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Cases made for and against designating Dorchester home a landmark

Posted by Patrick Rosso  August 15, 2013 01:29 PM

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(Image courtesy the Boston Landmarks Commission)

The current condition of the home and adjacent stable.

The owners of a dilapidated Savin Hill home and a host of local politicians are strongly opposing the designation of the property as an historic landmark.

If designated, any future changes to the property and the structures would have to be reviewed by the Boston Landmarks Commission, which held a meeting Tuesday to hear arguments about the building and the land.

Located at 24 Grampian Way in Dorchester, the single-family home and adjacent stable, dubbed the Kehew-Wright House, was constructed in 1871 by William P. Hunt, a wealthy industrialist, according to a report commissioned by the BLC. It has had five owners in its 142-year history including John Kehew, a maker of nautical instruments and oil merchant, and the family of George Wright, an early baseball celebrity, businessman, and the namesake of the George Wright Golf Course in Hyde Park.

It was last occupied in 2012, according to the Landmarks Commission, but has since fallen into disrepair and has become uninhabitable, even being cited by city’s Inspectional Services Department.

The report commissioned by the BLC recommended that the property be designated a landmark because it meets the criteria put forth in the Landmark Designation legislation. The report cited its location in the Savin Hill Historic District, its prominent associations with the history of the city, and its significant association with the lives of outstanding historic figures.

The report also noted the three-quarter acre size of the lot, unique for the city, and the property’s architectural qualities, especially as an example of, “the late 19th century suburban development of Savin Hill.”

The property is worth an estimated $395,190, with the land valued at $278,190 and the building valued at $117,000, according to the city’s Assessing Department and the BLC report.

Howard Speicher, who represented the Tomasini family, the fifth and longest owner of the property, made the case Tuesday that the house did not meet the criteria for landmark designation. He also said the property has been changed substantially since it was first constructed and that imposing such a designation would place a financial hardship on the family.

Speicher and members of the Tomasini family, which bought the property in 1951, also called into question the facts laid out in the BLC's report and the historical significance of George Wright, who they said perpetuated racism in sports and lent his image to tobacco marketing.

“George Wright was certainly not just an ordinary person, he was a person of some significance, but he was not at the time he lived in this building significant for the reasons that seem to be the reasons for designation,” said Speicher.

Wright is believed to have inhabited the house from 1887 to 1937.

“I think it’s fair to point out that the time for which he is associated as an executive in baseball is a time...for which baseball is noted mainly for its gentleman’s agreement instituted in 1897, when he was a baseball executive, to keep African-Americans and other non-whites out of baseball,” said Speicher. “I don’t think that is something we need to be celebrating.”

A number of elected officials and their staff also came to the defense of the Tomasinis including the offices of Congressman Stephen Lynch, at-Large City Councilor Stephen Murphy, at-Large City Councilor Ayanna Pressley, Allston-Brighton City Councilor Mark Ciommo, South Boston City Councilor Bill Lineahan, and Jamaica Plain-West Roxbury City Councilor Matt O’Malley.

Dorchester City Councilor Frank Baker also testified before Commission and said designating the property a landmark isn’t practical.

“Looking at the building every day I would like to see the building restored to its former glory, but I don’ think that is feasible,” said Baker, who lives five houses down from the property. “I think we run the risk if we designate this historical…of it possibly being in the state it is for another 30 years. I don’t think that serves the neighborhood and obviously the family loses out.”

“I think we also have to take into account the finances of the family. I think you handcuff them financial if you do designate this historical,” Baker added.

Although a number of elected officials and some residents turned out to oppose the designation, a handful of residents and conservationists voiced their support for the designation.

“We feel the property fits the criteria [for designation],” explained Early Taylor, president of the Dorchester Historical Society, who added that the house is on the society’s “Most Endangered List.”

“The alliance supports the findings of the staff of the Landmarks Commission,” said Greg Galer, executive director of the Boston Preservation Alliance. “The debate about the social history associated with this building is what makes American history so fascinating and I don’t think any of us would want to white wash history. There were bad people and they made decisions that we disagree with today, but if we remove those parts of the story we don’t have a very interesting story about our past or opportunities to learn.”

Members of the BLC were largely silent during the hearing, asking a few procedural questions and discussing the importance of the property.

“Preservation doesn’t equal celebration,” explained Susan Goganian, a member of the Commission. “The fact George Wright engaged in some despicable behavior is not a negative in terms of designation.”

After the hearing, Speicher declined to comment further on the condition of the property.

The BLC is expected to review testimony and will vote on the matter at a public hearing, which will be set for a later date.

Those who would like to submit comments for or against the designation can find more information here.

Comments must be submitted by August 30.

Email Patrick D. Rosso, Follow him @PDRosso, or friend him on Facebook.

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