BVHDC Hears Advisory Review for Isabella St. Church Condo Proposal

The Bay Village Historic District Commission (BVHDC) met virtually on January 12 to hear an Advisory Review for the conversion of the former Our Lady of Victories Church at 19 Isabella St. into 26 condominiums.

More than one developer has presented plans for this building to the Bay Village Neighborhood Association (BVNA), which has provided feedback about the massing of the building and has worked with developers on creating a project that works for everyone. The project has also been before the BVHDC before as well.

The developer for this particular proposal is KEMS Corporation, the development consultant is Harry Collings, and the architectural firm is Finegold Alexander Architects.

Collings said that there have been several “positive meetings” with the BVNA regarding this proposal, and the development team will continue to meet with the community.

Rebecca Berry, President of Finegold Alexander Architects, said that the firm specializes in reimagining historic spaces while preserving their historic integrity.

She said that the existing church was sold by the Archdiocese in 2020, and the adjacent Parish house has been turned into condominiums by another developer.

The scope of the proposed work includes demolishing the existing vestry and boiler building, which Berry said are not able to be reused, and to construct an addition for the condo units, of which there will be 26; three of them affordable units per city guidelines. The units will range from one to three bedrooms.

Berry said that as part of the project, the front steps of the church are proposed to be removed to ensure accessibility for all. “We believe these were the original steps,” she said, but the step configuration has been “altered significantly” over the years.

The removal of the vestry and boiler building will also allow for vehicular access, and the team is proposing between 18 and 22 parking spaces for the 26 units, which will be located where the current social hall and worship area is. She said this allows for the ability to do stacked parking or an automated system for parking.

Tony Hsiao of Finegold Alexander spoke more about the architectural portion of the proposal, including the new addition and proposed color scheme for the changes to be made.

He said a new main entrance will be at the center of the front of the building, once the steps are removed. He said that there will be a “landscape treatment once the steps are removed,” which includes planting and granite curbing.

He added that the existing arch openings will be brought down to create daylight views on both the east and west elevations, and the existing fire escape on the east elevation will be removed.

The church will have all new replacement windows with mullion and muntin patterns that match what is there now, and the existing wood doors at the front entry “will be salvaged and used as side panels for new front glazed areas at first level,” according to the presentation.

The new roof will reach 76 feet tall, but there is a grade change moving up the building. The proposed addition is also set back “at least 20 feet behind the original part of the church,” Hsiao said. The proposed building will have a gray tone, and the penthouse on top blends in with the sky.

“Part of our responsibility is what we’re going to see from the street,” said Commissioner Anne Kilguss. “I personally don’t have a good idea of what I’m going to see from the street.”

She said she would like to see some views of the proposal looking “head on” at the front of the church, to see how much, if any, of the proposal can be seen from the street when looking at the church.

Berry and Hsiao said that they are able to create more camera views of the building and would be happy to present those to the Commission at a later date.

“I understand the views are very confined,” said Commissioner Stephen Dunwell, who added that he would like to see the building from its right side, as all the views were shown from the left. Commissioner Tom Hotaling also said it “would clarify a lot” if the architects could show an existing view of the church with what is being added in.

The Commission also asked about materials for the addition, and Berry said that while those are still being worked out, they are considering brick or zinc, but “what we’re trying to avoid here is yet another metal panel-clad building in Boston.” She said she wants whatever material that is chosen “to respect the historic architecture of the church.”

Kilguss said she feels that “talking out the steps is fine,” but she is concerned about the view from the street, particularly the penthouse, which she believes is able to be seen.

Overall, Commissioners seemed pleased with the proposal as a whole.

“I like the delicacy of it,” Dunwell said. “It does make it seem less massive. I think what you’ve done is really a big improvement over what we were shown before.”

John Shope, a member of the BVNA, said “I think it’s an absolutely beautiful design. I really think we should give congratulations to the architects for what they’ve achieved so far.”

He added that he believes the spiritual nature of the building could still live on even as a residential building with this design, as it “allows the essence of the church to be preserved in a way that’s economically viable.”

Joe Cornish, Director of Design Review for the Boston Landmarks Commission, said that “the team really listened to my feedback.” He said he was initially “uncomfortable” with the removal of the front steps, but now he agrees with why the architects believe it must be done.

“In terms of the views, by keeping that first side bay visible and intact,” Cornish said, pedestrians “will experience the building very much as you do now.”

He said this project was “really exciting,” and “I think they’re really on the right track here.”

Moving forward, he said the Commission is going to want “firm details on what the materials are going to be,” and also to see more renderings from different angles of the building.

Since this was an Advisory Review, the Commission did not take a vote.

Collings acknowledged that the team has “some work to do,” but they will be back before the Commission to share those outstanding details and get a vote from the Commission.

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