the complex, neither were ready to push for landmarking, suggesting that is a tool for worst-case scenarios.

“Getting it listed [on the National Register] is important,” Kottaridis said, noting the tax credit benefits. HBI offers technical assistance on preservation and related funding issues.

Beyond that, she said, she would wait to see the “intensity and density” of the development proposal before recommending additional protections.

“Landmarking is often a response to a level of threat,” Kottaridis said.

While the BPA survey recommends National Register listing, Kelly said BPA isn’t necessarily going to push for that.

“I don’t know if we would try to move forward with listing,” she said. “We would want to see where the project is heading.”

Of course, if a developer is history-minded, historic protections might not be necessary at all. Kelly and Kottaridis said preservation results are more important than any particular method.

“The most important thing to us is we end up with a good project that is strong in its preservation components” while also satisfying the community, Kelly said.

“What’s really key is attention to the historic fabric that makes it significant,” Kottaridis said. “[Historic preservation] makes a prospective development more marketable and gives people a sense of history and being anchored into a place.”

Mystery developer

Bidders on other former church properties have generally been either housing developers, who tend to alter the properties significantly, or other churches, which tend to have less dramatic plans.

As the Gazette previously reported, non-profit developer Urban Edge’s bid to create affordable housing at St. Andrew’s failed. Urban Edge also planned to include space on the site for the nearby Young Achievers Science and Mathematics Pilot School, which is now in discussion with the winning developer, according to Principal Virginia Chalmers.

While the winning bidder remains unknown, the Gazette has narrowed the list of candidates.

Bethel AME Church on Forest Hills Street, led by well-known local activists Ray Hammond and Gloria White-Hammond, “expressed interest” in St. Andrew’s but has not heard back, according to a church source. That would suggest it is not the winning bidder.

The Planning Office for Urban Affairs, a church-affiliated non-profit that has redeveloped other church properties, did not bid on St. Andrew’s, according to staff member Celeste Perry.

Xerxes Agassi, a housing developer who bid unsuccessfully on Blessed Sacrament, told the Gazette he did not bid on St. Andrew’s.

Church keys

Chris Helms, editor of the Watertown TAB & Press, apparently was free last week to redevelop St. Andrew’s himself without putting in a bid.

That’s because, in a discovery bound to horrify preservationists, Helms found all the keys to the church laying in a box outside, as he reported in his newspaper’s blog on Aug. 29 at http://blogs.townonline.com/watertown.

“I found the strangest thing this morning when I was walking my dog,” Helms wrote. “Right beside a basketball court we walk through, there’s this open box under a shrub. So I look inside, and it’s a bunch of keys to the now-defunct St. Andrew’s Catholic Church complex.”

Helms included a photo showing a box, apparently once containing a doorknob mechanism, stuffed with keys. Attached to the keys were large paper tags including such labels as, “Key for church doors,” “Keys to door in cellar of rectory under living room” and “Keys to shrine box in tower.”

Helms speculated the keys were outside at least a year, due to fallen leaves inside the box, and guessed that someone broke into the church and found the box.

“If I’d found this box when I was 16, I guarantee I’d have led my friends on an exploration of the church,” Helms wrote. “As it is, I’m 37. So I called the Archdiocese. They’re sending a guy to the newsroom tomorrow to pick up the box of keys.”