Key Fields Corner building eyed for possible re-use, restoration

The existing O’Hearn Storage building in Fields Corner, left, is contrasted with an artist’s rendering of how the building might look after a restoration. Images courtesy Historic Boston, Inc.

The O’Hearn Storage Building in Fields Corner is home to a Post Office and a handful of small businesses, but local historians and developers believe a renovation project could be the key to unlocking a forgotten piece of neighborhood history and ensuring that the building remains a vital part of the district for years to come.

Located at the intersection of Adams Street and Dorchester Avenue, the O’Hearn Building is actually a combination of three separate buildings linked together over the years that now sit largely unused. Historic Boston Incorporated, a preservation group that specializes in researching and re-purposing underecognized historic sites, believes the structure could be converted into a mixed-use residential and commercial property, while serving as a reminder of the district’s rich history as an economic hub.

Historic Boston senior program manager Jeffrey Gonyeau said that when his organization began surveying the neighborhood in the spring of 2008, the O’Hearn building was one of the properties that residents most commonly asked about.

“When we first started doing surveys in Dorchester, a lot of people said ‘That’s a big blank building in the neighborhood, what’s the story behind it?’” Gonyeau said. After doing more research, Gonyeau’s group realized there was much more to the building than meets the eye.

The smallest of the three buildings located at the back of the property is actually the oldest structure in the Fields Corner area. It was a federalist-style house built in 1795 for Isaac Newcomb Field, a prominent businessman and the namesake of the village itself. During the 18th century, the Field family owned a total of six houses in the area and operated a large retail store and horse-care business that employed as many as 40 workers.

Taylor said the house was originally built along Dorchester Avenue but was moved away from the street by later generations of the Field family to make room for the two commercial buildings that now line the avenue and at a time housed the Dorchester Music Hall on its top floors. 

Around 1890, the complex of buildings were sold to the O’Hearn family, who bricked over the music hall’s large arched windows, added additional floors, linked the buildings with staircases and freight elevators, and ultimately reopened as commercial storage space. Most recently, the building was purchased from the O’Hearns in 1980 by Richard Jerrier and has seen limited use in the past three decades.

Gonyeau said Jerrier has been largely receptive to the idea of repurposing parts of the building over the past two years and has allowed Historic Boston to send in architects to review the building. Although Jerrier has not finalized any plans for work on the property, Gonyeau remains optimistic that there might be some action on the project in the near future.

“He’s got a lot of sentimental attachment to the building,” Gonyeau said of Jerrier. “He’s the first person to say something should happen in the building, but it’s also a very big step for someone to take.”
Fields Corner Main Streets director Evelyn Darling said she has been following this and other Historic Boston projects closely. She welcomed the possibility of increasing the housing stock in the area as a way to fortify local businesses.

“There’s definitely a need for more housing in Fields Corner,” Darling said. “Having people living in or near the area is really important for any vibrant business district. You want to have those eyes on the street patronizing the district. The more we can bring people into the district, the better, and what better way than by building residential units?”

Local business owner John Gallagher, who owns a nearby insurance agency that has operated on the avenue for more than 55 years, said this project and other recent developments like the city’s Dorchester Avenue street improvement project and the creation of moderately priced housing built by Viet-AID in 2005 show promise for revitalizing the neighborhood.

Gallagher said there was always interest in the O’Hearn building and a belief among locals that getting the structure running at full capacity could spur future development.

“I think [the project] would be terrific. The Viet-AID condos attract a lot of activity and it’s a lot lighter now, it gives a sense of vibrancy in the area,” Gallagher said. “ I think the more foot traffic you have in the area, it becomes safer I think. The perception is that it’s becoming a healthier place, I get a real sense of vibrancy.”

While the project is still far from a reality, Gonyeau and his colleagues are hopeful that they can breathe some new life into the historic site.

“Most people call [buildings like these] ‘white elephants.’ They’ve lingered and outlived their original use or have been highly modified and don’t lend themselves to any current use,”Gonyeau said. “That’s where we see opportunity, where we can come in with some imagination and really make something out of a space.”