Houses associated with noted architect Henry Hobson Richardson and landscape architect John Charles Olmsted got a temporary reprieve from the wrecking ball Tuesday, when the preservation board of Brookline, Massachusetts, voted to postpone demolition for 18 months.
In a virtual hearing that lasted nearly three hours and drew international attention, the Brookline Preservation Commission voted 8-to-0 to support the staff’s “finding of significance” for the two houses, an action that gives the panel the authority to delay demolition.
The hearing was triggered when a developer asked the preservation panel to approve “full demolition” of three contiguous properties in a section of Brookline within the Green Hill historic district on the National Register of Historic Places, including the former Richardson house at 25 Cottage Street and the former Olmsted property at 222 Warren Street.
The commission also voted 8-to-0 to temporarily block the demolition of the third property, a 1971 prefabricated “deck house” at 39 Cottage Street, built on land carved out of the parcel owned by Richardson.
The panel voted on the three properties separately but arrived at the same unanimous decision each time. The action is intended to allow time for Brookline’s preservation staff and others to meet with the property owner, Jeff Birnbaum of Pioneer Construction and Warren Cottage Ventures LLC, and explore possible alternatives to razing the three houses.
The birthplace and hometown of former U.S. President John F. Kennedy, Brookline is an incorporated town of about 60,000 in Norfolk County, Massachusetts. It’s part of the Greater Boston area but has its own system of government. The commission’s votes do not prevent changes to the landscape during the 18-month “demolition delay” period.
The panel drew praise for its action from preservationists and architectural historians in New England and beyond who said Richardson (1838 to 1886), was one of the most influential architects in America and that his former house deserves to be preserved, perhaps as the anchor for a new local historic district in Brookline.
“This is ridiculous that we’re thinking of tearing these houses down,” said Bruce Shaw, a neighboring property owner. “It makes no sense whatsoever.”
“This is H. H. Richardson’s home,” said Harry Friedman, president of the Friends of the Brookline Preservation Commission, referring to 25 Cottage Street. “If any building in Brookline satisfies the requirements for a demolition delay, this is it.”
But speakers at Tuesday’s meeting also warned that advocates for saving the three properties shouldn’t let down their guard just because the commission temporarily blocked demolition.
They stressed that the panel’s action in itself won’t protect the houses for more than 18 months and that the preservation staff has more work to do if it wants to save the houses.
“I have no doubt that all three of these properties will end up with an 18-month demolition delay, which is an infinity compared to the city of Boston,” said speaker Henry Moss, before the vote was taken on the Richardson house.
“But we should draw no false comfort from that. I urge the commission and Brookline the town to look for ways to maximize your leverage. You don’t know when the property might change hands again and you don’t know when it will be put forth on the market as a blank slate 18 months from now.”
“Our area as a whole is suffering from a housing crisis and we understand that,” said Nick Armata, senior planner for the Boston Landmarks Commission, who noted that he is speaking for himself and not his employer. “But that should not come at the cost of our culture, and these two buildings are our culture,” he said, referring to the houses with ties to Richardson and Olmsted.
The developer did not address the panel during the hearing. His attorney, Jennifer Dopazo Gilbert, noted that he has cooperated with the town’s preservation planners so far and will continue to do so. As a sign of good faith, she said, he recently allowed the staff to visit the three houses in preparation for this week’s hearing.
“The owner seeks to work collaboratively with the staff and the commission,” she said. “Certainly, if they had some ulterior motive, they wouldn’t have allowed access to the staff and they wouldn’t have been in continuous communication.”
Asked if the developer has any intention of listening to the preservationists, Gilbert said he does.
“We are absolutely listening,” she said. “We’ve been in lengthy, lengthy discussions already with preservation staff. We’ve brought the staff out to all three properties. We are here to listen this evening.”
The hearing drew comments from a wide range of groups, companies, and individuals who work to preserve significant examples of architecture and landscape architecture.
Correspondences came from the National Trust for Historic Preservation; the American Society of Landscape Architects; the Society of Architectural Historians; Preservation Massachusetts; the Boston Preservation Alliance; Historic New England; the New York Landmarks Conservancy; Harvard University; the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; the University of Delaware; the University of Pennsylvania; the Victorian Society in America, several Olmsted-related groups and numerous Olmsted and Richardson scholars. Many noted the close relationship between the Olmsteds and Richardson.
Elton Elperin, chair of the Brookline commission, said the three properties on the agenda drew more than 300 letters and emails, more than any other issue the board has considered that he can remember. He said “virtually all, if not all” of the writers expressed support for saving the houses.
The outpouring of support for saving the houses came from people based “locally, nationally and even internationally,” Elperin told the panel. “They’ve written us asking us to do whatever we can to prevent demolition and preserve them.”
Elperin read excerpts from a message sent by the National Association of Olmsted Parks, which noted that Brookline’s Green Hill historic district reflected an “extraordinary confluence” of design talent and that Frederick Law Olmsted, John Charles Olmsted, and H. H. Richardson “worked within yards of one another, shaping Nineteenth and early Twentieth-Century architecture and landscape design in ways that continue to reverberate today.”
Two representatives from Docomomo also spoke in favor of saving the deck house.
“The deck house is increasingly an endangered species,” said New England chapter president emeritus David Fixler. “We should be increasingly vigilant about trying to save those good examples of this very innovative and interesting and commodious housing type where we can. This is an excellent opportunity.”
