Leading by Example
We accept the fact that Gloucester is America’s oldest seaport but it is easy to take this distinction somewhat for granted. In addition Gloucester has a rich history in the art world. The list of painters who came to Gloucester, drawn by the scenery and the special light, is a who’s who in art. Throw into the mix the history of the granite industry, the uniquely ethnic neighborhoods and last, but not least, the architecture.
What are we doing to respect and preserve our eroding collection of old buildings? Not enough!
We do not have a much needed demolition delay that would slow down the demolition of old buildings with a shot at saving them even if it’s a long shot. In the most historic and oldest towns in eastern Massachusetts most have long since embraced this tool. Gloucester has rejected this process several times since the late 80s.
There is a small historic district including part of Middle Street, Pleasant Street and the West End of Main Street. Those who buy property in this area are aware of the restriction imposed upon the district. If the guidelines for an historic district bother a potential buyer and they find the rules too restrictive, perhaps they should invest in another neighborhood. If a buyer does purchase in this neighborhood they enter into the deal with eyes wide open. However, it is almost inevitable that sooner or later there will be changes that a new owner might like to make to the property and a good chance that the changes will be contrary to basic preservation guidelines. Unless there is a serious hardship the commission involved must stand their ground and uphold the preservation guidelines.
Just last week it was shocking to see what appeared would be the total demolition of a stately house on Pleasant Street in progress. Known locally as the Blatchford house it is located in the historic district.
This extensive demolition to the building was allowed to happen legally because the façade and the gable ends were preserved saving the streetscape but the back of the house is gone and the interior is gutted. All of the approvals are in order. But it sure looks like serious demolition to me!
At the present time two antique houses on the Boulevard are threatened with demolition, with no way other than perhaps public pressure to prevent the action that will permanently alter this scenic stretch of roadway overlooking our beautiful harbor. The Man at the Wheel is an iconic feature of this neighborhood. (Please see story in Gloucester Daily times here: http://www.gloucestertimes.com/news/local_news/western-avenue-inn-plan-draws-worry/article_b70bf423-ff06-5e44-95ee-ec2b2d9fdca2.html )
Switching gears, let’s talk about the City of Peabody. Peabody? Of all the town and cities on the North Shore what’s historic about Peabody?
The City of Peabody was separated from Danvers and was the scene of leather workers and tanneries. The tanneries are mostly gone and although that city is proud of its history few would compare it to Gloucester on any level. It is the city of malls, old factories, busy highways and a central square that is sometimes under water. Above all it doesn’t have a harbor and any comparison to Gloucester, Le Beauport, would seem to be ludicrous.
Although Peabody doesn’t have much going for it compared to Gloucester, in one respect it has Gloucester beat hands down! Here’s why.
In the late 1890s J. B. Thomas built a house for his grandson. He spared nothing to create a beautiful house smack dab in the middle of the city on the corner of Main Street and Washington Street. It also had a fabulous carriage house in the rear not to mention an enormous and beautiful beech tree in the front.
The Thomas family lived in the house for 15 or 20 years before selling it to the O’Sheas. It then became known as the O’Shea house until sold around 1970 and converted into a furniture store. After the furniture store owners retired the house was sold to a social agency.
In recent years the house has fallen on hard times and was foreclosed. Bank owned, it was available for sale.
In a scenario that is far too familiar, a developer from our own City of Gloucester eyed this high visibility site for redevelopment and negotiated to purchase it. He made it known that his intent was to demolish the old house. He was so taken with the site he had not initially looked at its wonderful interior. This is when the story takes a remarkable turn.
Unlike Gloucester, this community, Peabody, has a demolition delay ordinance and has had one since 1986, almost thirty years. It was invoked in an attempt to save the O’Shea house. But when the City realized that the delay was not long enough to be effective the city council boldly extended the ordinance from 90 days to one year, 365 days, to buy more time; a lease on life for the old house in question.
The trend is for longer delay periods as towns where demolition delay has been tested understand that in order to be effective, longer delays must be enacted and are addressing this finding. (Meanwhile, remember, Gloucester doesn’t even have a demolition delay ordinance, still rolling out the red carpet for developers who care little for the historical value of the properties they would demolish.)
Determined not to lose this historic house, the City of Peabody, led by the mayor and supported by the Peabody City Council, made a second bold move. They announced they would take the house by eminent domain! The house will be saved and it will be interesting to see what happens next. The City can potentially recover their fair market value purchase price and will have the option to sell it with preservation covenants or easements to protect it into the future. That is what anyone caring about the house hopes will happen.
Perhaps eminent domain is a tool that Gloucester should invoke from time to time when a historic building is in jeopardy. How is it that Peabody can take such a decisive step while Gloucester languishes, totally vulnerable with no demolition delay and only a tiny historic district?
Who would think that Peabody would have the foresight and courage to act so decisively? Why is Gloucester so indifferent?
Is it because Peabody has so much less to save that they are galvanized in making such a bold move?
Regardless of what motivated them, I say “Kudos to Peabody”. May they lead by example!
Prudence Fish, of Lanesville, is a published author and expert on antique New England houses.
Please see this related story from the Gloucester Daily Times:
Private residence proposed for the ocean side of the Back Shore