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Collaboration to Document & Preserve a Onetime Black Neighborhood in Winchester - Guest Author

Updated: Oct 27, 2020

Boards working together:

Collaborating to document and preserve a house in a onetime Black neighborhood

Maureen Meister

September 20, 2020

When the town planner reported that a local developer was interested in demolishing a Queen Anne duplex to replace it with a couple of condos, members of the Winchester Planning Board discussed it at their next meeting. As architecture, the building isn’t distinguished. It’s two-and-a-half stories tall, with porches running across the first and second floors, and a gabled end facing the street. Mainly sheathed in clapboard, it has one special flourish: shingles stepped in a saw-tooth pattern that enhance the front gable and a side gable.

But architecture didn’t come up. Instead, the concern voiced by members of the Planning Board was that the house appeared to be historically significant. It’s located in the heart of a onetime neighborhood of Black homeowners and renters who lived in Winchester through the early decades of the twentieth century. What was the history of this particular house, located at 88 Harvard Street? Would the developer consider alternatives to demolishing it? In June the Planning Board invited him to meet with them while they also contacted the Winchester Historical Commission and the Winchester Historical Society.

Historical Commission member John Clemson quickly researched the history of the house and its occupants. He learned that the dwelling was built between 1894 and 1897 as part of the broader development of the neighborhood. In 1906 the house was bought by Hattie G. Adams, the wife of Matthew W. Adams, when the couple moved from Cambridge. Matthew was Black, a native of Lynchburg, Virginia. Hattie was white and an immigrant from Scotland. At the time of their settling in Winchester, they had three children, all identified as “B,” or Black, in the 1910 census. Matthew worked as a porter for the Pullman Company, and his wife worked as a washerwoman. Tenants at the Adams house were identified in the same census, and it showed that they were Black, too: Thomas Hooper, a native of Virginia and a teamster, his wife, and their three children. In 1910 Matthew Adams died, but his family maintained ownership of the house until 1927.

Quite a bit of research and documentation of the neighborhood had been done over the years, which helped round out the picture. As a volunteer with the Historical Society and the town’s archival center, Nancy Schrock located scans of relevant photographs and newspaper articles and sent them to the town boards. As far back as the 1970s, Black residents had been interviewed and featured in the Winchester newspapers. By coincidence, in the past year, Claire Dempsey, a preservation planner, has been working as a consultant to the Historical Commission preparing an Area Inventory form for the neighborhood as part of a larger survey project.

Harvard Street with Bessie & Gertrude Jones

(Winchester Archival Center, Jones Family Photograph Collection)

The timing was coincidental in another respect. In early June, preservation organizations across the country were issuing statements of solidarity with Black Americans, recognizing racism in its many forms and expressing support for Black Lives Matter. Pledges have come from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and groups such as the California Preservation Foundation and Preservation Massachusetts. In their statements, they have declared their commitment to taking an inclusive approach to the places we study and celebrate.

At a Planning Board meeting in early July, the developer spoke first, describing the two condos he proposed to build. Participants attending the meeting, held remotely due to Covid-19, then heard about the historical significance of the duplex. The public also heard from a Black resident who still lives in the neighborhood.

Photos of the Harvard Street neighborhood.

(Winchester Archival Center, Jones Family Photograph Collection).

Attention turned next to Winchester’s local bylaws. The town has a demolition delay bylaw, which can prevent demolition for as long as a year. But also relevant was that fact that in this case, the zoning bylaws could come into play. The duplex is located on a lot that does not meet the minimum size requirement for a two-unit building under the local zoning. The historic building is “grandfathered,” meaning it can be rehabilitated by right. But new construction would require further review, and before a permit could be granted, the Planning Board, Historical Commission, and Design Review Committee would weigh in. In the language of the zoning bylaw, the boards must evaluate “impacts on Historic Resources.” Before the meeting closed, the boards promised the developer they would support him in the permitting process if he were to work with the historic building, perhaps expanding it, to create the two condos he wants to sell.

After the meeting, a representative of the Historical Commission and the town planner visited the site. Seeing it opened up another option. When examining the house in the context of the entire street, they felt that a better outcome would be for the duplex to be rehabilitated as condos and to allow the developer to add a small house on the side yard. But again, the dimensional requirements to build in that space would be an obstacle.

To address such situations, many towns have enacted “Flexible Zoning” bylaws. With a bylaw of this type, a special permit can be granted to waive lot requirements in exchange for a preservation agreement. This type of bylaw struck the Planning Board as a desirable preservation tool. As a result, the board has drafted language for a flexible zoning bylaw that will be presented at Town Meeting in November. The outcome isn’t certain. Even so, the interest in preserving buildings associated with Winchester’s onetime Black community has been heightened.

Recent work on other properties on Harvard Street. Left to right: 42 Harvard Street and 32 Harvard Street before and after restoration. (Photos by David Feigenbaum)

Maureen Meister, Ph.D., is an architectural historian whose books have focused on topics that relate to Boston and New England. She is a member of the Winchester Planning Board.


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