Boston Preservation Alliance Urges MGH to Save Three Historic West End Buildings

In anticipation of the hospital’s planned expansion, the nonprofit Boston Preservation Alliance is urging Mass General “to be more sensitive to the concerns of the neighborhood” as it moves forward with the project, especially in regard to preserving three historic buildings in the West End.

MGH intends to build a pair of connected, 12-story towers that would provide 494 new hospital beds (many of which would be single occupancy), with surge capacity for an additional 130 patients; additional imaging and lab space; and a 246-space parking garage located beneath the structure to accommodate only patients and their families.

The project as proposed would result in the demolition of the 1884 Winchell Elementary School (a.k.a. Ruth Sleeper Hall) at 24 Blossom St., the 1910 West End Tenement House at 23-25 North Anderson St. and the West End Settlement House at 16-18 Blossom St. – three of about a dozen historically significant buildings in the neighborhood to have survived the Urban Renewal efforts that began in the 1950s.

           In his Feb. 16 letter to MGH, Greg Galer, executive director of the Alliance, wrote: “[T]he assertion that extensive underground parking is necessary across the entirety of this particular site is cited by MGH as the most significant factor in why saving and repurposing any of the three historic buildings is not viable. We continue to disagree with the hospital’s claim that the buildings are too big, heavy, or unstable to move, but do recognize that a move over a proposed new parking garage below is an inordinately expensive strategy. Therefore, if there could be a reduction in the parking garage size, saving the buildings becomes more viable.”

Besides exploring other parking solutions, Galer urged MGH to consider relocating the West End House behind the development site at Parkman and Blossom streets and returning it to community use, as well as to retain the West End Tenement House in its current location within the proposed arcade.

“We cannot emphasize enough the fact that these buildings hold deep meaning and value for the residents of the West End,” Galer wrote. “They embody important lessons for Boston and other cities about the deplorable impacts of the ongoing practices of Urban Renewal, gentrification, and discriminatory demolition, zoning, and housing. The history of these specific buildings is central to the legacy of the neighborhood, standing as critical rare survivors.”

Moreover, Galer wrote, “It is important to note that the community’s strong desire to find a way to save one or more of these historic buildings cannot be understated. This response is exacerbated by the belief that MGH does not yet fully recognize the deep, unhealed wounds inflicted on the West End by Urban Renewal and years of subsequent, sustained demolition and destruction of the residents’ memories and shared experiences. We are looking to MGH to be a partner willing to work with the West End community to address an almost PTSD-like response to the trauma of this neighborhood. We feel that the proposal has not yet sufficiently responded to neighborhood design concerns and that the most recent designs have, instead, evolved in the wrong direction, further fracturing the neighborhood’s built environment.”

Galer also described MGH’s design concept as “an internally-focused superblock that fails to acknowledge the exterior experience of neighboring residents in terms of pedestrian experience, consideration of shadows on adjacent structures, and obstruction of free passage and views to the Ether Dome through the privatization and enclosure of North Anderson Street,” and further asserted that it could set a bad precedent for future “large, indifferent development projects that continue to disrupt any sense of community continuity or cohesion.”

The letter was co-signed by the Beacon Hill Civic Association; Friends of the West End Library; Historic New England; Martha McNamara, a Beacon Hill resident and Wellesley College professor; Old West Church; and the West End Civic Association, and Galer wrote that the Alliance and the co-signing parties “are not yet prepared to finalize financial and other forms of mitigation” until all possible solutions to save these historic West End buildings have been explored.

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