IBA Requests SELDC to Grant a Hardship for Full Demo of Arts Center

IBA in the South End is proposing to fully demolish the compromised Villa Victoria Arts Center on West Newton and replace it, under a Landmarks hardship designation, with a new, six-story arts center and office building on the site.

The announcement came in a filing to the South End Landmarks District Commission (SELDC) for its Nov. 5 meeting, where the proposal to demolish the historic Lutheran Church and Parish House campus will be first contemplated. It came one month after the date that the Boston Fire Department completely, and surprisingly, condemned the entire building and ordered it to be vacated.

“IBA requests that the SELDC grant permission to demolish the building and allow a redevelopment of the lot that creates a facility that is respectful of its architectural context – at the nexus of the modern Villa Victoria neighborhood IBA created in the 1980s and the historic neighborhood it has worked hard to preserve since the 1980s, including the current rehabilitation of the entire block of low-income housing on the opposite side West Newton Street.”

IBA officials were not immediately available for comment, but will likely be prepared to speak to the community in the coming weeks.

In its filing, IBA indicated that if approved, they would begin a community participation process to develop a design to replace the existing arts center that it has operated since the late 1980s.

They are contemplating in the application, a “structure of approximately six stories and 30,000 sf. The building will accommodate all of the previous uses of the cultural center (performances, celebrations, special events, arts display, education) and preschool, while adding offices IBA’s office operations and property management.”

IBA indicated that any new building would serve as their central headquarters, and they would be able to re-use their existing offices on Shawmut Avenue for other things, likely more affordable housing or programming space.

The application also asked that Landmarks approve them with a Certificate of Exemption Based on Hardship, as they cannot raise the required funds to fully or partially repair the existing building to historic standards.

IBA said it was committed to raising the money to build such a new structure, and it had contemplated raising additional funds to salvage part of the old church campus, if not all of it. However, the structural damage was so intense that the cost was far above what the non-profit deemed responsible given they are charged with creating and preserving affordable housing.

“The prospect of raising and spending another $10 to $11.5 million is a daunting one, but it is one that IBA is willing to take on and it hopes to succeed at,” read the filing. “Raising an additional $3 to $10 million beyond that is not feasible.”

IBA began the process in an exciting full exterior renovation of the church and parish house in 2017. They had raised and cobbled together $10.9 million to complete the renovation of the steeple and exterior envelope, as well as some internal repairs to make the Arts Center a top notch facility to serve the Villa and the greater community. However, after peeling off the surface, they found a horrific situation where everything from the steeple to the foundation was very compromised. An estimate for the full repair came in at another $12 million, making the total repair costs to restore the facility $23.3 million.

That was beyond what they could spend, and the organization began looking at different options, which it presented to the community on several occasions and the SELDC as well in 2018. There were six options, with several of them contemplating the idea of restoring part of the church and building new parts as well.

That all changed in the past summer and fall when they learned from an engineering report that the steeple and parts of the walls were in danger of immediate collapse and needed to come down. Then, on Sept. 20, the Fire Department found that the entire building needed to be condemned, and IBA had to scramble to relocate their pre-school and after-school activities.

A new center would have the ability to increase access for people of all abilities and get away from the old church-style entry – conceived in a different time, they said. A new facility would allow them to knit the entire area together in a more open building.

“At a programmatic and civic level, this architectural arrangement, conceived in the middle ages to limit access, inspire awe, and define the separation of the profane and the sacred, is in direct conflict with IBA’s goals of inclusivity, transparency, and connection,” the report read. “IBA is anxious to create a cultural center that welcomes all people and connects to the street and to the adjacent O’Day Park and playground.”

IBA has operated it as an Arts Center since 1986.

However, the site has a long history of hosting buildings for religious purposes.

In 1857, the Church of the Unity was organized in the neighborhood to accommodate the large numbers of Germans living there. A first church building for that congregation was constructed at 85 West Newton St. in 1859. If flourished there until 1898 when it was demolished.

The site was then purchased by the Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church – later the All Saints Luther Church. They built the existing building and parish house in 1899, and it accommodated the growing number of German Lutheran immigrants coming to the South End at that time. That congregation continued worshiping there until 1959, when they built a new church and moved to the Back Bay – the current First Lutheran Church at the corner of Berkeley and Marlborough Streets. That said, All Saints Lutheran retained the building and continued worshiping there until the mid-1980s. IBA, who began its housing operations next door in 1968, bought the building for use as a Hispanic Cultural and arts center in 1986.

The renowned architect Thomas Silloway designed the first church on the site, as well as the existing building and Parish House.

The SELDC meeting will take place on Nov. 5, at 5:30 p.m., in the Piemonte Room of City Hall – 5th floor.

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