Historic New England Reimagining Otis House Campus Amid Proposed Development in Neighborhood

 With several major development projects set to get underway in the neighborhood, including the proposed development on the West End Branch Library, Historic New England is now beginning to reimagine its Otis House campus on Cambridge Street as a “community cultural anchor.”

Historic New England, a nonprofit regional-heritage organization, is partnering with the Mayor’s Office of Housing (MOH) and the city, as well as NADAAA, a Boston cultural and urban design firm, to help redefine the Otis House campus. The complex comprises the 1796 Otis mansion and, in back, two connected 19th-century row houses, both of which Vin Cipolla, president and CEO of Historic New England, called “important historic structures,” along with what he describes as a “tower-like structure.”

​The interior of the Otis House will remain unaltered, said Cipolla, since the project would focus instead on “reimaging the interior uses of the two rowhouses and the rest of the site.”

No exterior changes to “anything historical” is planned for the site, although the “stairway tower” would likely be modified to accommodate the addition of an elevator to improve accessibility on the campus, added Cipolla.

Meanwhile, on April 3, MOH issued a Request for Proposals (RFP) for the redevelopment of the West End Branch Library, which would create  not only a new library branch, but also have an affordable housing component. The RFP Guidelines  and Objective specifically mentions how development projects proposed for the site should consider the scale and context of the adjacent Otis House campus.

The RFP Guidelines and Objectives state: “Historic New England is engaged in its own ambitious planning project to reimagine the Otis House campus as a civic and cultural anchor in the community and welcomes collaboration in this effort. Proponents are encouraged to consider opportunities to collaborate with Historic New England to create a shared cultural district or shared educational experience between the Otis House and the library branch.”

According to the city, “The library branch and the Otis House are both treasured institutions in this neighborhood, providing cultural and educational value to residents and visitors. In the community engagement surrounding the redevelopment of the library branch, participants made clear that they cared deeply about these buildings. They also wondered about the opportunity to create a shared experience for visitors through thoughtful design. While these will remain separate buildings, the City of Boston is encouraging respondents to its Request for Proposals to think creatively about how site planning and building design can acknowledge the shared educational goals of these two institutions.”

Likewise, Cipolla said the library project “opens up possibilities, since we’re right next door to each other.”

“The idea is to be in collaboration with the city to develop our plans in parallel with theirs to fully complement each other, and to deliver the best outcome for everyone,” said Cipolla. “We’re looking forward to collaborating with the city, and there could be opportunities to consider new programs that could improve accessibility on our site. There are great strengths and possibilities in the two entities working together because then we can deliver the best results for the community.”

Historic New England will continue to work with MOH and the city as they redefine plans for the redevelopment of the West End Branch Library, said Cipolla, “to share our mutual objectives as we head into more formal design phases for both sites.”

​Cipolla said, “That will be taking place over the next year.”

Besides the proposed redevelopment of the West End Branch Library, Cipolla points to other major projects planned for the neighborhood, including the proposed redevelopment of the state’s Charles F. Hurley Building, as well as Mass General Hospital’s expansion of its Cambridge Street campus.

“The neighborhood is really changing,” said Cipolla, “and what’s incumbent on a civic organization like Historic New England is to do our part to look at our campus through the lens of how we can better serve the community, and by providing more community and visitor space on our campus that could be of great use and benefit to the community.”

As planning for the future of the Otis House complex gets underway, Historic New England is concurrently taking steps to ensure continued care for and access to its Library and Archives, which are temporarily closed in preparation of their move to a nearby interim space at 85 Merrimac St.

“We’re delighted to be relocating to a historic building so close to Otis House that offers modern amenities for our archives operation for the next three to five years as we plan for the Otis House campus transformation and the Historic New England Center for Preservation and Collections in Haverhill, Massachusetts,” said Team Leader for Collection Services Julie Solz in a press release. “We look forward to announcing the reopening of the Library and Archives this fall and, in the meantime, invite everyone to explore the large selection of our collections that is digitized and accessible through our Collections Access Portal.”

Moreover, Historic New England’s reimagining of the Otis House complex is happening in tandem with the organization’s transformation of its collections care campus in downtown Haverhill into the ‘Historic New England Center for Preservation and Collections.’

The Haverhill campus currently comprises the eight-story Lang Building, a former shoe manufactory constructed in the early 20th century, along with associated parking lots.

For more information  on Historic New England, visit historicnewengland.org.

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