South End Landmarks Commission Works to Retain Harrison Ave Church

By Beth Treffeisen

Going into the late hours of Tuesday evening, the South End Landmarks Commission continued to work with the developer of the Church of the Immaculate Conception on Harrison Ave., to revamp the house of prayer into rental units.

The meeting that lasted to the quarter past 11 on Tuesday night, looked at the proposed details for further construction at 771 Harrison Ave., while allowing the issues of the removal of religious icons, the roof details, and the re-pointing, cleaning and restoration to staff administrative approval.

But, they called for further study on the tracery windows and sills that the owner had hoped to lower by replacing the bottom third, preserving only the top of the tracery’s to allow light into what will be the first floor apartments.

“If you’re going to keep the tracery you need to keep all of it – all the way down to the sill,” said Commissioner John Amodeo. “We are only keeping what is there and telling the story of what is there.”

They also called for a sub-committee to continue working with the architects as they further their plans and wanted further study to be done on the garage doors.

“We are going to need to see a lot more detail,” said Commissioner John Freeman. “This kind of project lives and dies in the detail.”

The proposed renovation will include converting the existing space of the church and other buildings into 63 residential units, including six affordable with a 48-car parking in the basement level.

The church was constructed for Boston College in 1859 along with the Link Building around 1960. The Jesuit Urban Center was the last occupant of the buildings.

Suggestions from the Commissioners to the architects last night included leaving the tracery windows as is, and consider moving the first floor to the fifth floor, making the first floor storage and the fifth floor occupied.

“I probably spent an hour staring at this building,” said Commissioner Peter Sanborn. “I believe the windows are a big problem – is it essential to enlarge them?”

Another suggestion included leaving the first floor as occupational and punching in windows below the sills to allow light into that living space.

The Commissioners also asked for more detail mock-ups with measurements. They were concerned about seeing things only in general terms.

“It costs a lot of money to do all that planning,” said Ronald Simons the owner of the building who brought up how the concept was approved in a previous meeting. “I know this board doesn’t care about that but I feel like we are going back to square one.”

Now, after the approval they are going to get ready to hoist a 15-foot Jesus and Mary statue off the front of the church. The statue will be given to the archdiocese of Boston and Boston College.

For some nearby residents, the move to renovate this church into residential units brings some concerns.

“I understand you need these number of units to make this project feasible,” said Helaine Simmonds, of 70 East Springfield St. “But you are forgetting all the negative effects on our end.”

She added with more units, that means more cars and people on the street. Simmonds also doesn’t understand why the balconies can’t be facing the other way towards the courtyard, away from residential East Concord Street.

For Chris Grace a nearby resident he hopes to see clear measured drawings in the future because a lot of time at the meeting was spent clarifying them.

Another resident Katy Roberts who appreciates the boards decision on the windows said, “It’s a beautiful building and we need to do whatever we can do to retain it.”

The Church and its other building sit on plot of land of more than 74,000 square feet with the Church space being almost 40,000 square feet.

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