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To D or not to D(emolish)?

This week guest blogger Jon Ellertson considers the effects an ACD would have on decisions related to development by focusing on a house on Thwing Street that may be the next tear-down in the neighborhood.

Approaching 12 Thwing Street, you notice that it is one of several houses that look very similar on this dead-end street. All 13 houses were built between 1875 and 1905, examples of developer architecture from the end of the nineteenth century. Together, they make a nice, short stretch of buildings that complement each other carved into the side of the steep Roxbury Puddingstone hill. For the most part, these houses retain period trim and detail.

When the Thwing family was selling off its land to speculators, these lots on Thwing Street were probably developed as a group, one by one. An architect for 16 Thwing is identified as John Mulvey, and given the stylistic unity of all the houses on the street, it is likely these were all his work. This pattern of dense housing was typical of the densification of the neighborhood that was taking place in the late nineteenth century, when it was transforming from an elite enclave into a working-class suburb of the city. Today we would call these “developer houses,” and they reflect a turn-of-century phase of subdivision and construction of modest but well-built houses.

As was typical of working-class housing of its period, 12 Thwing is not a very big house with only 1792 square feet of living area, and it sits on a relatively small lot of only 2924 square feet. The inviting front porch with turned wood posts and vintage gingerbread brackets leads to a double entry doorway typical of its period. In the small vestibule, a window with opalescent stained glass adds a note of cheer. Even though the dilapidated exterior confronts us with asphalt shingle siding, peeling paint, and an overgrown, neglected yard, I see potential whereas some see an opportunity to raze and rebuild.

Inside, the house has seen better days. According to the current owner, the house has been vacant for over six years. While the property was tied up in probate court, the house was left to leaks, mold, and decay. Looking at photos posted on Zillow, we see that the interior has been largely gutted. Fortunately, the period bannister is intact, and a fireplace sits in the front parlor with a bay window facing Thwing Street. From those photos and my own experience with three Greek Revival homes which suffered roof leaks and “deferred maintenance” before my wife and I purchased them, I cannot agree with the current owner’s architects’ claim that the house is in a ruinous condition and cannot be brought back to life. In fact, the asphalt siding has been protecting the original siding which could be repaired, or replaced with siding appropriate to the period.

There have been no tear-downs on this street since these houses were built, and it retains the authentic appearance of a nineteenth-century developer subdivision. Currently, there are plans by the architecture firm Aamodt/Plumb to demolish the house at 12 Thwing and replace it with a new house on the same footprint and having the same roof shape. The architects say it will fit into the street by maintaining the same height and distance from the sidewalk, and they have filed for an Article 85 demolition review with the Boston Landmarks Commission. It is possible that (as the architects claim) the new house will have a positive impact on the neighborhood by transforming the property into an attractive, long-lasting home that is sensitive to the historical context, and they say they are committed to using sustainable materials and will work with local labor to construct it.

The real question seems to be whether letting markets and economics make a decision like this is the right way to decide.

The matter comes down to whether it is right to let a piece of history disappear in a context like this. Certainly one can argue that the house at 12 Thwing is so far beyond repair that it is economically unfeasible to rehabilitate it. At the same time, there is a value to preserving historic character. The real question seems to be whether letting markets and economics make a decision like this is the right way to decide. Right now, such decisions are made by the owner by applying to various city agencies, in particular to Inspectional Services Department for permits to alter, repair, or demolish and build anew. ISD’s task is to protect health and welfare by applying the State Building Code, but ISD is not tasked with preserving history. In the case of an application to demolish, another agency, Boston Landmarks Commission, gets involved and is tasked with reviewing the alternatives to demolition.

But the larger task of preserving historical legacy or making sure that new buildings fit the aesthetics of our neighborhood, which is a National Register Historic District, are not fully addressed by these agencies. If anything, the “90 Day Demolition Delay” is just that: a short delay, which most see as a very weak maneuver and which seldom brings developers to the table to listen to residents who will have to live with the consequences of their plans. Many other communities in Massachusetts have longer demolition delay periods of 6 months, 12 months, or even 18 months, but the delay period in Boston is short. It is criticized by many for being too short to allow any real efforts to save a threatened building to succeed.

Once we get the ACD implemented, hard decisions such as these will no longer be made in the “wild West” mentality of the free market.

Once we get the ACD implemented, hard decisions such as these will no longer be made in the “wild West” mentality of the free market, and the woefully short demolition delay of 3 months will also be avoided. The ACD will ensure that the correct oversight is applied to decide whether demolition is warranted in a case like this. It may very well turn out that this house should be demolished, and the ACD would be capable of making that determination in a way that balances project economics with historical and social concerns that are of value to this community. Wouldn’t it be better to make such decisions in the most intelligent, informed way possible? If you agree, then support our efforts to implement the ACD!

Please note that the Demolition Delay Community Meeting for 12 Thwing is coming up soon:

When: Wednesday, March 20th, 2019

Time: 6:00 PM

Location: Hawthorne Youth and Community Center

9 Fulda Street, Roxbury MA 02119

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