The West End Museum Flood

Special to the Times

On January 15, a burst pipe on the fourth floor of West End Place — a mixed income complex at 150 Staniford Street — inundated the West End Museum (WEM) with over two-inches of water, and displaced around 25 families, who were temporarily relocated to the nearby Boxer Hotel. The first floor museum will be closed for several months until it is safe for visitors to return.

Museum Director Sebastian Belfanti was at WEM when the deluge began flowing downward, freezing in the street below.

Debris from the ceiling, fallen on the floor of the West End Museum.
A 1946 photograph of the 40th anniversary party for the West End House at the Hotel Statler, with future President John F. Kennedy in the center.

“I grabbed paintings and artifacts that were at risk, and brought them to my car,” described Belfanti, who has been sorting through the collection to assess damages. “That’s why there are no horrible losses.”

Although there was minor water damage to a dozen pieces in the galleries, the staff saved most of the photographs and bicycles currently on exhibit in “Cycling Legends of the West End,” and “The Last Tenement.” In the archives, some 50 pieces – mostly unprocessed documents and images – were lost.

“It could have been much more dramatic. We are counting ourselves lucky,” Belfanti said. “We stored things in ways that were mindful of the possibilities of an event like this.”

A backflow of water deposited salt on the newly installed floor, and sections of the museum walls are peeling. Once artifacts are relocated to board members’ homes, the ceiling will be dismantled. The most painful wreckage for Belfanti was the warping and cracking photographs.

“Images from the 1800s are bowl-shaped now. The paper will never bend back. We have to figure out how to protect them in their much more vulnerable form,” Belfanti explained. “Because it’s so hot in here, some of the large images in our permanent exhibit are going to have to go. Because the exhibit is from The Bostonian Society, we don’t have the originals of those images, so if we want to reproduce them, it would be quite a bit of work.”

Belfanti estimates that it will take at least three months to clear the debris and replace the walls, ceilings, and portions of the floor.

“I am watching the permanent exhibit bow off the walls in the course of a week,” said Belfanti.

In the meantime, Belfanti aspires to keep patrons engaged with the neighborhood and its story. He will continue posting historic articles in his weekly newsletter. Belfanti hopes to host Zoom events, and will be announcing volunteer opportunities next month. In February, he will be offering guided walking tours through the West End.

When Belfanti was hired on February 1, 2020, it was the museum’s best month of visitorship; and then WEM was closed for six months due to the pandemic.

“The goal this year would have been 6,000 visitors,” Belfanti added. “Now it’s more like 1,000-1,5000, and we are back to being shut down. It’s hard doing fundraising because we don’t have a timeline.”

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