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Landmarks Commission declines to raise status of Huntington YMCA

Posted by Sara Brown  May 11, 2011 12:33 PM

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The Boston Landmarks Commission voted Tuesday against upgrading the historical significance of the Huntington Avenue YMCA, paving the way for the construction of a dormitory where the building’s gym now stands.

The commission's vote came after residents filed a petition requesting a "Boston Landmark" designation for the nearly 100-year-old YMCA. Northeastern University plans to build a 17-story, $75 million dorm.

The city's redevelopment authority approved Northeastern's plans in April, though the Landmarks Commission invoked a 90-day demolition delay in March for the building, which was built in 1912 and is on the National Register of Historic Places as a local landmark,

The Huntington Avenue Y was built by the firm Shepley, Ruttan and Coolidge, and President William Howard Taft laid the cornerstone of the building in 1912. The first Boston YMCA--which was the first YMCA in the country--was built in 1851 on Washington Street, and the national register notes that the Boston YMCA played a role in establishing Northeastern University.

Petitioner Calvin Arey, a Symphony Road resident, asked the commission to upgrade the survey rating category from local to state or national significance, citing the Boston YMCA’s role in starting a physical fitness movement, Northeastern's establishment, and the organization's Boston history.

Neighborhood residents and YMCA members spoke about their love of the building and the Y's role in their lives, some noting that they attended a yoga class the previous night, and others saying they could imagine John Francis "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald himself, Boston's mayor in 1912, sitting in the lobby.

“This building is under attack right now,” said Andre M. Jones, a Jamaica Plain lawyer and Huntington Avenue YMCA member, citing “ideas emanating from this building that reverberated around the country.”

Barbara Simons, president of Symphony United Neighbors, said she is concerned about how the new 220,000 square-foot building will impact shade and wind in the neighborhood, arguing that the Y is an "important part of the fabric of the neighborhood.”

The Massachusetts Historical Commission voiced objections to the project, with concerns about how the project will effect nearby landmarks like the New England Conservatory of Music. The commission argued that the new construction would have an "adverse affect" on nearby historic areas, and the 17-story building will be out of scale in the neighborhood.

The commission, which has to approve the project for it to go forward, asked the university to submit alternate sites that could house the dorm, noting vacant areas on the Northeastern campus that could house the building.

However, Leslie Donovan, a historic preservation consultant speaking on behalf of the YMCA, noted the building is not the site of the first YMCA in Boston, or the country, and it is “not a rare example of a YMCA.”

Northeastern has said construction needs to start this summer for the dormitory to be completed by August 2013. The dorms are part of an effort to reduce the impact of off-campus student housing in the neighborhood.

In the end, commissioners voted 8-0 to deny the petition to upgrade the historic assessment above the current status, saying that though the decision was a close one, there was not historic evidence to back the petition.

The vote was "one of the handful of toughest decisions that this commission has had to take,” said commissioner Thomas Herman. The issue is not whether the YMCA is a national or international instituion, he said, but “whether this complex of buildings is a complex that does rise above the local leve.”

“On balance, and for me it’s a close balance, I don’t see this building’s signficance as rising above the local level.”

“Taft laid the cornerstone,” said Ellen J. Lipsey, the executive director. “But he laid many cornerstones.”

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