Belmont’s oldest church could soon be reduced to rubble, after being sold early this month to a developer who has received permission from the town to demolish it.
Developer Edward Hovsepian closed a deal to buy the former First Congregational Church on Trapelo Road in Waverly Square for $1.3 million on Jan. 7, according to John Veneziano, owner of Andrew Realty Services which handled the sale. Hovsepian was issued a demolition permit on Dec. 12.
On Thursday, a fence went up around the church, and there was construction equipment parked around it. A man who said he worked for Hovsepian said that employees were just removing things from inside the church. He said he had no information about its demolition.
Town officials say they would like to work with Hovsepian to prevent the church from being razed, but acknowledge there is nothing they can do to stop him.
“The church is in jeopardy, it’s very sad,” said Andy Rojas, who serves as the Board of Selectmen liaison to the Planning Board, which is working on a bylaw to provide incentives for preserving certain historical buildings.
That bylaw could be too late to affect the church, however. Board members have not finished writing it, said Rojas, and the measure would require approval at Town Meeting, which won’t be held until April 29.
Hovsepian did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Veneziano said that Hovsepian planned to build townhouses on the site, but no plans have been filed with the Community Development Department.
Planning Board Chair Sami Baghdady said that by right, three two-family homes may be built on the lot.
The Rev. Daniel Chungsoon Lee, who leads the congregation, declined to comment on the decision to sell the church. Its name was changed to “All Peoples United Church” three years ago, Lee said.
“We are still feeling very sad and brokenhearted because we lost our building,” he wrote in an email.
The church was built in 1870 in the gothic revival style, according to Historic District Commission Chair Michael Smith, and has been well preserved, with the original clapboards still in place. The first minister of the church was Josiah W. Turner, whose house still stands on Pleasant Street.
“Its loss will be devastating for that Waverly neighborhood,” said Smith, who said it is the town’s oldest church. “This is one of the most historic and architecturally important buildings in Belmont.”
Longtime Belmont residents say they will be sorry to see the church gone.
“People built these institutions to gather, to pray,” said Raffic Manjikian, a current Town Meeting member who grew up near the church. “They’re part of who we were. To go forward, it’s not so easy for me to think we could be so casual to just let that go.”
Manjikian said he only heard about the church’s possible demolition a few days ago, and wishes that the town government and residents had thought to act earlier.
“This seems to have been something that could have been prevented had we been more thoughtful,” he said. “To be honest with you, I’m in a react mode right now.”
The church is listed on the state inventory of historic assets, but that does not protect it from demolition, said Smith.
“We’re still hopeful that the developer will engage in meaningful discussions with the town, but so far, that hasn’t happened,” said Smith. “This offers another reason why the town of Belmont needs a demolition delay bylaw.”
In the summer of 2011, the proposed demolition of another historic Belmont building – the Thomas Clark House, which was built around 1760 – sparked controversy in town and inspired the historic district commission to write a demolition delay bylaw. The commission plans to put that bylaw, which is separate from the Planning Board’s measure, on the Town Meeting warrant for April.
The bylaw would allow the commission to temporarily halt the demolition of buildings deemed historic while the town searched for alternatives to razing. It would not apply to the church, because the demolition permit has already been granted, Smith said.
The developer who purchased the Thomas Clark House worked with the town to delay demolition and allow the home to be moved to another location.
That is a solution that Smith said could be considered for the church, though he noted that it would not be feasible to move the building very far,
“There’s plenty of room on that site for the church to remain where it is, and for other additions or buildings to be placed on the site,” he said. “We haven’t explored that with the developer, because so far, he has not expressed a willingness to work with us.”
Veneziano said that people should not be surprised that the church had been sold to a developer.
“People congregate to protect areas, but they won’t do it with dollars and cents,” he said. “The community could have easily gotten together and bought the property. It wasn’t like it was a secret sale… There was an opportunity for anybody to buy it to do what they wanted.”
Evan Allen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org