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Architecture

History that deserves to be preserved

Easton site makes Most Endangered list

An etching, circa 1881, of the Ames Shovel Shops and surrounding area in North Easton. An etching, circa 1881, of the Ames Shovel Shops and surrounding area in North Easton. (Courtesy of The Easton Historical Society)
By Robert Campbell
Globe Correspondent / May 3, 2009
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It's great to preserve the historic past of architecture, but not if you freeze it against ever changing. Freezing is a kind of death. Architecture, hopefully, should be alive and responsive to change.

That's what's so encouraging about the announcement last week that the Ames Shovel Shops in North Easton have made the annual list of the 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in the United States. This is a case where the preservation community rightly wants to adapt a historic resource to a changing world.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation puts out the Most Endangered list annually. It can make or break a historic property. The 2007 list included the home of the great Victorian architect H.H. Richardson in Brookline, which was then close to demolition after years of failing to attract a purchaser. A guy in Washington spotted the list, bought the house and plans to restore it.

The Ames Shovel Shops are a village-like cluster of 15 intact granite and wood industrial structures, some dating to 1852. They're a powerful element in the character of Easton. The history is amazing. At their peak, in the late 19th century, these few buildings in this small Massachusetts town were manufacturing 60 percent of the world's shovels. Ames shovels helped fight the Civil War and build the nation's railroads.

I wrote about the Shovel Shops in this space last November. Nothing much has changed. A developer who owns the complex wants to tear down some of the buildings and add upper stories to others, converting the complex into housing and office space, including affordable units. The plan is opposed by a group called the Friends of the Historic Ames Shovel Shops, by the Easton Historical Commission, and by the town's Board of Selectmen.

Nobody, though, is against turning the Shops into housing. There's an understanding that change happens. Nobody wants to freeze the buildings and create a theme park of Victorian industrial life, in the way Colonial life is enacted in show-biz sites like Williamsburg in Virginia or Plimoth Plantation here in Massachusetts.

Cambridge lawyer Jay Wickersham is legal counsel for the Friends group. "We've hired our own architects and other consultants to show you can still make the conversion to housing without destroying the character of the place," he says. "We're not opposed to selective demolition. But we want to see all the stone buildings restored.

Wickersham says the developer has offered no substantive changes to the initial plan and has never been willing to meet with those fighting it.

"We want to show that historic preservation and community development can go side by side," he says.

The conflict is currently working its way through the local zoning board, which is expected to render a judgment late this month. State approval, by environmental and historical agencies, will also eventually be needed.

I hope the Friends get their way. The world only becomes richer and more fascinating as change layers up over time, as new wine fills old architectural bottles. You don't want to demolish too many of the bottles. In a good development, the past and the present seem to comment on each other.

This year's 11 Most Endangered list includes a couple of other interesting items. One is the Memorial Bridge across the Piscataqua River from Portsmouth, N.H., to Kittery, Maine. It was dedicated in 1923 in honor of the servicemen of World War I. Like Boston's Congress Street Bridge across Fort Point Channel, it's a fascinatingly complicated erector set of steel. And in a world that's trying to wean itself from the automobile, it's the only pedestrian and cycling link between two historic towns.

A more surprising entry is the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles, a modern structure of 1966 by architect Minoru Yamasaki, the designer of the twin towers of the World Trade Center. After spending $36 million on a renovation only a year ago, the owner wants to demolish the hotel and replace it with two taller "environmentally sensitive" towers.

I'm puzzled enough by this one to phone Richard Moe, who for 17 years has been president of the National Trust. Moe scoffs at the claim the new buildings will be greener.

"We've calculated that there's the embodied energy of 7 million gallons of gasoline in the older building," Moe says. "That's how much energy it took to construct it. If you demolish it you're throwing away all that energy, and then you're using more energy for the demolition and the new construction."

The shocker among this year's Most Endangered, though, is Unity Temple outside Chicago. This Unitarian-Universalist church, an early masterpiece by Frank Lloyd Wright, is one of the greatest of all American buildings. It was experimental at the time, because it was built of solid concrete.

Alas, concrete as an exterior finish material doesn't last well in places like Chicago, where there are many freeze-thaw cycles each year. Eventually water seeps into cracks in the concrete, then freezes and expands the cracks. When the water penetrates to the steel reinforcing bars, they rust and expand, further cracking the concrete.

It's a familiar problem in Boston, where notable concrete buildings like the Carpenter Center at Harvard and Boston City Hall require frequent repair and patching. Unity Temple now needs millions merely to survive, and the congregation can't raise it. This one should be a national priority.

Globe architecture critic Robert Campbell can be reached at camglobe@aol.com.