Something Old, Something New

Simply Civics Brookline Bell

Like many Brookline and Boston apartments, our building is kind of old. We may complain that the heater doesn’t always work in the winter. But that’s part of the charm of living in a historic town– especially in New England.

Some buildings in Brookline are actually located in historic districts, a designation that comes with many implications for residents.

I went to my first Brookline Preservation Commission hearing on Monday night.

Luckily for me, it began with an overview of the hearing process and the task of the Commission. In brief, here’s his overview in a nutshell: The Commission is charged with enforcing both the Demolition Bylaw and the Historic District Bylaw. As I learned throughout the hearing, it’s no walk in the park.

Historical Significance

To start, if a homeowners applies for a demolition permit (or partial demolition), the Commission has to determine whether the building or garage is historically significant. According to theĀ By-Laws, section 5.3.5, a building is historically significant if it’s:

  1. Located within any Local Historic District;
  2. Listed on or is within a area listed on the National or State Registers of Historic Places; is eligible for listing on the National or State Registers of historic places; or is a building for which a preliminary determination of eligibility has been made by the Massachusetts Historical Commission;
  3. Associated with one or more significant historic persons or events, or with the broad architectural, cultural, political, economic, or social history of the Town or Commonwealth; or
  4. Historically or architecturally significant in terms of its period, style, method of building construction, or its association with a significant architect or building, either by itself or as part of a group of buildings.

If a building meets any of the four criteria, it’s considered historically significant and therefore the owner can’t demolish it. The Commission isn’t supposed to take into account any plans for after demolition, so they aren’t really supposed to ask what the property owners intend to build.

Permits Up for Debate

The Commission took up seven demolition cases at the hearing, ranging from garage demolition permits to full home demolition permits. Each time, we watched a powerpoint with pictures of the houses from different vantage points, including aerial views. We heard a lot about the history of each property and the original architects. I absolutely fell in love with one of the houses and I would move into it in a heartbeat if I could.

The Commission members discussed the architects’ legacies, the architectural styles, the materials and foundation of each house, the surrounding neighborhoods, and what a passersby could see from the street. They debated the very meaning of historical significance, and the extent of their power as a Commission.

As I listened to the homeowners, their reasons for demolition surprised me. A lot of their testimony was very personal and moving, involving aging parents, or houses sitting on the market without buyers.

As you may imagine, since the houses are historic, some of them are, well…very old. Therefore, architects did not build them to support today’s lifestyle.

For example, a Commission member described one house as “gorgeous but not livable.” Because this particular house had electrical heating, the homeowner pays about $1000 per month for heating in the winter. Similarly, in another case, engineers had deemed a garage unsafe because the roof was caving in. Under these circumstances, the family can’t park cars inside it because it’s too risky. They don’t want their daughter anywhere near it.

Preservation or Demolition?

Ultimately, the Commission approved some of the demolition permits. It’s sad. For one thing, some of the most endeared New England architects designed those houses. Each home tells its own unique story. As I learned, it’s not easy to parse out the most “historically significant” few homes from the many. Indeed, each house or neighborhood contributes its own character to the Brookline community.

I’ll surprise my family with these words…But sometimes change can be good. Especially when a little change can make a home much safer, environmentally-friendly, and livable.

The Commission and residents approached each case with such respectful dialogue. Throughout the hearing, they walked a careful line, to preserve our history yet be open to change when necessary.

As they walked out of Town Hall on Monday night, some of the residents had a go-ahead to pursue demolition. Others will be back next month or next year to apply for a permit again. In essence, this is the local democratic process–slow and steady.

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To end, I’ll share some wisdom from William Murtagh, the first keeper of the National Register of Historic Places.

“It has been said that, at its best, preservation engages the past in a conversation with the present over a mutual concern for the future.”

Sometimes a little change goes a long way.