The German Gothic-style church at 85 West Newton Street in the South End was built in 1899 as All Saints’ Lutheran Church. The buff-colored brick building features a square tower, angle buttresses, tracery, and a shingled spire and is attached to a Parish House with similar materials. This building replaced a structure for the Church of the Unity designed by Rev. Thomas W. Silloway which was built in 1859 and demolished in 1898 when the current structure was built, also designed by Silloway, for the Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church. The building remained in use by a congregation until 1980 after which the property was purchased by the Inquilinos Boricuas en Acción (IBA), a community-based nonprofit focusing on low and moderate income housing. IBA renovated the building into a cultural center, preschool, and performing arts venue supporting the city’s Hispanic community.
The church building and parish house are within the South End local historic district; therefore, changes to the building must be reviewed and approved by the South End Landmark District Commission. Approval of demolitions by the Commission are very rare, “extraordinary” in the truest sense of the word. The property is also on both the state and national registers of historic places.
IBA began investigating the building in 2016 to address overdue maintenance and upgrades. Structural engineers found severe damage on the tower and north wall. IBA got approval from the Commission to remove a portion of the tower on the condition that it would be reconstructed. During deconstruction, additional damage was discovered, extending far beyond the area they believed was stable and able to support reconstruction of the tower and spire, prompting the organization to reconsider next steps. After evaluating six options from complete reconstruction to complete demolition and new construction, IBA believes that it is not prudent for them to reconstruct the tower, or to secure or somehow infill the gap left by the missing tower by another means. Instead, their preferred approach is to demolish the church and parish house completely and construct a new six-story building that better accommodates their programming.
On November 5, 2019 IBA was issued a notice from the Inspectional Services Department (ISD), concerned with public safety, that the organization would be given 24 hours to respond with a plan for how to secure the site. That plan could be an engineering solution that stabilizes the building to remedy the public safety challenge (i.e. catastrophic failure) or a plan to demolish. IBA did not pursue a solution to remedy the problem and nine months later, in July of 2020, ISD was compelled to issue another violation notice, this time requiring the demolition of both buildings to ensure public safety. SELDC was then legally required to issue an exemption, thus allowing IBA to demolish both of the historic structures on the site. See the log below for more details about the process.
IBA (Inquilinos Boricuas en Acción)- the nonprofit that currently owns the site.
ISD (Inspectional Services Department)
BLC (Boston Landmarks Commission)
SELDC (South End Landmark District Commission)
The Alliance had hoped to collaborate with IBA to find a viable alternative to demolition that would have preserved the historic site and allow the organization to continue to thrive. We felt there were options for securing the north facade of the building and applying a creative approach to filling the space left by the eroded tower that could have been an agreeable compromise to in-kind reconstruction. Though we understand the financial concerns of the nonprofit, and we strongly support their mission and presence in the neighborhood, we do feel that as the owners and stewards of this property for over 30 years they had a responsibility to maintain the building and make necessary repairs. After the initial instructive from ISD to remedy the situation, IBA made no real effort to save the buildings, instead waiting until they had deteriorated further, forcing ISD’s hand. While one may argue if decades of deferred maintenance that led to this condition would be considered demolition by neglect, it’s inarguable that the action (or inaction) following the initial ISD citation was demolition by neglect. This result, known as demolition by neglect, sets an alarming precedent for other historic structures throughout the city. In their desire for a new building at this site, IBA failed to protect the historic buildings in their care, to work collaboratively with preservation professionals to find an alternative, and to demonstrate their commitment to responsible stewardship. Allowing a building to deteriorate until it is deemed unsafe to the public in order to subvert the local review and approval process is unacceptable.
The Alliance anticipates a comprehensive review of plans for a new building at this site once IBA applies to the district commission. In order to deter the precedent demolition by neglect by other owners, and to ensure the preservation of historic character in this neighborhood, we will advocate for a new building that is of similar scale, massing, and materiality of the buildings that were destroyed.
Highlights from our activity log:
- August 4, 2020
The South End Landmark District Commission votes to grant a mandatory certificate of exemption from review which allows the owner of the property to demolish both the historic church building and parish house based on a violation notice from the Inspectional Services Department (ISD) that stated the site presents danger to the public in its current condition. This was a required action with no possible alternative action by the Commission. However, the owner will need to return to the Commission for approval of any new construction on the site in the future. The Alliance’s Executive Director testifies that this is a disappointing result that could have been avoided with better stewardship of the property, and that we are concerned about precedent for future property owners who prefer to build a new structure rather than maintain the historic resource in their care.
