The Newton Historical Commission (NHC) voted to not nominate the existing Newton Senior Center building as a landmark, removing an obstacle against its demolition for a brand new Newton Center for Active Living (NewCAL) building.
NHC’s decision means that the NewCAL project will not face any delay or relocation caused by the landmarking process. NewCAL’s groundbreaking will occur in approximately 16 months, and the construction will take about two years, according to Public Buildings Commissioner Josh Morse’s statement at a previous community update meeting.
Since the selection of the site, located at 345 Walnut Street, people from all over Newton and the nation have sent more than 1,900 emails and letters voicing their opinion—ranging from full preservation to total demolition—on the site selection, according to Peter Dimond, NHC chair.
Formerly the Newtonville Branch Library, the building opened in 1938. Robert Frost read his poem “Mending Wall” at the dedication ceremony, according to Tarik Lucas, councilor-at-large for Ward 2.
Lucas and Ward 3 City Councilor Julia Malakie co-nominated the site as a landmark.
“When I undertook this effort, I knew just the basics about the history and the sights,” Lucas said. “But over the past few months, I have learned a great deal about the building and its history.”
Lucas emphasized the building’s historical architecture in his presentation. Lucas gave special attention in his presentation to the stained glass panels designed by Newtonville artist Charles J. Connick. One of these panels depicted “Mending Wall,” the poem that Frost read at the dedication ceremony.
“We have a world-famous poet, a world-famous artist, and a nationally known architect all coming together to create a building in one of our village centers,” Lucas said. “And this happened during the Great Depression. Can we think of another example of this in Newton? How about Massachusetts?”
Malakie emphasized the importance of the open area at the existing center. While it is not an official park falling under the Parks and Recreation Commission (PRC), Malakie said, it functions as one, and the city has invested in it accordingly.
Malakie said the pocket park at the senior center has served Newton residents young and old.
“The park at the senior center has succeeded in its goal of providing a convenient, accessible place for rest, socializing, or passive recreation for people of all ages,” Malakie said. “Notably, it continues to be the only public green space in Newtonville village center.”
The NewCAL team began its site selection process in 2019, taking nearly 200 prospective sites into consideration before settling upon the current site, according to Morse.
Morse said that after the site selection, the team presented plans involving either addition, renovation, or new construction. Morse said that the plan for new construction received overwhelming support from multiple municipal bodies of authority, including the Newton City Council.
Bargmann Hendrie + Archetype, Inc. serves as the architectural firm on the NewCAL project. Dan Chen, a principal at the firm, said that the building’s original designs as a library made it unfit for a senior center. Repurposing the building would require herculean efforts yet yield results that fall short of those a brand-new building could offer, Chen said.
Representatives from Epsilon Associates, which provides historical preservation consultation for the project, said that the architectural merits of the existing structure are insufficient compared to other similar Colonial Revival buildings to warrant a landmark designation.
Morse, however, said that the NewCAL team is willing to further work with the NHC to preserve or relocate specific historical assets within the building, such as Connick’s stained glass panels.
“[Demolition] does not mean that the Newton Historical Commission cannot work to preserve the parts that are often more historically valuable than the structure itself,” Morse said.
Morse also said that nominating the building as a landmark would cause up to six months of delay to the NewCAL project due to the further studying and public hearings required. The delay could have cost around $250,000, according to Morse.
“If you believe that we have proven that this building does not meet the bar to be designated as a landmark,” Morse said. “Then I believe it is responsible to consider the financial implications that are tied to the nomination vote and subsequent project delays.”
Dimond, who supported the landmark nomination, said that it is unfair for Morse to leverage the NHC using the costs of delay.
“I think it’s grossly unfair,” Dimond said. “Josh—as tenacious as he is, and I applaud him for that—made it saying, ‘Well, if you do another study, that’s going to cost us a half a million dollars.’ It’s totally an unfair way to present to the Historical Commission.”
NHC Member Amanda Park said that the NHC should examine the building based on its historical value, as it is not the NHC’s job to make political or utilitarian considerations.
“I feel like what we are tasked with is to assess the historical value and to say, well, we don’t want to see this building adaptively reused because it’s too inconvenient or because we’ve had these meetings,” Park said. “That’s just a different issue. And I think we need to keep it very black or white.”
NHC Member Doug Cornelius said that historical preservation, while important, must yield to the greater good. He said that accessibility for the disabled is both a civil right and a legal requirement and urged other commission members to join him against landmarking the building.
“I can’t think of a building more important to have full universal accessibility than the senior center,” Cornelius said. “I don’t think the Historic Commission should be usurping the hundreds of meetings and thousands of hours of time the city’s put into planning, designing, and programming the senior center.”
Fellow NHC members John Rice, Harvey Schorr, and Mike Armstrong joined Cornelius’ voice. Rice said that building a new center allows the city to use the land to its fullest potential. Schorr and Armstrong agreed with Epsilon’s assessment that compared to other Colonial Revival architectures, the senior center was not representative enough to merit landmark designation.
The NHC defeated the motion to nominate the building for further landmark study by a vote of 2–5. NHC Member Katie Kubie was not present at the meeting to vote.
The next community update meeting on the NewCAL project will be on April 21, according to the project’s website.
Featured Image by Victor Stefanescu/ Heights Editor
Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons