Historical society names top ten endangered, takes new approach in compiling annual list

Instead of highlighting the plights of 10 doomed historic buildings this year, the Dorchester Historical Society is taking a new tack, naming 10 endangered districts in the neighborhood instead. The move is a practical one, said Rosanne Foley.

“We’re trying to figure out why this hasn’t been a call to action like it’s supposed to be,” she said.

In many ways, she said it was a way to diffuse the adversarial relationship the list has created between the society and area real estate agents.

“I’m trying to extol the historical resources that we have in this neighborhood and have it improve the neighborhood as a whole,” said Foley. “But a lot of the feedback I’m getting from the real estate folks is they just want to have carte blanche. They don’t want to have to deal with extra layers of oversight [that come with many official historical designations.]”

As a result, the new top ten endangered list, shown here, is a bit of a harder nut to crack. A good way to look at it might be as an indicator of which neighborhoods might want to be on guard.

Ask the folks at the society, and a rich list of unresolved issues lie in each district on the list.

Port Norfolk got noticed by the society for the Putnam Nail and Lawley Shipyard industrial complex, among other buildings. Putnam Nail began manufacturing their wares at the site in 1859, and once was the official horse nail manufacturer for the U.S. Army. Later the sprawling site became the George Lawley Shipyard.

Today, one of the original buildings at 20 Ericsson St. is owned by Carmine Bruno, a member of the Bruno family that owns Venezia Restaurant, the Boston Winery and much of the old shipyard.

According to Foley, the Brunos plan to add a Mansard-style fourth story to the old factory, an addition that Foley said wouldn’t be true to the building’s history.

“In other neighborhoods of the city that sort of industrial building is prized for exactly what it looks like, like leaving exposed brick walls.”

Instead of a mansard-style, Foley is proposing a more modern fourth story to contrast the original walls and avoid distorting the building’s overall architectural style.

Across town on Jones Hill, Foley cites the example of the Anna Smith House at 65 Pleasant St., which is currently on the market for a listed $299,000. The catch is that the owner is selling the place along with zoning rights to tear it down and build a two- or four-unit building in its place, said Foley.

Anna Clapp Harris Smith was the founder of the Animal Rescue League, now a national organization. The land had been owned by the Clapp family going back to the early 1600s, and Smith was born in the house in 1843. The house was built in the early 1800s on a foundation that likely goes back to the 1600s.

“Jones Hill has such amazing properties but it just doesn’t seem as though there’s a large recognition of how amazing new development could be,” said Foley.

It’s the Fowler-Clark Farm and the Tolman House that needled the society to put the entire of Norfolk Street on the list.

“Norfolk and Centre [also on the list] were two of the early trails used by native peoples to get from inland to the shore,” said Foley. So naturally, there are some older dwellings along the line.

The Fowler-Clark Farm just inside Mattapan on Norfolk used to be the farmhouse for the entire area until the land was subdivided for development circa 1895. It has made the top ten list several times now as the owner, even though the city has named it a Boston Landmark, has not shown any inclination or plan to preserve it to the society. The oldest of its buildings may date back as far as 1786, when the country was just 10 years old.

The Tolman House is a more recent discovery that came when the Codman Square Health Center bought Bernie’s Bike Shop on Norfolk and proposed to tear it down for an expansion project. Members of the society took a look inside and discovered 1780s framework inside. Research proved it to have been built by John Tolman. Now the society is asking the health center to move the building or incorporate it into their architectural plan somehow.
More information can on the other districts can be found on DorchesterHistoricalSociety.org and DorchesterAtheneum.org.