The Speedway, the BPA, and the Importance of Preservation Partnerships

BPA 32nd Annual Preservation Awards logo
Image credit: Boston Preservation Alliance

The built environment stands on a foundation of built relationships. For preservationists, whose projects live or die depending on successful advocacy, this idea carries special weight. The oft-expensive process of restoring or adaptively reusing historic properties hinges on partnerships between individuals and organizations, businesses and governments. Time and again, AHF has witnessed how strong relationships beget stronger projects. The Speedway is a case in point. This once-deteriorating collection of buildings is well on its way to becoming a lively community space thanks to the early determination and continued support of the Boston Preservation Alliance.

Also known as the BPA, the Alliance has spent more than forty years fighting to protect Boston’s built heritage. Thanks to the BPA, numerous historic buildings still stand in whole or in part throughout the city, among them the Boston Stock Exchange, the Dorchester Pottery Works, the Chestnut Hill Waterworks, Fenway Park, and now, the Charles River Speedway. When AHF was appointed Historic Curator of the Speedway in 2014, we joined the ranks of many local organizations that had been striving for years under the BPA’s leadership to save the property. In fact, our appointment might never have happened if not for the relationships that the BPA cultivated to ensure that rehabilitation remained a viable option for the site.

The Speedway before restoration
The Speedway in 2013 before restoration.
The Speedway's nearly completed shingling along Soldiers Field Road
The Speedway’s shingling is nearly complete along Soldiers Field Road.

Building institutional partnerships is a painstaking process, but the Alliance’s Speedway-related activities over the last ten years show that the such efforts bear fruit. In 2011, the BPA teamed with the Brighton-Allston Historical Society, the Department of Conservation and Recreation, and Historic Boston, Inc. to host a public brainstorming session that generated a variety of ideas for the property’s future. That same year, the BPA submitted a letter to the Boston Landmarks Commission in support of the Speedway’s designation as a city Landmark. In 2018, the Alliance helped AHF obtain Historic Tax Credits for the Speedway by submitting another letter of support to the Massachusetts Historical Commission. The BPA’s reputation among these municipal and state institutions as a thoughtful and often successful preservation advocate meant that its letters held weight. The Speedway is now a City of Boston Landmark (a designation that offers greater protection than the National Register), and AHF has obtained Historic Tax Credits critical to moving the project forward. Throughout, the BPA has been among the Speedway’s staunchest supporters.

Today, October 15, the BPA hosts its 32nd annual Preservation Achievement Awards ceremony – yet another way that the Alliance promotes historic preservation in Boston. This year, the event is virtual, free (thought donations are appreciated), and hosted by award-winning journalist Katie Couric. There’s still time to register for this chance to learn about the inspiring preservation work occurring throughout the city and the Alliance’s role in making it happen.

Architectural Heritage Foundation is a 501(c)3 dedicated to stimulating economic development in disinvested communities through historic preservation. Follow AHF and its projects on FacebookTwitterInstagram, and LinkedIn.

From The Boston Globe – “Setting the Record Straight on the Building of Faneuil Hall Marketplace”

Re “Kevin White’s vision for Faneuil Hall is now Marty Walsh’s problem” (Opinion, Sept. 17), as with all preceding articles that I have read in the Globe regarding the restored Faneuil Hall Marketplace, ever since its grand opening in August 1976 (and I think I have read all of them), is predicated on a false assumption as to the inception of this spectacular project. The vision and initiative behind it were not those of White, nor developer James Rouse, nor architect Ben Thompson. They belong to Boston architect Frederick A. Stahl, Roger Webb (founder and president of the Architectural Heritage Foundation), and Walter Whitehill (esteemed historian and director of the Boston Athenaeum).

When historic sites are vandalized, what does that say about the society that created them?

Robert Gould Shaw Memorial with graffiti
Backside of the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial with graffiti, June 1, 2020. Photo credit: Friends of the Public Garden.

When the sun rose above Boston on June 1, illuminating hand-lettered posters left behind from the previous day’s Black Lives Matter protests, it shone also on a different kind of sign. Spray-paint stood out like a scar on downtown Boston’s historic landmarks: Park Street Church, the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, the Women’s Memorial, the George Washington statue, the 9/11 Memorial, the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial, and many other historic statues and buildings had been graffitied overnight following the peaceful demonstrations. Like the rest of the preservation community, AHF was dismayed by the vandalism, yet still more dismayed by what it said about the perpetrators’ apparent estrangement from Boston’s cultural landscape.

