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Boston's Shuttered Island
Restoration of Peddocks Island in Boston Harbor pits preservationists against planners.
The island's clapboard chapel, circa 1940, will become a vistors center.
Tom Sheehan

Peddocks Island, at 210 acres, is one of the largest of 34 islands in Boston Harbor Island State Park. As of this month, the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) is set to begin restoring, or destroying, several of its 26 historic buildings. As on many of the other islands, Peddocks boasts military fortifications making it a national park, including Fort Andrews that was built for the Spanish American War in the early 19th century.  Deciding how many barrack buildings should be destroyed has placed Massachusetts Historical Commission at odds with the DCR and the Boston Harbor Island Alliance, a public-private partnership overseeing fundraising and programming for future uses on all the islands.

Most of the structures align a windswept parade ground that can be seen from approaching ferries. They include an administration building, a white clapboard church, a firehouse, a gym and a bakery. A small crescent of officers’ houses overlooks the field from an overgrown terrace. Most sport a Colonial-Revival style.

Peddocks Island in Boston   Peddocks Island in Boston   Peddocks Island in Boston
Officers' Row.
[Click to enlarge.]

The buildings’ moody decay has charmed preservationists, artists, and at least one film director. Martin Scorsese used the setting as a backdrop for scenes in Shutter Island. But maintaining the charm of rot comes at a cost, namely that of potential lawsuits. Henry Moss, a principal at Bruner/Cott overseeing the work, noted that unstabilized ruins are an impossibility in litigious America, even though they’re not nearly as dangerous as the Peddocks’ drumlin cliffs. Complicating matters, many of the officer quarters are filled with asbestos. “They’re time bombs, the roofs are collapsing, all of this stuff is corroding,” he said. “It’s not a matter of just going in and fixing them. These things are gone.”

The Massachusetts Historical Commission had been advocating for preservation on the island since the 1980s. By that time the buildings had already been vandalized and abandoned for more than 20 years. Last year, when the DCR and the Island Alliance started looking at bulldozing 14 structures, a letter from the Historical Commission to the office of Energy and Environmental Affairs wrote of being “chagrined” that such an “expeditious resolution” was being sought. This past September an agreement signed between the Commission and the DCR limited the demolition to only 11 buildings, excluding the clapboard church. Preservationists are only partly satisfied. “A situation like this with such an incredible collection of buildings with such a deteriorated state, there were some things that we wanted to push for, both from a preservation and a public enjoyment standpoint, but couldn’t,” said Sarah D. Kelly, director of the Boston Preservation Alliance. “Nobody likes to see resources like this deteriorate.”

Peddocks Island in Boston

Detail, Officers' Row.

As far back as 2005, $5 million brought electricity, clean water and sewer utilities to the island. And if it weren’t for an additional $10 million in mitigation funds paid by Algonquin Gas Transmission, the impending stabilization process would not have been possible. Tom Powers, president of Boston Harbor Island Alliance, said a future with bed and breakfast inns and corporate retreats might interest private developers. “But no one is doing anything like that right now,” he said, indicating that only modest plans were in the works. “Do the demolition, do some high-end camping with power and water. Get a visitor center and start to do some programming and see what you can do to reclaim the island.” Joe Orfant, director of planning and resource protection at DCR, said there are no grand designs on the scale of New York’s Governors Island. “It’s such a frustrating situation, you have this great resource, and it’s so close to Boston,” he said. “If this were on the mainland you probably wouldn’t have this conversation.” As contractors prepare their bids, Orfant said he hopes the island will open for campers by summer.

Tom Stoelker