The City Council Committee on Planning, Development, and Transportation held a hearing on October 19 regarding a Preservation Restriction Agreement for 41 Melrose St. in Bay Village, known as the Howell Matson House.
While Councilor Michelle Wu is the chair of this committee, Councilor Ed Flynn chaired the hearing. Joseph Cornish, Director of Design Review for the Boston Landmarks Commission (BLC) provided information about the property and the proposed agreement, while Rosanne Foley, Executive Director of the Landmarks Commission, was also on hand to provide additional information.
Cornish explained that the approval sought is for a Preservation Restriction Agreement for 41 Melrose St. to be held by Historic New England. He said that it is a private agreement between Historic New England and the owner of the property which states that “certain work outlined in the agreement” cannot happen without approval from Historic New England, Cornish said. If the approval passes, it would be in perpetuity for any subsequent owner of the property.
“This is a property of personal interest to me,” said Councilor Kenzie Bok, as the home that she grew up in and where her parents still live is just a few doors down. Bok has also supported historic preservation throughout her tenure as a city councilor, and said she is in support of this.
Cornish said that on February 9, 2021 the BLC recommended approval of the preservation agreement. Right now, Historic New England has five Preservation Restriction Agreements with properties in the City of Boston, and 116 overall throughout New England.
He said that the agreement would protect both facade and roof changes that are visible from a public way, which are also subject to approval by the Bay Village Historic District Commission (BVHDC), as well as the whole exterior of the building and “certain interior features.”
Cornish then spoke about some of the history of the building, saying that it was built between 1840 and 1841 for “a local mason named Howell Matson.” Cornish added that Bay Village is “unique” in that many of its early residents were involved in building trades.
Inside the building, the Preservation Restriction Agreement would protect woodwork, door hardware, staircases, fireplaces, the parlor doors, floorboards, and other woodworking, as well as the pressed tin ceiling (though it is not original) and facade features such as the tunnel that connects Melrose St. to the garden and the rear of the property.
If this agreement is approved, in order for the owner to make changes to the building, they must work with Historic New England to get approval. Kitchens and bathrooms are exempt from the agreement.
Councilor Flynn asked how the owner should go about making emergency repairs to the building, such as dealing with a leaky roof.
Cornish said that the agreement requires “certain insurance requirements” to ensure that repairs will be able to be paid for. In the case of a leaky roof, the owner will have to submit an application to the BVHDC, and the building permit can be approved, “but they will separately have to go to Historic New England to seek a similar emergency repair,” he said.
Flynn also asked for some “guidance on pest control issues,” to which Cornish said he didn’t recall any applications regarding pest control in Bay Village, though there have been some in the Back Bay, which also has a historic district.
“We routinely work with property owners to address that issue,” he said.
Councilor Bok said that she does not think that “we as a city government are going to reach inside necessarily” when it comes to jurisdiction over historic buildings, so she believes private agreements like this one are helpful for preserving those interior elements, though the “goal is to not have an independent council hearing on each one,” she said.
Cornish said that “the best thing we ca do is publicize these as much as we can.” The BLC puts out a quarterly newsletter which does include articles about Preservation Restriction Agreements when they are reached.
For additional outreach, the BLC runs social media accounts on Facebook and Twitter that “publicize the good work that we do,” Cornish said, adding that he wants to thank the City Council for their support of the BLC’s work.
“I think we’re doing a good job,” Foley said. She also said that the BLC is working to increase its staff and eventually wants to be able to go into neighborhoods and chat with neighbors about the work of the BLC and answer any questions people may have.
During the public comment period, Carissa Demore spoke on behalf of Historic New England, saying that discussions for this agreement began “15 or 20 years” ago with the parents of the current owner.
She said of the 116 current Preservation Restriction Agreements, “we take that responsibility seriously.” She said it’s a “small, slow growing program,” and only a few properties reach these agreements each year.
Demore said that in order to reach these agreements, the owner must make a “significant financial contribution to Historic New England” to ensure the financial resources are there as well as to endow a legal reserve in the case that the agreement is not followed.
“It is a huge ask of owners to endow these agreements, she said, but she said that Historic New England does not “often get to protect the more working class side of history,” as is the case with the Howell Matson House.
Flynn said that he will “coordinate” with Councilor Wu “and present this before our body sometime very soon” for a vote. .