For many of us, it is easy to take place for granted. The buildings, street names, and memorials that comprise a neighborhood can become so familiar that it is possible to forget how they came to be there. Those who feel at home in a particular area may never consider the meanings embedded in its cultural landscape, or may assume that those meanings ring true for everyone. Equally easy to overlook are the sociocultural markers that exist alongside those features, are relevant to their creation and retention, and no less subtly assert who belongs: shop prices, rental rates, the faces of residents and business owners. In Boston, these indicators are the result of policies and choices, from redlining to gentrification, that have blocked African-Americans and low-income residents from the economic and political opportunities so often prerequisite to telling one’s story publicly.

When one recognizes the impact of structural racism and inequality on preservation in Boston, it is no wonder that some people may feel little connection to many of the city’s historic sites. Consider the following:

  • The Freedom Trail, whose primary purpose is to celebrate the egalitarian ideals of the American Revolution, is one of Boston’s main tourist attractions. Marked clearly in red brick, it is impossible to miss and draws four million visitors each year. The Black Heritage Trail, which celebrates the achievements of Boston’s African-American community and calls attention to the systemic racism that undercuts our country’s ideals, attracts just ten percent of the Freedom Trail’s visitation. This is unsurprising, as it poorly marked and located in a quiet residential neighborhood – one that was historically black and immigrant, but is now largely white and unaffordable.
  • Faneuil Hall is widely known as the Cradle of Liberty. Since the construction of its predecessor building in 1742, it has hosted orations by Revolutionary leaders, abolitionists, and suffragists, as well as citizenship ceremonies and political events. It has
Faneuil Hall viewed from Quincy Market, Boston
Faneuil Hall viewed from Quincy Market, Boston

rightly been celebrated throughout Boston’s history as a bastion of free speech. Yet its funder and namesake, Peter Faneuil, was a slaveowner who made much of his wealth through kidnapping and trading in African people. Today, hip-hop troupes regularly perform outside the building on the former site Dock Square, where, unbeknownst to the large crowds of spectators, human beings were sold alongside household goods. The continued existence of many of Boston’s historic neighborhoods is usually attributed to predominantly white and affluent preservation groups. In the past, less thought was given to the neighborhoods’ minority, immigrant, and working-class residents who, unable to afford relocating to the suburbs, cared for their urban homes and kept their neighborhoods intact. Former State Representative and preservationist Byron Rushing has noted that the poor are seldom recognized as the true preservationists of Boston’s residential working-class neighborhoods. Many of Boston’s historically designated neighborhoods are gentrified. Beacon Hill, the North End, and the South End have become prohibitively expensive to the populations who have inhabited them through time. Meanwhile, the no less historic, but undesignated areas where low-income populations currently live, such as Chinatown and parts of Roxbury, face development pressures that threaten not only to displace their current residents but to erase their heritage.

The things we choose to preserve and the way we preserve them sends a message about whose heritage matters, whose contributions to society are valued, and who is invited to the conversation; in short, who belongs. This message is glaringly obvious to those who are underrepresented in the cultural landscape. If iconic historic landmarks like the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial are vandalized, it is because the perpetrators are either ignorant of the sites’ meanings or alienated from the process that produced those meanings. Graffiti becomes the way that marginalized voices insert themselves into the city’s narrative. There is a link between the underpaid, undervalued, and martyred 54th MA Regiment, and the fury sprayed across the soldiers’ names.

In his book Place, Race, and Story, Ned Kaufman writes that preservation “is a social practice, part history and part planning. Its ultimate goal is not fixing or saving old things, but rather creating places where people can live well and connect to meaningful narratives about history, culture, and identity.” For too long, the preservation movement in Boston and the systems surrounding it failed the city’s most vulnerable. The more recent push to create a more inclusive cultural landscape, from the 1980 establishment of Boston African-American National Historic Site to today’s allocation of Community Preservation funds in Boston’s disinvested neighborhoods, is a laudable (if belated) effort to empower marginalized communities by helping them to tell their full story. Yet preserving the heritage of marginalized communities will fall short if the communities themselves are not preserved.