- December 17, 2019
Alliance staff attends a South End Landmark District Commission meeting where the options to issue a certificate of exemption are discussed. One possible route for an exemption, which would allow for the demolition of the historic buildings on the site, is determined not to be viable due to language in the statute that stipulates that the requested action not materially impair the historic resource. The other route, which requires a specific declaration from the Inspectional Services Department, is discussed in detail. The owners of the property feel that ISD has issued the equivalent of the required declaration in a different form, but Commissioners have been advised by the legal departments representing both the Boston Landmarks Commission and ISD that this requirement has not yet been met and that the appropriate declaration has not been issued by ISD. Therefore, Commissioners feel that this second route towards an exemption is not an option at this time. The proponent requests a continuation, rather than a denial of the application, so that they can attempt to acquire the correct statement from ISD. If that statement is not issued by ISD, the proponent indicates that they will file a traditional application for demolition rather than a certificate of exemption based on financial hardship. The owner of the property intends to move forward with demolition in early January. The Commission votes in favor of a continuance.
- December 12, 2019
The South End Landmark District Commission (SELDC) holds a business meeting to discuss process and Alliance staff attended. It is a public meeting but there is no opportunity for public comment. Two attorneys from the City’s Law Department attend and carefully review the language of the BLC Enabling legislation (Chpt. 772 of the Acts of 1975, section 8) and Article 7 of the SELDC Bylaws, then answer questions from Commissioners. The attorneys had not reviewed the particulars on the Villa Victoria case and therefore tend to speak with broader language.
Some key points:
This portion of Chapter 772 is in two parts. It says that if the building commissioner has issued a certificate requiring demolition than the Commission shall issue a certificate of exemption from commission standards (they have no choice.) The Commission questions if the Violation Notice submitted by ISD meets the standard of such a certificate as it doesn’t specifically require demolition. ISD is not present (despite a request to attend) but legal council indicates it is ISD that needs to specify if this Notice is equivalent to such a certification requiring demolition. Additionally, a Commissioner reads the ISD Violation Notice and it clearly references only “the tower & north wall” not the entire building. If ISD is requiring demolition of the entire structure SELDC must go along with it by this regulation. (The Alliance would argue that ISD is clearly not requiring demolition of the entire building, and question if they are requiring any demolition. Barring ISD clarification on this point this appears not to meet the standard of this first rule — the “shall” section.)
However if that “shall” standard is not met, then the Commission “may” issue an exemption if both of the following two parts are met: 1) the demolition “would not materially impair the historical, social, cultural, architectural, or aesthetic significance of the landmark or improvement which is the subject of the application and the landmark district.” Commissioners received clarification that only one of those areas needs to be impacted to prohibit a certificate from being issued. (We would argue that several are impacted, and believe commissions feels the same from previous public comment.) and 2) “failure to issue such a certificate would impose substantial hardship.” It then stipulates the Commission shall review material submitted (specified in the SELDC bylaws). It does note that evidence of the hardship “may include evidence that the property .. is not capable of earning a reasonable return.” The Commission seems unclear if they’ve met the second part of this requirement, but if they do not meet the first part than the hardship element is moot.
No vote is taken; BLC staff is going to seek clarity from ISD and see if they will attend the next meeting. Staff will also provide additional information on the case to the Law Department for any further input. The Law Dept staff will likely not be attending next Tuesday’s meeting. See the attached memo for more information.
From the information discussed the Alliance does not believe the application meets the standard to allow SELDC to approve a certificate of demolition. Even if ISD provides clarity and states that their violation is the equivalent of a certificate of demolition, it clearly does not apply to the entire building as written, twice referencing “tower and north wall.”
