Ten years ago, Fenway resident sparked protections for Boston’s most important buildings

On his daily walks, Fenwickian Calvin Arey passes by Mass Historical Society, the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) and other important buildings in the area and breathes a sigh of relief.

“I got that one done,” he said he often mumbles under his breath as he passes them.

What he got done about 10 years ago – with a rare citizens petition to the Boston Landmarks Commission (BLC) – was to give historic protection to some of the City’s most important structures dedicated to art, education, and civic life, including the MFA, Jordan Hall and several other buildings of note.

“I do always walk past them these days on my daily walk and go by Mass Historical and say, ‘I got that done,’ and then I pass by the MFA and say, ‘I got you too,’”

Arey’s Landmarking journey started 10 years ago when he was in the fight of his life as Northeastern University had suddenly struck a deal to develop parts of the YMCA on Huntington Avenue into a new dormitory.

Members of the tight-knit community gathered together to fight the proposal, and as a result Arey often found himself trolling the files of the Boston Landmarks Commission. Digging through dusty old files and different reports on things in the Fenway – he got the shock of his life.

Not only was the YMCA building not protected for its historical significance, but also some of the most important buildings in Boston that were in the Fenway also had no protections. That included Jordan Hall, Symphony Hall, the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), Mass Historical Society, Horticultural Hall and Harvard Medical School. Some of the most architecturally significant and historic buildings in Boston could – if the right conditions presented themselves – be demolished and re-developed.

They had no Landmarks or historic protections, though were invaluable pieces of the Boston landscape.

“It shocked me when I found out,” he said. “For 20 years I walked into that Y every morning and passed the plaque in the lobby saying the building was on the National Register of Historic Places and we assumed that protected it. It gave it no protections at all. The plaque is still there in the lobby, which is the only part that remains…These are all buildings people cherish. People think the MFA will be there forever – maybe not. We thought the Y would be there forever, but that wasn’t the case. Organizations of all kinds can get in financial trouble and might need money and can make decisions that threaten these buildings.”

What happened 10 years ago when digging through the files at Landmarks was Arey came across a professional historical survey done in 1984 for the BLC. In that survey, the architect identified several buildings, including the YMCA at the time, that were recommended to receive Landmark status so they would be protected from demolition or alteration.

“These buildings I helped save were all identified and recommended in 1984 for Boston Landmarks status and some were candidates for the National Register of Historic Places and none had been done,” he said.

What hadn’t been done, Arey was ready to do.

Seizing on a little known provision in the Landmarks regulations, he used a citizens petition of 10 taxpayers to join in to propose a new Landmark. While it eventually was too late for the YMCA, he was able to petition for New England Conservatory/Jordan Hall, Symphony Hall, Horticultural Hall, MFA, Mass Historical Society and Harvard Medical School. 

It was not easy though.

Many of those, aside from Mass Historical Society, outright opposed the measure as it does take away some of the property rights from the ownership of such buildings and requires them to go through the Landmarks process to make any major changes.

“Half of the buildings I petitioned for opposed the designation,” he said. “They sent lawyers to the hearings. Symphony Hall opposed it. NEC opposed it. Horticultural Hall did not oppose it. They were owned by the Christian Science and they were not opposed. The Mass Historical Society was the only one that thought it was a great idea.”

The fight was real, for certain. However, in the end his petitions did prevail and all of those buildings listed above achieved Landmarks status. Five of them are still in the initial process, but are protected from harm. They still await a study report from the BLC to advance them to the final status. Only Mass Historical has gotten the Study Report and been approved for final status.

Arey said that has been a slow process, and he said it’s his understanding that BLC likes to roll out a few Study Reports citywide each year.

The BLC said they have completed the process for Mass Historical Society, but the rest of Arey’s citizen petition Landmarks are still in the queue.

However, they did say Horticultural Hall is very close to having it Study Report completed and moving on to the final process.

Unlike when walking by Mass Historical or the MFA, when Arey walks by the YMCA, it isn’t as great a feeling. He said the community of members there was very close, of all walks of life, and kind of broke up a bit (though some are still in contact) when the dorm project moved forward.

“The Y still shocks me,” he said. “The members thought it would be there forever. It was built to be there forever…Like us, people don’t react until the building is threatened and then they care and developers have their ducks in a row and have taken steps already so it can’t be stopped. There are a lot more of these buildings in Boston that aren’t protected. If they take initiative before through this process, things can be stopped.”

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