The Newton City Council approved the funding for the proposed new senior center at 345 Walnut St. last month. A lone councilor voted against the proposal, just as only two members of the Newton Historical Commission (NHC) voted to nominate the building as a landmark. Total demolition was the right move, but its opponents’ concerns are valid.
As custodians of their past, Newtonians must remain cautious in their future deliberations.
Buildings exist to serve the living, and historical preservation is no exception. Historical buildings strengthen a group’s collective presence through their collective past. Their presence reminds Newtonians of the simple fact that they are Newtonians.
Daily exposure can make one take these buildings for granted, but they are integral to one’s identity. I am not a Newtonian—I am a Chinese international student, and for five years my Instagram profile picture was a pagoda in my hometown. Not a cool practice for my age—I know—but it was an expat’s ersatz for home.
Thus, because of the emotional weight historical buildings carry, Newton must be careful in deciding on which to demolish. Once demolished, the building is gone forever. The locals’ outrage against the reckless demolition of a historical home on Greenwood Street is fully justified.
But the demolition of 345 Walnut St. is different—it is an unpleasant necessity. The building’s historical facade is incompatible with the accessibility that seniors need. As NHC member Doug Cornelius put it, the Americans with Disabilities Act is not a matter of architectural taste—it is a matter of civil rights.
Ultimately, buildings exist to serve the living. As such, the old senior center building is not historical—the seniors are, as they said themselves. Senior centers serve seniors, but the existing one does not fulfill that purpose. Of the more than 200 sites surveyed by the Newton Center for Active Living team, 345 Walnut St. is the only site that can host a new senior center that does.
Again, buildings exist to serve the living, so it must be demolished for the greater good.
The demolition of 345 Walnut Street is a victory for Newton’s seniors and civil rights, but it’s come at a price. The stained-glass panels on the building—inspired and christened by American poet Robert Frost—will not be the same even if they were skillfully extracted and preserved.
As Newton moves forward, new needs may arise, and Newtonians must remain prudent, lest they unnecessarily lose a part of themselves.
Featured Image by Victor Stefanescu / Heights Editor