History may not be enough to save dilapidated house

By Taryn Plumb
Globe Correspondent / September 1, 2011

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The 1860 Greek Revival house stands seemingly abandoned on a suburban road - clapboards blanched gray, windows and doors blotted out by faded particle board, vines and shrubs gripping its sides, foliage peeking out from the slashes in its rotting roof.

Some people, including its owner and those who live in the surrounding homes in Rowley, view it as an unsalvageable blemish on the neighborhood.

Others see potential in its time-worn walls.

The result of the opposing opinions regarding the home at 34 Pleasant St. has been a months-long standoff between the owner and the town’s Historical Commission.

Peter Dalzell, working with Ken Murphy, owner of KN Builders in Rowley, has proposed razing the 150-year-old two-family home, which sits in the town’s center historic district, and rebuilding on the site. He submitted a demolition application in May, as required by the town’s historic district bylaw, and cannot proceed with his plans unless they are approved.

But the commission would like to see at least some of the historic home salvaged, and this summer proposed a compromise: a partial demolition that would retain the facade, two side walls, porches, and wood detailing, while allowing removal of the rear of the structure.

Dalzell has expressed dissatisfaction with this plan and the discussion has been stalled for several weeks, with the topic slated for discussion by the Historical Commission at its meeting tonight.

Sara Bourque, chairwoman of the board as well as the town’s Historic District Commission, said its proposal would allow Dalzell to start construction, address concerns that neighbors have about safety and rodents, and “most importantly, preserve an important piece of Rowley’s historic fabric.’’

But from Dalzell’s perspective, this bit of fabric is simply too tattered and torn.

“It’s just too far gone,’’ said the Rowley resident, who purchased the house in September 2009 for $105,000, according to land records. “The foundation, the roof - and everything in between - has problems. It’s been neglected for so long.’’

His list includes rodent problems; various safety hazards; and structural, electrical, and plumbing issues - essentially “every kind of issue,’’ Dalzell said, as well as “holes in the roof that you could drive a car through.’’

Given all this, it’s not feasible to restore the roughly 2,600-square-foot structure, he said, with the costs of labor, construction, and materials higher than that of building a brand-new house.

As a result, he has proposed replacing the structure with a single-family home of roughly 1,800 square feet, with a higher foundation and set back farther from the street than the current house, according to minutes from a Zoning Board of Appeals hearing. The plan was approved by the zoning board in June, and, Dalzell said, “the neighborhood was behind it.’’

But this isn’t the first time the house has been under scrutiny. In 2008, when it was owned by members of the Savage family, neighbors were concerned about safety issues, rodents, and termites, and petitioned the town to do something about it; selectmen at the time even discussed having the town tear it down.

Meanwhile, it has been condemned twice - once in 1977 for health code violations, according to Bourque, and again in 1995.

A report commissioned by the town’s historical board acknowledges the structure’s problems, particularly noting roof holes that have deteriorated the right front corner post, and damaged the floor and ceiling directly beneath it.

Yet that same report, completed by architect Mathew Cummings of Cummings Architects in Ipswich, also notes significant promise. Written after a July 28 site visit, the review was just of the exterior, as Cummings wasn’t allowed to venture inside, per order of Dalzell, the building inspector, and the fire chief.

As Cummings noted, when a home is deteriorated beyond repair, typically its roof ridge is drastically sagging, and there is also sill rot, resulting in exterior walls leaning or curving out. But none of this is evident, Cummings wrote in his report, stating “the roof ridge is amazingly straight.’’

His inspection found that “the home for the most part is in very good condition for reuse,’’ Cummings wrote, adding that the damaged floors and ceilings can be repaired. He also noted nearly intact original detailing on the front entry, and a side porch with all its moldings.

The commission has also noted the property’s historic legacy, dating to the 1600s. A house was built at the site in the mid-17th century, and a century later was frequently visited by John Adams when it was owned by Captain George Jewett, according to a history of the town written by Joseph N. Dummer. In 1860, it was torn down and rebuilt by Nathan Todd, according to Dummer’s research.

“Every house has a story, and so does this one,’’ said Bourque.

And it is particularly significant in its context, Cummings stated in his report. With two chimneys and more than 20 windows, it is the only two-family, Greek Revival-style structure in the historic district.

“Without the scale and detailing of this home along Pleasant Street, a void in its architectural streetscape would occur,’’ he wrote, potentially turning “this wonderful street into another ordinary road.’’

In any case, neither Dalzell nor town officials want to see it continue to sit deserted.

“It’s going to fall down or get torn down,’’ Dalzell predicted. “It’s coming down one way or another.’’

But citing the Historical Commission’s view, Bourque noted, “We’re hoping this conversation can continue.’’