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 (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 hopes to collaborate with IBA to find a viable alternative to demolition that preserves the historic site and allows the organization to continue to thrive. We feel there may be an option for securing the north facade of the building and applying a creative approach to filling the space left by the eroded tower that could be 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 have a responsibility to maintain the building and make necessary repairs. Granting a rare exception to this requirement based on financial hardship would put the district Commission and the preservation community in an untenable position and create a precedent for other nonprofits to defer maintenance on their properties with the end goal of demolition and new construction. In order to protect the unique character and fabric of the historic district, which all owners are required to do, we are urging the owners, the Commission, ISD, and our preservation partners to collaborate with us in searching for a satisfactory alternative to complete demolition. It is important that all options are fully examined including creative engineering solutions that have proven successful on other historic buildings.
Highlights from our activity log:
- 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.