Metro, Newton

Newly Renovated Allen House Welcomes Art and Performers

After over eight years of renovations, the Nathaniel T. Allen House, located at 35 Webster St. in West Newton, has finished its transformation into a multi-purpose space now known as the Nathaniel Allen Center for Arts and Culture. 

Since purchasing the Greek Revival style building in 2012, the Newton Cultural Alliance (NCA) has worked to renovate the home into a multi-purpose space, according to Adrienne Hartzell Knudsen, an NCA member. 

The Allen Center will host theatre performances in a black box theater in the Allen House barn, as well as concerts and art exhibits, according to the NCA website. Musicians will perform in the house and the barn, and art will be displayed in the parlor, barn, and outdoor spaces on the property.

This center held its first performance this weekend by the Newton Symphony Orchestra, Hartzell Knudsen said. The event observed social distancing guidelines and welcomed 14 guests, who were family members of the performers. Hartzell Knudsen said this was a “test run” for how the space will be used moving forward. 

The house, which was finished being built in 1852, was formerly owned by Nathaniel Allen and functioned as a school that was founded by Allen and later operated by his daughters. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978 and is a Newton landmark, according to the NCA website. 

“Nathaniel Allen was a progressive educator, arguably the way that Massachusetts has come from the spirit of leaders like himself,” Hartzell Knudsen said. “So, to continue this legacy of doing progressive, cutting edge things with the restoration and promoting diversity.”

With three floors, the first floor operates similar to a museum, with various facts about Allen’s life and the building hanging around the historic home. This floor also includes a 4,000 square foot renovated barn, which will function as a rehearsal and performance space. 

Four different organizations have offices on the second floor, along with Allen’s famous bowling alley and restored science classroom. The basement contains a green room for performers, a catering kitchen, and a newly renovated space for a small art gallery. 

“The purpose for the organization was to have some office space, meeting or small rehearsal space, and then ideally to have some performance space,” Hartzell Knudsen said. “Lots of spaces don’t have that type of variety.” 

The renovations, which finished in December 2020, amounted to $8 million. The Newton Community Preservation Program, the Massachusetts Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credit, the Massachusetts Cultural Facilities Fund, and private contributors provided grants for the renovations, according to the NCA website. 

“When we started digging, a lot of things crumbled and everything was just not well put together but you couldn’t tell in advance until you exposed it,” Hartzell Knudsen said. “That part of the restoration process was far more difficult and both time- and money-consuming than we expected.”

The Junior League of Boston’s Designer Show House was held at the Nathaniel Allen House in 2016, where designers donated their services and materials to decorate the interior and show their work to the public. 

“The Junior League of Boston, which is a woman’s philanthropic organization, hosted a fundraiser program whereby they would find an interesting property and designers would bid on who would take which room,” Hartzell Knudsen said. 

Choosing which parts of the building to preserve or restore depended on what elements could function properly by 21st century standards since the building needed to pass inspection, Hartzell Knudsen said. 

“It was a very prolonged process and the preservation is a hybrid of both full preservation and adaptive reuse,” Hartzell Knudsen said. “We preserved a historic classroom where there is actually a school for girls in the 1940s but the rest of the barn space was turned into a small performance space.”

Various designers from across the Boston area combined their style with the history of the 7,000 square foot homestead to renovate the rooms. The modern kitchen on the first floor is influenced by French bistro design, and the contrast of the silk wallpaper and original paint of the dining room exemplifies the hybrid restoration process and adaptive reuse. 

After recently receiving public attention, Hartzell Knudsen said she is worried about the response of the Newton community to use the home for performing art, given its neighborhood location. 

“We are an arts organization and a lot of arts are all about music or sound or speaking,” Hartzell Knudsen said. “So I think we have to be respectful and possibly use time or volume constraints.”

The NCA plans to host a public meeting to educate the community about how the space will be used, after being out of use for so many years, Hartzell Knudsen said. 

Preservation Massachusetts awarded Hartzell Knudsen and the NCA the Paul and Niki Tsongas Preservation Award for their work on restoring the house, according to a statement from Mayor Ruthanne Fuller. The house is currently in the running for the 2021 People’s Preservation Choice Award.

“We felt very fortunate to get that and then be nominated,” Hartzell Knudsen said. “It’s a good way for people to notice since it was decaying for so many years and hasn’t really had activity.”

Featured Image by Olivia Vukelic / Heights Staff

May 3, 2021