Demolition of Historic South End House Upsets Residents
By Olga Khvan
BU News Service
A few weeks ago, Taylor Street resident Joan Wheeler couldn’t park her car in front of her house because of a dumpster from construction work on a nearby historic house. She was annoyed, but had no big reason to complain since the dumpster was there legally.
Then the east wall of the historic house came crumbling down, and Wheeler’s annoyance turned into anger. The house , built in 1899, is one of only two with a wooden frame in the South End, the nation’s largest urban Victorian neighborhood, according to the National Register of Historical Places.
“I was appalled,” Wheeler said. “Dust was blowing off in the air and I knew it was going to be bad.”
Wheeler and many of her neighbors went to a South End Landmark District Commission public hearing on Feb. 5 and demanded that the commissioners reprimand the property owner, architect and contractor for demolishing all but one wall of 8-10 Taylor Street. That move, they said, violated a previously approved renovation plan.
During the meeting at City Hall, the property owner and his partners defended their actions, saying they are trying to respect the area’s desire for historic preservation. Residents’ complaints, meanwhile, led one commissioner to call for a policy review with the organization’s parent group, the Boston Landmarks Commission. At the end of the meeting, the committee lifted a stop work order issued as a result of the violation, allowing construction to resume, but the issue is not over. The committee agreed to discuss further renovation plans at the next monthly meeting in March.
For 18 months, property owner Ramy Rizkalla (CQ) and architect Scott Slarsky (CQ) sought approval for renovation plans from the South End Landmark District Commission, Boston Redevelopment Authority and South End Historical Society. The Landmark District Commission approved demolition of the south and west walls, but when construction began, it also demolished the east wall, with the owner citing deterioration and termite damage. With only the north wall, the front façade, remaining, the commission issued a stop work order and requested the recent public hearing.
During the hearing, many neighbors expressed disbelief over disregard for preservation of the historic building.
“All that time that has been lost and then the neighborhood going into a panic — that should not be happening,” said longtime resident David Sprogis. “As far as I’m concerned, the whole bloody thing is a mess and it could’ve been simple.”
His wife, Doe Sprogis, seemed equally frustrated. “I’m just devastated with it. I’ve lived in the South End for 50 years and no house has ever been torn down like that,” she said. But the focus of the hearing was to find appropriate remediation to the violation, not impose a fine or reprimand, said commission member John Freeman to the residents.
“If you just want to tell us how angry you are that the wall is missing, I’m not so sure that’s going to help out. We’re all angry that the wall is missing. Raise your hand if you’re angry that the wall is missing,” he said, prompting laughter and an array of hands in the air.
Commission members, though, also expressed frustration over lack of communication during construction.
“The mistake was that you didn’t call when the wall had to come down. That’s outrageous,” said commission chairwoman Christie Gamp, addressing Rizkalla, Slarsky and contractor Joe Holland.
Gamp described having her breath taken away at the sight of the demolition and feeling “blindsided,” an experience shared by other neighbors at the meeting.
“It was never our intention to violate the trust of this commission,” responded Rizkalla, backed up by Holland, who insisted that demolition of the east wall was not a “bait and switch.”
Slarksky, meanwhile, addressed the debate about preservation and the commission’s criticism that the architect has a responsibility to address the needs of the client — and the community.
“Believe it or not, while I do not see this as a traditional form of preservation […], it has been our concern from the very beginning to understand the scale of this building, its relationship to the buildings around it and how historic architecture can live together with architecture that was built in the 21st century,” he said.
Neither residents nor commission members left the meeting satisfied.
“I just want to inform the public who is concerned about this not happening again that we can take some action and we will,” said commission member John Amodeo, who wanted to consult the Boston Landmarks Commission.
Some neighbors expressed the desire to be included in the conversation between historic property owners and authorities.
“I’m always in favor of communication,” said South End resident Jane Siegel after the meeting. “I think that it’s clear that this project has to be completed, but it also seems to me that something needs to be put in place so that other projects don’t feel that they can break the rules and just apologize and go on and do what they want.”