South End Historical to Oppose Villa Victoria Arts Center Demolition

In what has been on ongoing saga at the South End Landmarks Commission regarding the demolition and rebuild of a historic church that formerly housed the Villa Victoria Arts Center and Pre-School, a new voice of opposition has entered the discussion.

After a long discussion and meeting of the South End Historical Society (SEHS), the membership voted to go on record as opposed to the demolition of the structure. The church at 85 West Newton St. in the South End dates back to 1898 and is designed by noted architect Thomas Silloway, but it was condemned and shut down suddenly by the City in September. This fall, the owners – IBA – proposed a waiver to demolish the structure and re-build it with a new Arts Center.

“As an organization dedicated to the preservation of the architectural integrity of the South End, the South End Historical Society opposes the demolition of historic structures in the neighborhood,” read a letter from SEHS Director Jason Amos. “In the revised 1983 South End District Committee Report the committee found that ‘a major element of the South End is its many distinctive churches and associated structures.’ Once this historic structure is removed from the neighborhood, it will be lost forever, thereby diminishing the historical and architectural character of the neighborhood.”
IBA purchased the church and the accompanying Parish House in 1980 and established its Arts Center, Performing Arts Space, Gallery and Pre-School there. They have been before Landmarks several times already requesting a hardship waiver to demo the structures.

Some members of the SEHS said the hardship waiver was put in place in the 1980s to help individual homeowners who might not have the finances to repair their buildings to the standards of the Landmark District. That, they said, was meant for lower-income people in the South End at the time who wanted to repair their homes, but maybe didn’t have enough to do it to the standards required. Commissioners were allowed to grant the waiver as long as it was deemed not to detract from the neighborhood.

One member, Paul Wright, said in a letter that such a waiver wasn’t meant to be used by large property owners like IBA.

“The use of the hardship exemption, created to protect individual owners without sufficient means, by one of the largest property owners in the Landmark District to demolish a significant landmark, sets a dangerous precedent for future misuse of the hardship provision by other major stakeholders in the District,” he wrote, speaking as a member of the SEHS.

Wright has also been appointed to the Landmarks Commission recently, but has not been approved yet by the City Council.

Another hearing on the Arts Center demolition is expected to be held on Jan. 7 during the monthly South End Landmarks Commission hearing.

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