[NOTE: The Story was Updated Aug. 10 at 9:40 a.m.]
Save the historic Orchard House – that was the feeling shared by dozens of residents at Thursday night’s Historical Commission meeting who want to make sure part of Watertown’s history is not lost.
The Historical Commission voted to put a six-month demolition delay on the historic Greek Revival building at 917 Belmont Street, and asked the owners to work with the community to save the structure.
The house sits on land now owned by , a school for students with educational and emotional challenges. and leave it as green space, said Steve Tannenbaum, vice president of the Board of Directors of The Walker School, of which the Beacon School is part.
Since the school moved onto the land at 917 Belmont Street in 2006, Tannenbaum said, officials have looked at ways to build a gym and save the front part of the building, which dates to the 1830s.
“We were unsuccessful in raising the money (for the project),” Tannenbaum said. “We are unlikely to be able to raise the money to meet the needs of the students and preserve the building.”
The school has received waivers from the state to not have a gymnasium, but Tannenbaum said the students still need a place for physical education classes. The school may use trailers for gym and art classes, Tannenbaum said.
The building has not been used since prior to 2006, when the property was used by the Home for Little Wanderers. Some basic heating and upkeep has been provided, Tannenbaum said. Last year a pipe burst and cause some minor damage to a plaster ceiling in the building, he added.
The cost estimate for saving the building is $400,000, Tannenbaum said, but he said the price could well double or triple when work begins and other problems arise.
Historic Ties of the Building
The Orchard House dates back to 1832, said David Russo Jr., chairman of the Historical Commission, and it was owned by the White family. The land was passed to Abijah White from his uncle Captain Phineas Stearn, who took part in the Boston Tea Party and was a hero in the Revolutionary War.
Abijah and his wife Anna Maria were active in the movement to abolish slavery.
The home is one of the few Greek Revival buildings left in Watertown, said Joyce Kelly, a member of the Historical Society of Watertown.
Historical Commission member JB Jones said it also represents a prime example of the New England Connected Farm House style, where the main house is connected to the barn through the kitchen and other rooms.
“I know of no other example of a connected farm house standing in its original place on its orchard lands,” Jones said. “To me the house is beautiful, it is part of New England.”
Commitment to Preserve the Building
The Lower Hearing Room in Town Hall was packed with neighbors of Beacon High School, residents and town officials who came to speak out about why they want the house to be saved.
Town Council President Mark Sideris said he and his colleagues created the demolition delay, which can last up to 12 months, for just such a situation.
Town Councilor Cecilia Lenk said many historic buildings in Watertown have been lost over the years, and she wants this one to be saved.
“It would be a shame for it to be destroyed and there are no plans to replace it. They school could put up trailers or a big metal barn and leave town next year,” Lenk said. “The school, I hope it will be there100 years from now, but it is more temporary than the building.”
When the school bought the property, said Town Councilor Vincent Piccirilli, they also became steward of the historic building.
“This building is iconic in the neighborhood, and as a community we need to be vigilant to preserve the history of the town,” Piccirilli said.
After many residents spoke about the desire to save the building, and some brought up the idea of applying for grants and tax credits, Eileen Hsu-Balzer said the school should use the energy from the residents who want to save the Orchard House.
“The question is do you want to save the house?” said Hsu-Balzer, the chairwoman of the Watetown School Committee and an abutter to Beacon High School. “There is a lot of energy to help you, not hurt you.”
Historical Commission members asked whether other options have been explored, such as putting the trailers on another part of the property, move the house to another property or even moving he house to another part of the Beacon High School land, subdivide the land and sell it to someone who wants to save the building.
Tannenbaum said the school had not looked into those options, but he would be open to any of them.
Jones suggested a demolition delay of less than 12 months with hopes that a process would get underway to save the Orchard House. The commission voted unanimously for the six month delay, and Russo said the delay could be extended to 12 months, total.
Tannenbaum said he wants to start meeting with residents and others interested in saving the building soon.
Information about meeting dates about the Orchard House will be available through the town Website, http://watertown-ma.gov, and those interested can sign up for the “notify me” function (on the right side of the homepage) by selecting “Preservation.” Email alerts will be sent out about future meetings about the Orchard House.