Historic Resources Survey Makes Public Debut on Thursday

Photo: Redtop, the historic house located at 90 Somerset St. It was once the home of William Dean Howells and family.

After two years of compiling and sorting data and information, the summary findings of the Belmont Historic Resources Survey will be presented in the Board of Selectmen’s Meeting Room, at 7 p.m. this Thursday, Dec. 8.

The town-wide survey of historic properties, conducted by Preservation Consultant Lisa Mausolf, was funded by a grant of $115,000 from the Community Preservation Committee in 2013.

“The Historic District Commission is excited that the historic survey project is nearing completion,” said Lauren Meier, co-chair of the Belmont Historic District Commission.

“It fills in a number of gaps in the documentation about Belmont’s historic resources and will be a valuable tool for the Commission going forward. We are grateful to the Community Preservation Committee and Town Meeting for making this possible,” said Meier.

The survey is an update of the 1984 book Belmont: The Architecture and Development of the Town of Homes, a comprehensive architectural and historic survey of Belmont created by the Boston University Preservation Studies Program. 

In 2013, the Belmont Historic District Commission embarked on revisiting the data, hiring Mausolf to update forms with new information and prepare new forms for resources that had been overlooked in the previous effort.   

The information collected can inform state and federal agencies when federally or state funded projects are planned that might adversely affect a significant cultural resource.  

On the local level, the new inventory can help communities identify significant resources and prioritize future preservation activities including listing properties on the National Register of Historic Places and establishing local historic districts or neighborhood conservation districts.  

The inventory also serves as a basis for the Belmont Historic District Commission to determine which of the town’s significant historic buildings should be subject to the Demolition Delay Bylaw.

Religion Or Business: Neighbors Say Church Traded God For Cell Money

Photo: Plymouth Congregational Church on Pleasant Street.

Ron Creamer did not mince words.

In the view of the Pleasant Street resident, what occurs inside the historic Plymouth Congregation Church on Sundays no longer represents the main purpose of the long-time house of worship.

When told by the chair of the Belmont Historic District Commission that for federal oversight review to halt the placement of telecommunication equipment in the Pleasant Street church’s steeple,  opponents would need to show how an interior cellular tower would “change the character [of Plymouth Congregation] in a “fairly major” way, Cramer responded by declaring the congregation’s pursuit of thousands of dollars in rental fees from telecommunication giant Verizon Wireless is transforming the church “from a religious institution into a cell phone business.”

“It’s a significant change” of what church was initially built to be, Creamer told the commission, a statement the chair, Lauren Meier, deemed “subjective.” 

The rather strident proclamation – reiterated later by another leader of nearly 250 neighbors who currently oppose the plan on aesthetic and health reasons – came at the tail end of Tuesday night’s meeting which saw yet another barrier to Verizon’s plan to place an array of antennas in Plymouth Congregational’s white steeple fall to the wayside.

On Tuesday, Verizon’s attorney Mike Giaimo of Boston’s Robinson & Cole presented the six-member commission a set of new plans – approved by the Planning Board a fortnight before – which no longer required modifications to the exterior of the steeple. Earlier proposals called for removing wooden louvers and creating openings in the steeple. 

Since the purview of the Historic District Commission is to investigate and question exterior changes that can be seen from the public way, the commission determined it had no standing to question the revised plans and was left with little to do than simply sign off on the project using either a certificate of appropriateness or one of non-applicability.

Once the project has received the OK from all town bodies, a building permit could then be issued when requested, Glenn Clancy, director of the Office of Community Development, noted earlier this year.

While Verizon was seeking a quick resolution, the commission pondered whether to hold a public meeting in June before issuing the notice, which Giaimo was adamant was unnecessary and that the certificate be issued sooner-than-later.

Glenn Herosian, one of leaders of the opposition and who lives across Pleasant Street from the church, sought answers to the Verizon design changes. Herosian said he was concerned the removal of an air condition unit to cool the equipment could possibly do long-term damage to the structure, which then could affect the overall integrity of the steeple.

But Verizon’s Giaimo would not take the bait, saying he would only speak on the items on the Historic Commission’s agenda, despite Meier’s pleas that it would be “polite” if he or the Verizon representatives would speak on the neighbors’ worries.

In the end, Meier said the committee would work with Community Development on the necessity for a public meeting. 

Tuesday was also an opportunity for Verizon to proceed with a Section 106 review mandated in the requires consideration of historic preservation in the multitude of projects with federal involvement, such as the Federal Communications Commission which licenses telecommunication operations. 

While usually a fairly standard appraisal – Meier said she had done “hundreds” in her 30-year career – Creamer took the opportunity to fire questions at the employee of EBI Consulting, which manages the Section 106 processes for Verizon, resulting in a rhetorical exercise of competing interpretations of the review.

Creamer soon directed the commission’s attention to the section of the review that specified how a project could be altered that would diminish the integrity of the property, approaching Meier to show a screen on his cell phone asking if she agreed that “change in the character of the property’s use or setting” would trigger federal involvement and a lengthy public process of gathering information and actions. 

After contending the church should not be viewed as a structure of worship but of commerce, Creamer noted that the religious component for the church is “only a few hours a week” while the cell tower transmits continuously. 

For the opponents of the project, any means of delaying the installation of the equipment is seen as beneficial to their cause as the number of process roadblocks has dwindled to nearly zero.

The neighbors are now pinning their hopes of halting the interior cell tower with a favorable Special Town Meeting. Initiated via a citizen’s petition, the opponents are seeking a change to zoning bylaws to require telecommunication firms to obtain a Special Permit to install an interior cell tower throughout most of Belmont.

