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Milton's historic Swift Hat Shop could be on the move

Posted by Jessica Bartlett  January 24, 2014 03:26 PM

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Mike Roberts of Milton has been debating what to do with the historic Swift Hat Shop since he purchased it in 1996.

At first, he wanted to transform the small, historic red building into an office for his software development business, but discovered it would be too costly. Plans materialized to demolish the building, yet historical advocates were up in arms.

Though preliminary, the hopes now are to move the structure from its perch on the corner of Wharf Street and Adams Street to town-owned parkland, and rehab it for another use.

“The people who want to keep it think it’s important to the town, to the community, and I agree with that,” Roberts said in a phone interview.

According to Historic Commission Chairman Stephen O’Donnell, the history of the quaint red structure stretches back to 1790.

Prominent Miltonian Jonathan Swift had opened a beaver hat shop in the bustling commercial corridor known as Lower Mills. Nestled among ship manufacturers, gunpowder mills, even chocolate mills, the hat company prospered until approximately 1820.

While little is known about the following decades, the building because a doctor’s office in the late 19th century, O’Donnell said.

Retail uses and employment agencies occupied the building in subsequent years, until the building was put up for sale in the early 1990s.

Roberts said he closely watched the sale process, but abandoned ideas of owning the building when Carney Hospital purchased it. But the dream resurfaced a few years later, when Carney put the building up for sale.

Roberts purchased the building at auction. Yet hopes to transform the structure were dashed by an architect who told Roberts it would be better to tear it down.

Moreover, the site was too small to rebuild on, Roberts said, so he purchased the adjoining property. Even with a larger swath of land, building plans were hampered by demolition delays imposed by the town.

“I used to think patience was holding my tongue for five minutes…it turns out that patience is about waiting and letting things unfold and recognizing that you don’t have full control over anything,” Roberts said.

Roberts said he has since moved in to the big, white house behind the red building. While he still has hopes to reuse the land on his property for another building, he decided he would help preserve the red structure.

O'Donnell said it's a way to engender good favor for whatever building proposal Roberts eventually brings to the town. Roberts agreed that it's about good will.

“If I can get my project approved, I can afford out of the proceeds to move the hat shop down the hill, can tighten it to the weather, and the people who want to save the building can raise the money to save it,” he said.

The Historic Commission would prefer to see the building remain where it is, O'Donnell said. The structure is likely the oldest wood-frame commercial building still in its original location, he said.

Yet preserving it up the street is a nice alternative.

“From the historic perspective, we consider it very positive,” he said. “It was a totally new proposal. Previously he said, 'I’ll help you save this building in any way I can, but I won’t spend a dollar.'…by December he came up with a proposal to fund the moving.”

Plans are far from finalized. Ideas have just begun to circulate among the Historical Commission and town officials. At a January Park Commission meeting, the idea was populated more formally.

“There will be a lot more meetings and discussions. [We’ll be] going to see the building before anything can be done,” said Kevin Chrisom, chairman of the Park Commission.

The commission will discuss the proposal again at its meeting on Feb. 26.

In the interim, commissioners are consulting legal counsel to ascertain the process of procuring the building. From there, a new use will have to be determined and funding for the rehabilitation sorted out.

As Milton doesn’t have Community Preservation Funds, money will have to be raised privately, O’Donnell said.

“There is support within the town to save the building … but it has to be structured that the town won’t incur financial obligation,” O’Donnell said.

Though Roberts said rehabbing the building wasn’t feasible on his own land, he believes it can be done elsewhere.

“The cost of the renovation is less because we have a ‘free’ site – no land lost and no lost opportunity,” he said. “In addition under this proposal, I will contribute by moving the building to a brand new foundation that I will pay for. The cost of renovating [then] becomes feasible.”

The process will still allow Robert's land to be profitable, he said.

Development plans may be far off, but Roberts said he’s willing to see the relocation process through, even if it takes several more years.

“Anything that’s good is worth waiting for,” he said.

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