Downtown View: The History of Saving History

The contretemps over 124 Chestnut Street on Beacon Hill, where a new owner contends the building is so unstable he has to raze it and neighbors say it must be saved, reminds me of an earlier attempt to eliminate a feature of a building.

Several years ago, a religious symbol rested on the peak of a roof visible in one of the city’s historic districts. A new owner, whose religion differed from that of the symbol, petitioned to remove it.

Although the neighborhood’s architectural commissioners were loathe to allow the removal, eventually they did, fearing they would face a lawsuit under the first amendment.

A home was found for the religious symbol. But within a couple of years, the petitioning owner had sold the building to a person whose religion embraced the symbol.

Why would a short-term owner care about what was on the house? Why didn’t he buy a house without a religious symbol? Why did he sell the house so quickly? Was he ever planning to live in the house, or did he buy it just to turn it around for a quick profit? Was he just some rich guy with no sense? It was all such a waste of the commission’s time.

In another case, a celebrity bought a single family house on West Cedar Street on Beacon Hill. It was all about her. She destroyed the Greek revival interior and replaced it with a southwestern theme. The architectural commission refused to allow her to change the doorway to reflect her southwestern taste. Shortly thereafter, she sold the building, and the new owners restored the interior to a more appropriate style.

An interesting point about these problems is how unusual they are. Most residents who have bought buildings in one of Boston’s historic districts over the years have done so because of the history, not in spite of it.

Their view is that if you own a piece of property in a historic district, you are only the temporary caretaker of that property. Your responsibility is to pass it on to the next owner in good condition with its history intact.

Of course, that attitude doesn’t always prevail.

But in this nation many of our fellow citizens can be heard bellowing that it’s their property and they can do what they damn well please with it. In Boston’s historic districts, while the rules differ from neighborhood to neighborhood, homeowners live with tight restrictions on any changes they make. Most are happy to do so.

There’s at least one good reason.

Historic districts with local restrictions “have been well documented as having a positive effect on values,” said Paul Lusignan, a historian with the National Register of Historic Places. In other words, your house or building is worth more than a comparable structure in a neighborhood without historic restrictions.

A bit of prestige also comes with a historic district whether it is in Boston, Tucson or Bloomington, Illinois.

Finally, homeowners have protections from their neighbors doing stupid things. I’d hate to live next to cheap, ugly snap-in window muntins, and I don’t have to. I’m sure you have your own hated travesties.

Some historic district owners go out of their way to make sure their house’s history is preserved, often at an inconvenience to them.

For example, in a Mount Vernon Street house, the owners have confined their new electronics and equipment to an addition built later than the original house. And they kept an early 20th-century bathroom, even though it wasn’t to their taste.

A West Cedar Street homeowner declined to have air conditioning installed in her house, since it would have ruined the plaster walls she was intent on preserving.

Several years ago, a Louisburg Square owner intended to renovate his recently acquired property, but found that the building was falling down. It took extra two years, but he basically rebuilt the building, installing steel beams that replaced the wooden ones not up to the job.

These examples are all on Beacon Hill, but in any historic downtown district you could find owners saving pieces of their houses that others would toss out.

I am not qualified to judge whether a building in a historic district is able to be saved or needs to be demolished. I do know, however, that part of the history of a historic district is the many homeowners who’ve gone to extraordinary lengths to preserve what you can’t get back.

Downtown View is a regular column by Karen Cord Taylor who founded The Beacon Hill Times weekly newspaper in 1995 and served as its editor and publisher until late 2007. She also founded and served as editor and publisher of the Charlestown Patriot-Bridge and The Back Bay Sun weeklies. Her column appears in those newspapers as well as the Regional Review, which serves Boston’s North End. These weeklies are now owned by the Independent Newspaper Group. She is the author of “Blue Laws, Brahmins and Breakdown Lanes: An Alphabetic Guide to Boston and Bostonians” and the co-author of “The Lady Architects,” a book about three women who practiced architecture in New England and elsewhere in the early 20th century. She lives in downtown Boston and blogs at