The opponents believe forcing an application before the Zoning Board of Appeals – which has been highly suspected of high profile businesses entering Belmont – will effectively add months to the process as the neighbors, according to Herosian, are prepared to present a significant amount of technical and scientific data before the ZBA, challenging existing federal standards on radiofrequency levels.

In addition, Herosian said the neighbors will ask the Belmont Board of Selectmen to hire a technical expert to determine the adverse effects of cellular transmission in a densely populated residential area. 

Herosian said since the church initially broached the idea of placing mobile communication equipment in the steeple, the neighbors have been eager to help the church secure funds to allow it to continue its social ministry and discussed partnering the church leaders to approach the town to use Community Reinvestment Committee grants to repair and upgrade the building.

“But they never came back to us with an answer,” Herosian told the Belmontonian after the meeting.

“They’ve turned their backs to their neighbors and our real concerns.” 

Letter to the Editor: Preserve the Architectural Integrity of the Plymouth Congregational


[Editor’s note: The Belmont Historic District Commission will hear from Glenn Herosian and Ron Creamer as the commission continues discussion of Plymouth Congregational Church on Tuesday, March 8 at 7 p.m. in Town Hall.]

To the editor:

The Plymouth Congregational Church is the single important and centrally-located building in Belmont’s Pleasant Street Historic District (BHDC). Its commanding steeple and symmetrical buildings are a visual focal point for the neighborhood and visitors passing through Belmont. The Church represents an important style piece that holds together and defines the diverse historic fabric of the district.

Fortunately, the church falls under the strict “Design Guidelines of the Belmont Historic District.” Despite these safeguards, the threat of losing this historic building remains a deep neighborhood concern after the unfortunate demolition of the Waverly Congregational Church. The town’s Demolition Delay Bylaw was enacted as a reaction to this emotional loss for the Waverly community. However, this bylaw will not be enough to keep the same fate from happening to the Plymouth Church should the congregation weaken or relocate in future years.

Our neighborhood group insists that the BHDC enforce its stringent guidelines and follow its documented policy of allowing only the use of original wood materials in all necessary changes to the church’s exterior.

We demand the immediate action by the church and the BHDC to maintain and preserve the building’s architecturally-important details with a strict interpretation of its design bylaws without compromise. As the heart of the Historic District and the gateway used by innumerable citizens to access many conservation areas and town center, the church and the BHDC has a responsibility to its citizens to preserve the historical integrity of this church and maintain the harmony of this community.

The Neighborhood Group Against the Plymouth Church Cell Phone Tower

History Lost: Clark House to be Demolished by September

The history of the Thomas Clark House, one of Belmont’s oldest residential homes, will end next month in a pile of boards, bricks, nails and plaster as three years of work to preserve a rare piece of the town’s pre-Revolutionary era past failed to save the 254-year-old structure.

“Numerous attempts were made to find a site, use and the funding necessary to create a viable option for this most historic home; however, each attempt failed,” said Michael Smith, co-chair of the Belmont Historic District Commission, who helped lead the effort to save the structure after the site was sold to a developer in 2011.

Smith said the Clark House’s deed holder, Architectural Heritage Foundation – a Boston-based nonprofit which is committed to the preservation of historic buildings, structures, and spaces – faced a September deadline on renewing a town license to “park” the house across from the Underwood Pool. And next month the foundation would need to raise a substantial insurance payment that would be close to six figures.

With all local options exhausted, it was determined the only avenue for preservationist was to take the building apart under the foundation’s leadership.

Smith said that it was not hard to understand why it was difficult to find a solution for the Clark House.

“Potential sites were very limited because the size of the house is too large to pass through streets without meeting obstructions or requiring significant tree removal,” said Smith in a press release.

“Site, funding and use were all keys needed to save the Clark House,” Smith told the Belmontonian on Wednesday, July 30.

“Potential sites were very limited because the size of the house is too large to pass through streets without meeting obstructions or requiring significant tree removal,” said Smith in the release.

Potential locations included land at the First Armenian Church of Belmont on Concord Avenue, the Belmont Public Library and an open lot adjacent the Underwood Playground on School Street. Possible uses for the site included as a home of the Belmont Historical Society or as commercial space.

“Without any one of those keys opportunity was shut out. In every attempted exercise at least one of the keys was missing – frustratingly so near, so many times but never able to satisfy all the needs,” he said to the Belmontonian.

Built in 1760 by Thomas Clark, a “minuteman” member of a local militia who reportedly fought in the battles of Lexington and Bunker Hill; the house was later occupied by his son, Peter, the first person to cast a vote in the newly-formed town of Belmont in 1859. The house was subsequently owned by members of the Underwood and Sifneos families who retained most of the historic features of the house including doors, windows, floors, hardware, fireplaces along with possible evidence of a secret hiding place for escaping slaves traveling on the Underground Railroad.

The most dramatic effort to save the Clark House came on a bitter Saturday morning in February 2012. The two-story, two-and-a-half century old structure was taken off its original foundation located between Clark Street and Dunbarton Road and slowly moved down Common Street onto Concord Avenue and to its current location.

“We won’t lose the written history and important documentation of the Clark House; what we lose is the house itself,” Smith told the Belmontonian.

But rather than dwell on the fate of the Clark House, Smith said he is looking towards preserving other historic sites in town.

“There were many people who worked hard toward saving the Clark House.  The goodwill of everyone involved is what kept the momentum going. While we don’t like the idea of losing such a treasure, we know there are many other important preservation causes to pursue. Let’s compare it to a doctor losing a patient; that doesn’t end the pursuit toward care,” he said.