Preserving Boston's neighborhood landmarks

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

When the bulldozer took a grinding run at the triple-decker house, neighbors charged into the street hollering ''You must have the wrong building,'' says Pat Canavan.

As coordinator of the new Boston Neighborhood Preservation Program (BNPP), Ms. Canavan makes sure that the neighbors are heard.

Now that many ''capital H'' historic landmarks have been saved, she says, it is ''time to move out into the neighborhoods'' with preservation.

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The BNPP, which began this spring, works closely with neighborhood groups like the one in the Highland Park section of West Roxbury that stopped the bulldozer in its caterpillar track. Its goal is to save buildings that, although they probably did not shelter plotters of the American Revolution, are very important to a neighborhood's character. All of BNPP's targeted buildings are at least 40 years old and of historical or social value to their neighborhoods. And most have fallen victim to arsonists and vandals.

Jointly proposed by the Boston Landmarks Commission, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the Boston Preservation Alliance, BNPP is funded through the Permanent Charity Fund of Boston. The fund is ''the way large corporations take care of their charitable giving,'' says Ms. Canavan, who as a consultant to the Landmarks Commission maintains her office in City Hall.

Concentrating in low- and moderate-income areas, the BNPP finds new uses for old buildings that will spur community development while avoiding displacement of neighborhood residents. Working with developers, the BNPP presents plans to the city which ensure that ''the city's interest complements that of the community,'' Ms. Canavan says.

Since the passage of the Economic Recovery Act of 1981, corporate interest in preservation has grown significantly. Since October the Massachusetts Historical Commission has received as many applications for historic designation as in the previous 12 months. Under the federal act, developers can take a 25 percent tax credit for investments in historic structures. Then, upon sale of their historic buildings, their capital gains tax is reduced.

But some observers are concerned that the edge these tax incentives gave to preservation efforts may now be lost, as the Reagan administration seeks to eliminate the Historic Preservation Fund. This would make no federal money available for preservation efforts.

Among Boston projects that are directly threatened by such a cutoff is the planned development of Commonwealth Pier as a national center for marketing high technology.

In joining the fight to restore federal funding of preservation, Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas (D) says preservation brings urban revitalization, economic growth, and energy conservation.Pat Weslowski, executive director of the Massachusetts Historical Commission, agrees, citing the renovation of the Charlestown Navy Yard as a ''good example of lots of different groups working together'' in a preservation effort that has generated jobs and private investment.

''Preservation is not a frill, not a luxury,'' Mrs. Weslowski says. ''It is fundamental to the business economy and tourism'' as well as to the quality of life. As in Baltimore and San Antonio, Mrs. Weslowski says, Boston hopes aggressive restoration efforts will stimulate growth.

With that goal, Ms. Canavan says the BNPP strives to have a ''catalytic effect on a neighborhood.'' It has interns working on six Boston projects this summer:

* A vacant building formerly used as Girls Trade High School and little city hall in the Fenway.

* A study of owner-occupied lodging houses in the South End.

* Five turn-of-the-century, triple-decker houses in Highland Park.

* Two adjacent mid-19th century mansions now used by two nonprofit organizations in East Boston.

* Four buildings in Codman Square, including a church, a commercial building, a former library, and a former school.

* The oldest factory standing in Hyde Park.

BNPP is working to get the Codman Square and Hyde Park projects on the National Register of Historic Places.

The five Highland Park houses are among 40 abandoned buildings in that completely residential West Roxbury neighborhood. The City of Boston owns 13 of them, and the Highland Park Neighborhood Association is suing the city for failure to keep them securely boarded up.

But Boston said it couldn't maintain the houses because they were repeatedly vandalized. BNPP and the neighborhood group are working on a reuse plan for the houses which would put them within reach of current or former residents of neighborhood.

Noting a marble staircase or carved wood mantelpiece that graces these homes, Ms. Canavan says, ''People do appreciate beauty, and most of the construction and workmanship in these houses is beautiful and couldn't be duplicated today.''

At a rally to kick off lobbying against President Reagan's proposed elimination of federal preservation funding, Nancy Coolidge of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities said, ''The old ladies in the tennis shoes did what they could.'' Now, she says, preservationists must start to work with developers and politicians.

According to Mrs. Weslowski, Boston has a high density of sites worth saving, owing to their historical or architectural significance, and ''demand for recognition continues to increase.'' She says the future of the downtown financial section causes her the most concern, particularly the intersection of Broad and High Streets, where there is a fight to maintain the ''character of the area amid pressure for development.'' She would prefer to nominate it as a historic district.

Boston's designated historic districts are Beacon Hill, Back Bay, and the South End. In order to maintain their character, anyone wanting to make changes in these neighborhoods' buildings must get approval from the local neighborhood association.

Many preservationists point to the destruction of Boston's West End in the early days of urban renewal as a mistake which sobered the city's regard for its heritage and was instrumental in passage of protective legislation. This new vigilance is echoed by Mrs. Weslowski as she states the obvious: ''Once a building is gone, you're not going to ever retrieve it.''

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