Addressing the structural inequities that destabilize Boston’s communities of color and low-income neighborhoods is a preservation issue. Converting historic buildings into affordable housing, partnering with community members on projects that enhance economic and social wellbeing, supporting local business owners, advocating for policies that stabilize neighborhoods – these are among the preservation movement’s responsibilities in the twenty-first century. Together, we can create a better Boston that honors all of its residents’ pasts while ensuring their futures.

Architectural Heritage Foundation is a 501(c)3 dedicated to stimulating economic development in disinvested communities through historic preservation. Follow AHF and its projects on FacebookTwitterInstagram, and LinkedIn.

How a Small Group of Volunteers is Transforming a Rural Town through Historic Preservation and the Arts

North Brookfield Town House framed against a deep blue sky. Architectural Heritage Foundation (AHF) is preservation consultant to the Friends of the North Brookfield Town House.
North Brookfield Town House

What if a vacant town hall in a small Massachusetts community were granted a new life as an arts center devoted to solving the national problem of rural isolation? For the Friends of the North Brookfield Town House, this vision holds the key to their community’s revitalization.

Not many people know about North Brookfield. Nestled among orchards and state forests, this town of 4,800 could, at first glance, be any rural New England village. Modest single-family homes line Main Street, which runs north to south through a small downtown. The white steeple of the First Congregational Church rises above a sprawling green, opposite the Romanesque bulk of the Haston Free Public Library. Dark storefront windows of low-rise commercial blocks turn blank stares to the street. The “For Rent” posters are offset here and there with “Open” signs that wink redly from the businesses that have managed to hold on: Angel Nails Salon, St. Jeans Country Package Store, Jim’s Pizza… Near the center of town, Vibram employs over two hundred in manufacturing rubber soles for outdoor boots – a modern incarnation of the Batcheller Shoe Factory, which fueled the community’s growth during the nineteenth century. And rising above it all is the North Brookfield Town House.

A For Rent sign in an empty storefront on Main Street.

“The center of everything.” That’s how North Brookfield residents characterize the Town House, whose tall, arched windows and Italianate bell tower reflect the importance that its nineteenth-century designers and subsequent users attached to it. Once a town hall, theater, retail venue, and jail, the building has been vacant since 2002, victim to the same forces that have challenged North Brookfield and other rural communities throughout the country: reduced industry, the success of big box stores at the expense of small businesses, an exodus of young people seeking opportunity elsewhere. For many residents, the Town House’s peeling paint and locked doors came to symbolize these problems. Restoring the building would have to be part of the solution.

The Town House still stands today thanks to a dedicated group of volunteers. The Friends of the North Brookfield Town House were founded in 2006 to raise awareness and money for preserving the building. During the first several years, they focused on stabilization, such as repairing the roof and bell tower following Hurricane Irene. Yet the building’s future use was a persistent question. The Friends wanted the Town House to become a community hub – a coffee shop or artisan bakery, something to draw people downtown. But how to accomplish this multimillion-dollar restoration project in a financially sustainable way?

A volunteer from the Friends of the North Brookfield Town House teaches a third grade class about the Town House. Architectural Heritage Foundation (AHF) is helping the Friends of the North Brookfield Town House to preserve and redevelop the building as an arts center.
A volunteer from the Friends of the North Brookfield Town House teaches a third grade class about the Town House.

Finding an answer required the Friends to transform their approach to the project from fundraising around a predetermined use to amplifying the building’s unlimited possibilities. In 2017, AHF began consulting for the Friends and soon discovered that the plans for a coffee shop and bakery were infeasible in the local economic climate. There was simply not enough traffic downtown or expendable income locally to support a dining establishment. Rehabilitating the Town House as a destination café, or any other commercial venue, would require a full-scale downtown development plan to create a more business-friendly environment.

Far from being discouraged, the Friends ran with AHF’s advice – and ran further even than they thought possible. They forged a strong relationship with the North Brookfield Board of Selectmen, Central Massachusetts Regional Planning Commission (CMRPC), and Main Street America, leading to the creation of a Downtown Development Committee. They broadened their vision for the Town House to encompass a wide variety of future uses, from commercial to cultural. They raised the visibility of the building online, in classrooms, and at community events. At AHF’s suggestion, they organized a community-wide effort to repaint the Town House façade, transforming what appeared to be a shabby building into one brimming with potential. And people noticed.

