The Wellesley Historical Commission (WHC) on Monday, August 13 at 7pm in the Great Hall at Town Hall will review an application for demolition for 10 Livermore Rd, likely the most significant house from a local historical perspective to come before the WHC to date.
What makes this 132-year-old building historically significant is that it was the home of noted Wellesley civic leader John D. Hardy from its completion in 1896 until his death in 1924. Its association with Hardy is an important factor making it among the most historic houses in the Belvedere Estates/Wellesley Country Club area, and therefore Wellesley.
It’s so historically significant that it has triggered a review as an “Eligible Building” under Article 46 C. As WHC Chairman Grant Brown explains, “The article says that, with a few exceptions, any structure built before 1949 must put in an application to the Commission for a Preferably Preserved determination. If 10 Livermore is determined to be a structure that is Preferably Preserved, then a one-year demolition delay would be imposed. The article states that a building should be “…Preferably Preserved if tearing it down would be detrimental to the historical or architectural heritage of the Town because such Building is importantly associated with one or more historic persons or events.”
The 7 bedroom, 5 bath, 7,800 square foot home built in 1886 sold earlier this summer for $2,500,000. Like many who buy homes in Wellesley — some new to town, some long-time residents, and some who left for a bit and are now returning — the owners wish to tear down the house and build a new one. The design team we’ve been told is involved has a reputation for delivering to clients high-quality homes that fit into historic neighborhoods. Sometimes this is delivered by the team through renovation. Sometimes this is delivered by tearing down a home to make way for a new one.
You can go online and see a lovely Zillow slideshow of 10 Livermore Road. This is no pokey cottage that’s been neglected for decades. It’s a lovingly tended gem. The hardwood floors gleam, it’s light and bright, the rooms are spacious, and there are period details throughout. Still, homeowners want what they want. The argument here isn’t that current beauty shall be forced to give way to a cookie-cutter monstrosity. The argument here is over history on the one hand, and what owners want on the other hand.
What is the Wellesley Historical Commission?
The WHC is the primary advocate for the protection of Wellesley’s historic properties, both public and private. Their mission is to ensure that the historic structures and spaces that define the character of Wellesley are not lost for future generations. The WHC frequently collaborates with Town boards and departments, builders, realtors, and residents, providing expert advice on projects involving historic resources to ensure that growth can coincide with preservation. The group also advocates for public bylaws and private actions that encourage the preservation, restoration, and innovative reuse of historic properties. The WHC also oversees Article 46C of the Town Bylaws, Historic Preservation Demolition Review Bylaw (a/k/a the demolition delay bylaw), that went into effect July 1, 2017.
Can the WHC stop steel wrecking balls with their bare hands?
No, but the WHC can make it take a little longer than it would for a home built after 1949. One of the goals of the article adopted by the Town is to assure the preservation and enhancement of the Town of Wellesley’s historical and cultural heritage by preserving, rehabilitating or restoring whenever possible, buildings that have distinctive architectural features or historical associations that contribute to the historic fabric of the Town.
While the WHC has no power to permanently stop tear downs, it does try to at least make property owners aware of any historical significance if it becomes aware of possible changes to buildings. Grant says one of the goals is to “…begin a dialogue to consider alternatives such as renovations or additions, thus preserving the core structure.” So although the bylaw does not give the WHC the power to stop a tear down from happening, it does formalize a review process during which town officials and property owners might work out agreements that would preserve at least components of such structures.
If a building gets a “Preferably Preserved” status, owners are then encouraged to come back to the WHC through the waiver process. In that second step, the WHC would encourage the property owner to consider creative efforts to preserve as much of the house as possible which, if successful, would waive the one-year delay period.
Out with the old, in with the new
It’s a classic case of homeowners who insist on new vs. preservation-minded types who refuse to believe that an addition wouldn’t work to address 21st century living needs. At 10 Livermore, it’s not impossible to envision that tearing down earlier additions to the home, such as the one that includes the indoor pool, would ruffle fewer historical feathers while still allowing the new owners to enjoy all the advantages of new construction while preserving an important part of Wellesley history.
The general consensus seems to be that the design team involved has the experience and sensitive mindset to come up with a new house that fits the neighborhood architecturally. However, that’s only part of the point to some who say a new structure, no matter how beautiful and sensitively designed, could never replace the associative value of the old house.
Make new friends, but keep the old
The WHC has lately been working proactively in an effort to encourage the preservation of Wellesley’s older historic homes by rolling out the first awards in what is expected to be an annual thing for the “best” historic renovation(s) of the year. Here are the 2017 homes that were given the award. They feel that this could be an effective way of slowing the torrid pace of tear downs of historically significant buildings in town.
“While we all painfully aware of the exceptionally high number of tear downs in Wellesley, there are also impeccable renovations that celebrate and preserve the architecture and quality of our earlier homes and structures,” says Brown.
Presenting awards is one way the WHC can catch some of its flies with honey. However some say the good dousing of vinegar in the form of a one-year delay before removing history is necessary to temper tear-down enthusiasm. One thing is certain, the WHC says it’s a challenge to maintain Wellesley’s character in the face of tear downs and mansionization, noting that Wellesley’s Large House Review process hasn’t done much to stop the tear downs.
The likely scenarios
The WHC could look at the presentation for 10 Livermore and green-light a tear down. Or the WHC could look at the presentation and say that it should be “Preferably Preserved.” We will have to wait and see how it all goes on August 13.
As the WHC likes to point out, all of Wellesley’s surrounding communities such as Natick, Dover, Needham, Newton, and Weston have demolition review bylaws. Also, a survey conducted by the Wellesley Planning Board’s Residential Development Working Group late last year found that almost three quarters of respondents said they were concerned about the number of tear downs in town and the impact of new construction on the town’s character.
A 2016 Wellesley Townsman review showed that 95 tear-down permits were issued in 2015, way up from 13 back in 1991 when a demolition delay bylaw nearly passed at Town Meeting.
What about YOUR house?
An option that homeowners, neighbors, and the town can consider is the “Single Building Historic District” designation. There are four homes in Wellesley that fall under this designation. It is a voluntary way to permanently protect structures from demolition. Contact the WHC if you are interested in this for your home. According to Grant, some Massachusetts towns have forced this designation on property owners given the significance of those structures, but it’s not something Wellesley has ever done.