Restoring the historic richness of a neighborhood. From paint, decay, and ashes come elegant mid-price homes

THE words ``historic preservation'' generally bring to mind monumental works of restoration -- Union Station in St. Louis, the state Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., the Curtis Building in Philadelphia. But preservation also means thousands of small to moderate-sized projects spread throughout the United States, many of which have a significant impact on communities, neighborhoods, and families.

Some $9 billion is being spent on preservation nationwide, according to David Gillespie, head of the Northeast Regional Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. This includes ``large-scale projects as well as little-bitty ones,'' he says.

Big or small, these projects often entail a complex combination of financial arrangements, technical challenges, and, sometimes, political strategies. The glorious end results -- the fresh paint, gleaming brass, and solid masonry -- spring from dozens of hours of much less glorious negotiation and compromise. It's all part of a process, and a movement, highlighted this week by the National Trust's ``Preservation Week.''

It's been 20 years since passage of the National Historic Preservation Act, and during those two decades ``we've succeeded in making preservation popular,'' says Mr. Gillespie. The urban renewal bulldozer has given way to the impulse to preserve the architecture of the past, he says.

Take, for instance, the restoration of a block of marble-fronted row houses on Cedar Street in the Roxbury section of Boston. This project has a dual goal: protecting the buildings themselves, which are among the city's few examples of marble construction in the Second Empire style; and production of 18 new condominiums for moderate- to low-income families.

The 10 three-story houses, built in 1871, were choice residences in their day. But by the early 1980s, when they caught the eye of Boston preservationists, many of the once elegant dwellings were on the verge of collapsing -- and the city, wrecking ball in tow, was on the verge of hastening that process.

Stanley Smith, executive director of Historic Boston Inc., a private, nonprofit corporation committed to preserving the city's historic buildings, recalls driving through Roxbury a few years ago with the director of a charitable foundation.

He was explaining the ``extraordinary richness of architecture in that area,'' and when they drove by the Cedar Street row houses, the director ``winced,'' says Mr. Smith. What had once been ``exceptionally elegant'' was nearly in ruins. Back walls were crumbling, floors caving in, and roofs largely missing. Fires had blackened much of the sandstone trim. The marble fa,cades, many of which were pulling away from the bricks, were hidden under numerous coats of paint.

When the city's intention of demolishing the block became clear, efforts to preserve the old houses materialized.

Of first importance, the neighborhood rallied to the cause, forming the Marble Front Task Force to block demolition. Protesters showed up at the same time as the wrecking ball and stood in front of the trucks.

Meanwhile, the neighborhood group had contacted both Historic Boston and Urban Edge, a community housing agency based in the adjoining Jamaica Plains section of Boston. Those two organizations ultimately joined forces to save the marble front houses, with Historic Boston corralling the financing and Urban Edge supervising the construction.

The city agreed to halt demolition and deed the property over to Urban Edge for $1 a unit. Two of the 10 units remain in the hands of private owners and haven't been part of the renovation. Money for the construction work came from Historic Boston itself, from the Architectural Heritage Foundation, from various federal programs, and from interested invididuals. Total rehabilitation costs are expected to top $1 million.

Keeping expenses low enough to offer the new condos at prices accessible to low-income families has been difficult, admits Erik Haugsnes, Urban Edge's construction manager. Because of the need to protect the buildings' historic detailing, special care had to be taken with such tasks as removal of paint from the marble. Traditional methods, such as sandblasting, were out. Using chemical methods, workmen toiled for up to a week on each house, bringing out as much of the original marble hue as possible.

Close coordination with the preservationists from Historic Boston may have drawn out the work at times, says Mr. Haugsnes, but it also helped ``generate an end product we're proud of.''

Not infrequently, the unexpected would happen. Once a roof collapsed through all three stories of a building, popping the marble blocks and sandstone trim off the front. The marble had to be reattached and the detailing of the sandstone had to be reproduced in cement.

(Smaller things come up ``constantly,'' says Haugsnes. As he stood on Cedar Street talking, one workman responsible for patrolling the property with guard dogs came up to tell him that the basement pipes in one of the buildings had mysteriously sprung multiple leaks.)

As costs went up, so did the minimum income-level families needed to qualify for the condos. ``So now, in fact, these are moderate-income dwellings,'' says Haugsnes, with prices ranging from $35,000 to over $80,000.

Even so, interest in the restored buildings is relatively high. Some 350 people showed up at a recent open house. At present, eight families have ``signed on.'' While some touching up and cleaning up, as well as some landscaping out front, remains to be done, the buildings ought to be ready for occupancy in a couple of weeks, says Haugsnes.

Though there have been problems, a lot of starts and stops, along the way, the marble front houses are likely to illustrate what Smith calls the ``thrust'' of preservation groups like Historic Boston: ``Not to make museums, but to demonstrate that historic property can be left on the tax rolls and contribute significantly to the city.''

The most important job of the preservationist movement today, says Sally Oldham, director of programs and services for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, is to encourage ``the good use of historic properties.'' She underscores two key elements in this work: (1) the Trust's own Main Street Program, through which 200 communities in 24 states have been aided in revitalizing aging town centers, and (2) the historic preservation income tax credit, which has stimulated billions of dollars in restoration projects but has been under fire in the current tax reform.

A Senate-imposed provision links use of the credit to income derived from the restored property, a stipulation that could make it difficult for all but the largest developers to take advantage of the tax break.

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