- December 3, 2019
Alliance staff attends the South End Landmark District Commission public hearing. The Villa Victoria application is at the end of a very long agenda with the discussion ending after midnight. The applicant provides updates on recent activities, including their ongoing planning for demolition, as they feel the standing ISD notice requires them to do (although we believe that the ISD isn’t that prescriptive). Our ED is asked for a summary of the conference call we organized with the proponent and specialized engineers. Commissioners discussed their options and different possibilities for how to proceed as well as their concerns for setting precedent and doing their own due diligence regarding the financial hardship request. While recognizing the good work of IBA, the Commissioners are clearly struggling with the demolition of a historic building in the historic district and without any specifics for what would replace it, all in violation of their guidelines. Though the Commission itself has the authority to approve or deny a financial hardship application, Commissioners felt that they lacked the expertise and/or ability to make that determination without additional, comprehensive financial information from the applicant beyond what is currently required. We feel what they are challenged to sort out is the difference between a proponent who literally cannot and is unable to complete required preservation versus one who chooses not to do so for a variety of reasons, including how they set priorities for expenditure of funds. Ultimately, the Commission voted to continue the application and schedule a special meeting in the coming weeks to allow for further dialogue and consideration and hopefully input from ISD and City legal counsel, neither of whom attended this hearing.
- November 15, 2019
Alliance staff arranges a conference call with representatives from IBA (the owner of the property), the Boston Landmarks Commission, and two structural engineers with experience in historic preservation projects like this who we were able to get to donate some time to offer suggestions on ways to move forward. Having been provided some background materials on the project, the engineers offer other ideas for a possible solution that could stabilize the failing portion of the building and potentially incorporate stabilization infrastructure into a new concept for the impacted portion of the building. The limited time available due to the ISD notice is a major challenge to creative solutions. IBA agreed to consider other options as the dialogue with BLC continues regarding their request to demolish based on financial hardship. BLC notes they do not expect another meeting on the project until their regular meeting on December 3. Meanwhile, IBA is moving forward with plans toward complete demolition in January.
- November 5, 2019
Alliance staff has a conversation with leadership at IBA to better understand the current circumstances and share concerns.
The Alliance attends a public hearing of the South End Landmark District Commission. The applicant provides information about the site and their determination that their only feasible option is to demolish both the church building and parish house in their entirety and construct a new building. They also share a notice they received earlier in the day from the Inspectional Services Department that requires the owner of the property to provide details within 24 hours of a plan to remedy the unsafe conditions cited by the inspectors and the fire department. This could be a plan to make suitable repairs to meet safety standards or a plan to demolish. Commissioners ask questions about alternatives that have been explored, options for relocating to a different site and selling this building, and the feasibility of reconstructing the tower. The applicant maintains that the only prudent option from a financial perspective for the mission of their nonprofit is to demolish the historic building and construct an entirely new building on the site. The Commission discusses other City agencies that might need to review a hardship application, which is a very rare request of the Commission. There is also further discussion about exploration of alternatives, with Commissioners noting with disbelief that there are no options between a full restoration and full demolition that remain viable. Commissioners also ask for data about maintenance and condition of the building, expressing concern that this is a case of demolition by neglect, which they cannot reward with approval of the request to demolish. The proponent states that they had all intention (and had begun at significant expense) this very large repair project only to find far greater damage and needs which they consider evidence of investment, not neglect. The extent of the damage was unknown previously. The Commission asks for data supporting these claims. There is also a discussion about the current condition that ISD deemed unsafe and it was asked if additional shoring could be done to stabilize the building. Greg Galer, Executive Director of the Alliance, offers suggestions including assistance making connections with other engineers who have experience in this specific type of project, particularly creative engineering solutions to historic buildings with structural issues. The Commission makes a motion to continue the application with several provisos including an expedited review of the hardship application, more information provided to BLC staff, and cooperation with the Alliance to explore other solutions. They recognize that the proponent will move forward with planning for demolition, the owner’s preferred solution to the ISD notice, but explicitly state they have not approved demolition. The motion is approved.
- October 31, 2019
Alliance staff speaks with ISD to understand safety concerns at the site and possible next steps.
- June 4, 2019
IBA appears for an Advisory Review before the South End Landmark District Commission with an update on work performed to date.
- January 30, 2018
The Alliance Board of Directors is updated about the project and concerns at Villa Victoria.
- January 5, 2018
The Chief of Environment, Energy, and Open Space calls the Alliance to discuss the Villa Victoria and ideas for preservation vs. redevelopment.