What Constitutes an Historic Building in Beacon Hill?

 ‘Shocked’ is how some Beacon Hill residents recently described their reaction when the Beacon Hill Architectural Commission, which for nearly 60 years has protected and preserved the neighborhood’s historic fabric, gave the green light to a resident’s proposal to tear down his property’s façade.

Neighbors are questioning the severity of the structural damage to the existing facade at 7 Beaver Place, which allegedly has resulted in water and rot damage, despite that fact that in 2013 the city of Boston assessing department classified its exterior condition as good, and that Peggy Scott, who owns the adjoining twin building at number 11, said she has not seen any signs of water damage during the eight years she has lived there.

They’re troubled that the applicant wasn’t asked to demonstrate at the public hearing why the alleged structural problems can’t be corrected by less invasive means. A relevant 1988 Massachusetts trial court case concerning alterations at 31 Brimmer Street ruled that even in the case of a structurally deficient façade the historical record trumps all other factors when judging proposed alterations.

Until this year no one can remember a façade being torn down during at least the last 35 years, except perhaps in the case of fire damage. Earlier this year, after a contentious debate with neighbors, the BHAC also approved the demolition of an 1890 Chestnut Street house because of structural issues. These two demolitions could set precedents some fear could undermine Beacon Hill’s historic fabric.

Lastly, they’re disgruntled because at the October 16 hearing BHCA commissioners failed to address these and other concerns presented by residents who came to oppose the proposed demolition.

Why, then, did the BHAC commissioners give the go-ahead to the demolition?

Because, they said, it was not in their purview.

In the BHAC decision letter to the applicant, William S. Young, assistant director for historic districts, wrote that the façade’s replacement was acceptable because it is neither historic, being only 20 years old, nor architecturally significant.

Therefore the commissioners did not deliberate upon opposing arguments by neighbors present because they were inapplicable to the commission’s purview, Young wrote, warning that the approval was “not to be construed as a precedent for the demolition or significant alteration of elevations of greater age or aesthetic distinction which may be unsound and in need of intervention.”

Young’s words surprised homeowners who had thought all properties in the Historic Beacon Hill District are subject to BHAC review, regardless of age.

What, then, does constitutes a historic building on Beacon Hill?

“The historic district law applies to all architectural features visible from a public way, and new construction is also subject to architectural review,” said Mark Kiefer, the president of the Beacon Hill Civic Association who until recently represented Beacon Hill on the BHAC.  “But whether a feature is considered significant, on the other hand, can be more a matter of judgment and opinion, particularly in the case of more recent architecture.”

Among other factors, the Architectural Guidelines instruct the BHAC to consider the historical and architectural value and significance within the context of other involved structures in the neighborhood when adjucating proposed changes to the exteriors of buildings.

Architectural significance is often attributed to buildings designed by an important architect, said Kiefer, or those providing a particularly good illustration of a notable period in the history of architecture. He cited as examples Charles Bulfinch’s Harrison Gray Otis houses, widely regarded as iconic examples of Federal architecture, and the Middleton-Glapion House at 5 Pinckney, one the oldest houses on the Hill and a rare survivor among the many wood-framed buildings built by the North Slope’s early African American community. But significance is also a matter of degree, he added, and important historic resources exist in many lesser-known buildings.

When forming the Beacon Hill Historic District in the 1950s, community leaders created a survey to rank buildings of local, regional and national significance. “Even this relatively systematic attempt to identify significance clearly had its shortcomings,” said Kiefer. “At that time the African Meeting House was ranked as only of local significance, even though we now recognize that it played a profoundly important role in the history of the nation.” It showed that even an attempt to make a survey is filled with flaws.”

Beacon Hill’s historic district boundaries were expanded over time to protect the whole neighborhood by including all of it the Historic District, exempting only buildings within 40 feet of Cambridge Street and those owned by Suffolk University on Hancock, Derne and Temple Street. Occasionally, though, the BHAC has overseen the design of buildings only partially in the district, such as 326 Cambridge Street.

Carriage houses and stables, like those that once distinguished Beaver Place, have rarely survived over the years, according to Kiefer. In 1993, the then-owner of 7 and 11 Beaver Place took down the wooden façade ostensibly to restore it. Because there was not a brick wall behind the clapboards, the building collapsed.

The BHAC then gave its approval to rebuild a continuous brick façade over the buildings with symmetrical architectural treatments that exist today. The demolition and replacement of the façade and architectural changes approved last month would break that continuous façade and disrupt the symmetry of the twin buildings. Young wrote in the decision letter that the two would have a clear visual relationship.

Kiefer believes it was incumbent on the BHAC to ask the applicant to go back to the drawing board to find less destructive and invasive ways to repair the structure from the inside of the building.

 “One of the biggest threats to historic preservation today is destruction of more recent architectural resources,” warns Kiefer. “The challenge is to identify those buildings and features that will prove to be important, in hindsight, many years from now.”

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