The North Brookfield Town House being repainted. Architectural Heritage Foundation is preservation consultant for the Friends of the North Brookfield Town House.
Repainting the North Brookfield Town House

Bonnie Milner, Owner and General Manager of local recording company Long View Farm Studios, was astounded when she saw the repainted Town House – a building that she had often passed, but seldom noticed. The Friends invited her to tour the building in hopes that she might furnish an idea for its reuse. She realized that it would the perfect location for her to fulfill a lifelong dream of establishing an arts center for rural at-risk youth. Several months of collaboration later, the Creative Life Center concept was born.

The Creative Life Center (CLC) at the North Brookfield Town House is intended to be a replicable model for addressing rural disfranchisement through the artistic reuse of cherished historic properties. Under Bonnie’s leadership and in partnership with Berklee College of Music, the CLC will offer educational programming in music, theater, and the visual arts for local youth and seniors, provide a performance venue for the broader Central Massachusetts community, and give emerging artists the opportunity to showcase their work. In so doing, the CLC will foster connection and stimulate economic development in an oft-overlooked rural region. Yet it’s only the beginning of North Brookfield’s revitalization.

An audience watches young dancers perform on the Great Hall stage at the North Brookfield Town House during MayFest, 2019. The Architectural Heritage Foundation (AHF) is helping the Friends of the North Brookfield Town House to preserve and redevelop the historic building.
Young performers at the Town House during MayFest, 2019

While the Friends and Bonnie were refining the CLC concept, the Downtown Development Committee was working with CMRPC and Main Street America to create a business-friendly environment around the Town House.  Their plans include streetscape improvements, such as handicapped-accessible sidewalks, bike lanes, benches, and plantings; renovations to the Common, its playing fields, and playgrounds; and the rehabilitation of other vacant historic properties for commercial and nonprofit uses. These improvements will be driven by the Town House restoration and the expected increase in foot traffic downtown around the CLC.

By doggedly trying to preserve an historic building, the Friends catalyzed a downtown revitalization project. Their perseverance, diligence, and flexibility are putting North Brookfield on the map and giving other rural communities throughout the country reason to hope. Not even the pandemic has slowed them as they embark on a capital campaign to raise $2.5 million for the Town House’s rehabilitation. Each day brings them closer to their goal of reinvigorating rural communities through historic preservation and the arts.

To help the Friends realize their vision, visit their website to donate.

Architectural Heritage Foundation is a 501(c)3 dedicated to stimulating economic development in disinvested communities through historic preservation. Follow AHF and its projects on FacebookTwitterInstagram, and LinkedIn.

From Markets Insider – “Twain Financial Provides $1.6 Million in Historic Tax Credit Equity to Charles River Speedway in Boston, MA”

Twain Financial Partners announced the investment of $1.6 million in federal historic tax credit equity for the historic renovation and adaptive reuse of the Charles River Speedway in Boston, MA. The Speedway is located in the North Brighton section of the growing Allston-Brighton neighborhood of Boston. The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in July 2010. The 1.28-acre site includes three adjoining parcels, including the original 1899 former historic racetrack administrative building and garage facility.

Speedway Progress Update – March 2020

Since construction began at the Speedway five months ago, the renovations have progressed by leaps and bounds. Thanks to our partners at D.F. Pray, the historic site is getting a makeover from top to bottom that is transforming what was once a collection of dilapidated buildings into a vibrant public space. Here’s what we’ve accomplished so far:

From Architecture Boston – “Shifting Gears: The historic Speedway complex—hidden in plain sight along the Charles River—gets set for a reawakening”

If winter is cold and dark, at least snowdrops and the promise of spring give us hope and hint of new life. The cycles of change—to cities and the natural world—can remind us that places have souls to lose. Emotions may be mixed. There is a quiet richness to the reworking of existing buildings that has crept into the psyche of the design professions as they resurrect past aesthetics, juxtaposed against new imageries and an overturning of previous uses. Those cycles of change reel from catastrophic to delicately nuanced, and architects try to counter one and orchestrate the other.

“Nothing but a Win for the City:” Worcester City Council Economic Development Committee Endorses Aud Proposal

The Worcester City Council Economic Development Committee has endorsed AHF’s redevelopment plans for the Worcester Memorial Auditorium. The Committee’s support facilitates the execution of a Land Disposition Agreement between AHF and the City later this month, paving the way for the building’s eventual sale to AHF or its subsidiary two years from now.

Let’s work together.