As with many preservation boards faced with a demolition permit application, the Brookline panel focused its hearing on determining the historical and architectural significance of the existing structures and did not permit testimony about possible future uses for the properties.
Dopazo Gilbert, the developer’s attorney, said several times that Birnbaum does not have any specific plans for the property and wanted to see what action the panel takes at its hearing.
Others said they thought the fact that the application called for “full demolition” is a sign that the developer isn’t inclined to save the buildings. Dopazo Gilbert said the developer did that to leave his options open and provide a starting point for discussion. She said the fact that he allowed the preservation staff to tour the buildings this month and take photos is a sign that he wants to work with the town.
“I want to be really clear, that there is no plan on the table to demolish these properties,” she said. “No one knows what the plans are. In fact, demolition can be triggered by simply adding an addition, changing a roofline, tinkering with any significant feature on the building at all. So this application does not mean that these buildings are coming down. We’re trying to work with the town, and to say otherwise is simply unfair.”
All three houses are currently vacant. There was testimony that the Richardson house has been empty for more than a decade, is in poor condition, and that valuable John La Farge stained glass windows and other distinctive features were removed long ago. Shaw, one of the neighbors, said he believes it has been vacant for nearly 20 years.
Of the three houses Birnbaum controls, preservationists said, the Richardson house is considered the most important. In 2004, the house was placed on Preservation Massachusetts’ list of the state’s most endangered historic resources. In 2007, the National Trust for Historic Preservation put it on its annual list of 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in the country.
Born in Louisiana and educated at Harvard College, Tulane University, and the École des Beaux-Arts, Richardson ranks as one of the most respected American architects born in the 1800s and is remembered for working in a style known as Richardsonian Romanesque.
His buildings include Trinity Church in Boston; Marshall Field’s Wholesale Store in Chicago (no longer standing); the Allegheny County Courthouse in Pittsburgh; the John J. Glessner House in Chicago; Stonehurst, the Robert Treat Paine Estate in Waltham, Massachusetts, and several dozen public libraries.
According to staff preservation planner Tina McCarthy, the house was constructed as a summer home for a merchant and avid horticulturist in 1804 and modified over the years by various owners. She said Richardson originally moved there as a tenant in 1874, the home was deeded to the Richardson family after the owner died, Richardson lived there until his death in 1886, and it stayed with the Richardson family until 1899.
Because the architect used its first-floor north parlor as a design studio, she said, it was the workplace for others who became principals at Shepley Bulfinch, including George Foster Shepley, Charles Allerton Coolidge, and Charles Hercules Rutan.
McCarthy noted that the house was constructed by builders from the West Indies, a fact that speaker Donald Carleton said potentially gives it another layer of significance in the Black Lives Matter era. McCarthy also said the house retains certain features from the years Richardson lived there, including cork walls and a series of hooks in the bedroom ceiling that the architect, who was bedridden in his later years and died at 47, used with a series of ropes and pulleys to get in and out of bed.
Several speakers made the point that New England is known for saving other architects’ houses, such as the Walter Gropius House, now a museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts, and said they believed the Richardson house is worth saving too.
The most famous resident of 222 Warren Street, John Charles Olmsted (1852 to 1920), was the nephew and adopted son of noted landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. After Frederick Law Olmsted retired, John Charles Olmsted and his younger half-brother, Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., continued his landscape architecture practice, doing business as Olmsted Brothers. John Charles Olmsted also served as the first president of the American Society of Landscape Architects.
The house at 222 Warren Street is known as Cliffside and the earliest parts of it date from before 1850. According to McCarthy, John Charles Olmsted lived there for two years, from 1918 to 1920, but was associated with it and the town for much longer than that because his wife, Sophia, grew up there and he previously lived nearby.
McCarthy showed photos of a large skylight over the central stairway, a sleeping-porch with accordion doors, and other distinctive features. According to one speaker, Kate Poverman, the house contains a mural that represents work from the Hudson River School of Art but she didn’t know the exact artist.
“It was no accident that John Charles Olmsted chose the house next door to 25 Cottage Street, then the home and studio of H. H. Richardson, for his residence,” McCarthy said. “The location, just down the street from Frederick Law Olmsted’s own home and studio, was at the center of a vibrant neighborhood of architects actively engaged in reshaping the city landscape in Boston and across the country. It was H. H. Richardson, a friend and colleague of Frederick Law Olmsted from their days living in Staten Island, who introduced his father to the idea of living in Brookline.”
While the third house wasn’t the home of a famous architect or landscape architect, McCarthy said it was a good example of a prefabricated deck house that was constructed in the mid-century for residents who were moving to Brookline. She presented photos showing how it rises above a ravine and forms an ensemble with the other two houses. As a simple shell with a highly flexible interior, it’s “Corbusier without all the modernist rhetoric,” said speaker Dennis De Witt.
Now that there’s a demolition delay, several attendees suggested that the three houses could be the nucleus for a new local historic district in Brookline. They noted that the houses already tell the story of Brookline’s growth over time, as reflected by three very different architectural styles.
McCarthy acknowledged that creating a local historic district is an idea worth exploring. But, she said, Brookline generally wants the impetus for creating a local historic district to come from property owners themselves, rather than the preservation commission.
“It is really quite challenging to think of any neighborhood with a comparable pedigree,” said Anne Neal Petri, president and CEO of the National Association for Olmsted Parks.