Tuesday, June 03, 2008

BLC Report: Preservation, Not Landmark Status, For Sparhawk House

The Boston Landmarks Commission has issued a report on the future of the former Sparhawk family house located at 45 Murdock Street in Brighton which recommends that the house be preserved -- but that it not be designated a landmark under state law.

Commissioner Bill Marchione of Brighton, however, disagrees with the report's conclusion, and intends to continue to push for landmark designation when the full commission takes up the matter June 10th.

The current owner of the house, Dr. Arni Mohan of Newton, has previously filed with the city seeking a demolition permit. The BLC in January 2008 delayed demolition by 90 days due to the historic nature of the house, and extended that demolition delay another 90 days (to July 6, 2008) on an emergency basis while they researched the house and prepared a report. Everyone involved appears to concur that the house is currently in need of repair.

Sparhawk House Highlight's Early Brighton History

The house was built in 1802 and is the fourth oldest building in Allston-Brighton. It is only one of a handful of surviving Federal period farmhouses in all of Boston.

Marchione notes that this building "is the oldest surviving structure associated with a significant New England family," the Sparhawks. The family is one of the early settlers of what is now Allston-Brighton.

Nathaniel Sparhawk settled in Cambridge in 1636 -- present-day Allston-Brighton was at the time part of Cambridge called "Little Cambridge" -- constructing five houses across 1000 acres of land. His son, Nathaniel II, built his house later in the 17th century near present-day Elko Street; near that site would later be the location on which the present-day 45 Murdock Street house was constructed in 1802.

The BLC report found that building at 45 Murdock Street has been moved from its original site (at what is now the corner of Elko and Sparhawk Streets) and subsequently altered; moving the house appears to be their principal reason to recommend against landmark designation:
There is no direct association between this house and the earlier (pre-Revolutionary) regionally significant generations of the Sparhawk family. The house at 45 Murdock Street has been relocated from the site of the original Sparhawk family homestead. The layout of the house appears to be altered as the result of its relocation, and subsequent alterations to the exterior diminish the building’s architectural integrity. Therefore, the staff of the Boston Landmarks Commission recommends that the Sparhawk House not be designated a Landmark under Chapter 772 of the Acts of 1975, as amended.
Boston Landmarks Commissioner Marchione, also the President of the Brighton Allston Historical Society, did not write the report and disagrees with its main conclusion recommending against granting the house landmark status.

"I do not accept the logic that contends that the removal of a building from its original location (in this case only a couple of hundred feet from one part of the Sparhawk Estate to another) somehow robs it of its regional historical significance," wrote Marchione in an email response to a query. "This 1802 federal style building is still the oldest structure (by nearly a century) associated with a family of considerable importance, and a building that also just happens to [be] the homestead of one of Allston- Brighton's three founding families."

Marchione further noted that moving houses was a common practice in the 19th century, particularly due to the development of Boston's "streetcar suburbs." He intends to argue his case at the June 10th BLC meeting that the building should be granted landmark status.

The Allston-Brighton TAB editorialized in March 2008 that "a community like Allston-Brighton that is rapidly losing its history needs to do what it can to preserve as much of that history as it can. Or at least it needs to think long and hard before letting any of that history go."

The A-B TAB reported that the Brighton Allston Improvement Association expressed opposition in September 2007 to the demolition of the house, although Marchione noted that they did not vote specifically on a demolition delay. Dick Marques, President of the BAIA, said that after the September meeting the group needed additional information before they could vote; the group took a tour of the house shortly after the meeting.

Alternative Proposal: Renovate House and Build Elsewhere on the Property

After the property owner applied for a demolition permit the BLC consulted with the owner to draw up a plan by which the house could be renovated and an additional house built elsewhere on the property. The BLC argued that this combined project would be workable financially.

In particular, the BLC proposed renovation of the existing house into three separate units -- which could allow for state and federal tax credits due to the building's historic nature -- to which the owner could construct another three-unit building on the property in order to satisfy both the preservationists and developer. The lot is large (more than 19,000 square feet) and zoned for two families 2F-5000 (but listed as 4-6 families in the Boston assessing database); at one time earlier in the 20th century, as many as five families lived in the historic house.

The report gives no indication whether or not the owner approves of the BLC's six-unit proposal that would preserve the historic house. Marchione wrote that he thinks the BLC alternative proposal represents a reasonable compromise that would both allow development and preserve the house.

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