“A Time to Act” – St. Joseph’s Church, Salem, MA

| Friday, March 30th, 2012 | 1 Comment »

Darrow Lebovici’s, President of Historic Salem, Inc. op/ed submission regarding the pending demolition of St. Joseph’s Church in Salem, MA:

March 23, 2012 – Op/Ed Submission

A Time to Act

Close to 20 million dollars of state and federal funds will be used to demolish a rare example of the International style of architecture located on a National Register eligible site in Salem, Massachusetts. The Planning Office of Urban Affairs (POUA)—an affiliate of the Archdiocese of Boston—intends to raze St. Joseph’s Church, the Point Neighborhood’s most commanding structure. In its place, POUA will build an affordable housing project of unremarkable design that pales in comparison to the structures that have distinguished this site for more than 125 years. Salem will be summarily stripped of an irreplaceable emblem of the city’s varied architectural, social, and cultural histories.

Federal funding will be used to impact a national historic resource; therefore Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act was initiated. Enacted in 1966 to interrupt the rampant destruction of historic properties during urban renewal, this law exists to balance the interests of preservation with those of federally funded development. Section 106 provided an official opportunity for the nonprofit preservationist organization, Historic Salem Inc. (HSI), to question if POUA had fully considered alternatives to demolition, a statutory requirement of the review process. During the review, it became clear to HSI that plans for reuse were never even brought forward by the developer until HSI presented their own design scheme; the HSI scheme proves that adaptive reuse is both feasible and practical. St. Joseph’s Church can be rehabilitated to provide affordable housing units at a cost that is comparable to that of POUA’s new construction plan. The HSI scheme provides for the same number of apartments as the POUA plan and the units are larger. The design developed by HSI is but one possible alternative to demolition. Certainly there could be others.

Historic Salem, Inc. believes that a preconceived outcome prevailed and that the intent of the law was neither respected nor fulfilled, in spite of participation by the Massachusetts Historical Commission and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, the state and federal agencies charged with oversight of the 106 process. Offers to meet and work out differences of opinion regarding cost feasibility were dismissed as too late in the process. Expediency does not grant license to demolish historically eligible structures. Without a commitment from the developer or the city administration to recognize the importance of this historic site or to value adaptive reuse, HSI’s efforts have failed. Short of litigation, or a seismic shift on the part of the proponents, St. Joseph’s Church will be demolished in the weeks ahead.

It is wrong that a publicly funded project would allow for the easy dispatch of such an important structure. It is wrong that despite the Planning Office’s frequent claims that it will save two adjacent 19th-century buildings on the site—a rectory and a school building—as mitigation for destroying the church; they offer only a “best efforts” commitment in writing. It is wrong that the Archdiocese of Boston, the Planning Office of Urban Affairs, and their financial partners—the Department of Housing and Community Development and Bank of America—have not seized the opportunity before them to be good citizens. With this one project, they could support historic preservation, sustainable development, and the economic advancement of a city that depends on cultural tourism for its vitality. Demolishing this is building is wrong for so many reasons.

Historic Salem, Inc. has been advocating for the preservation of the St. Joseph’s Church campus since the church closed in 2004. Generations of French-Canadian immigrants arrived in Salem to find comfort and community here. They strengthened the Catholic Church and supported the national economy, providing a workforce for industrialization. More recently, the parish was central to Salem’s Hispanic community. St Joseph’s eligibility for the National Register is indisputable—it has been deemed worthy of inclusion in the national program that identifies, evaluates, and protects America’s historic resources. Destroying St. Joseph’s will diminish the character and distinction of the city and it is that very character and distinction that makes Salem special.

Forty-two years ago, Salem’s unique historic character was threatened by an equally shortsighted development plan. Much of the city’s downtown was to be demolished to make way for a circumferential highway. Enlightened city leaders stepped in at the 11th hour. They prevented the demolition from happening. Salem is threatened again. Demolishing St. Joseph’s is wrong.

Respectfully submitted by

Darrow A. Lebovici
President, Historic Salem, Inc.

One Comment

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