Earlier this week it was reported that the city’s historical commission declared that a house located at the future site of the Waltham High School is historically significant. While it may seem like this is a sudden revelation that could rock the process of building the high school, in actuality, the Waltham Historical Commission’s findings are part of a standard process for any similar building project anywhere in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
However, since $380 million high school building projects don’t happen every day, this isn’t something that many of us are familiar with, so it is important to ask a little bit about what is going on.
The Waltham Historical Commission is appointed by the mayor. Its members are Waltham residents, many of whom are historians and educators. They meet monthly to review and oversee the city’s handling of historic properties. They manage the Paine Estate, oversee compliance with certain aspects of the Community Preservation Act, and review private development projects as part of the city’s project review process. They produced their report on the property at the future high school site because they were asked to do it by the Massachusetts Historical Commission.
The Massachusetts Historical Commission is the state’s equivalent of the Waltham Historical Commission and they are involved in this project because the City of Waltham is asking the Commonwealth to help foot the bill for the new high school. The state board that will decide whether we get that money is the Massachusetts School Building Authority. As part of their process of reviewing Waltham’s funding request, they’re required to check with other state agencies about the impact of school proposals.
This review process is intended to ensure that the state doesn’t accidentally fund a building project on protected wetlands or a toxic waste site or a major historical site.
When a project like ours comes before the MSBA, they (or the city) reach out to Mass Historic. The agency then assigns one of their employees to research the property and one of the first things they do is to contact the local historical commission to see what they know. The most important question they ask is, “Is this property historically significant?”
This isn’t a random question. “Historically significant” has a specific meaning that is guided by Waltham’s ordinances and state law.
When the local historical commission gets a request like this, one of the commissioners produces a report about the history of the property and then the board makes a determination. Among their criteria are:
· Is the site in question over 75 years old?
· Is it on, or eligible to be on, the National Register of Historic Places?
· Are people or events of local, state, or national historical significance associated with the property?
· Is it architecturally unique?
Since the local historical commission takes up these kinds of questions all the time, Mass Historic puts a lot of trust in them to help understand how to proceed. For instance, in Los Angeles, there are Art Deco buildings everywhere. That architectural style might be historically significant, but if every building in town has it, it’s not enough to say that a building is significant solely because it is old and has Art Deco architecture. It would have to have a unique interior, untouched since it was built, or some equivalent. Or it would have to meet additional criteria.
Meanwhile, here in Waltham Art Deco structures are very rare—we only have three in Waltham and all of them are unique—and so it might be enough to say the property is significant because of the architecture. Mass Historic trusts that the local commission knows a lot about these things and can give them information to help understand how to approach a proposal.
Typically, if a property meets three of the criteria for significance—or one really big one, like, say, if George Washington lived in the house—the local commission will determine that the site is historically significant. That opens up a series of conversations between the local commission and other stakeholders about how to proceed.
In this case, the home at the Stigmatines was found to be significant because it meets multiple criteria. It is older than 75 years, has people who are important to Waltham’s history associated with it, has a unique architectural style, and might be eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places (it’s already on the state’s equivalent to this registry).
The commission’s report was sent back to Mass Historic and from there, Mass Historic will enter into a formal discussion process with the city, MSBA and the local historical commission to see what the best way forward is. This process has a legally-determined timeline and obligations for everyone so that the high school project isn’t held up.
It’s important to know, however, that just because something is historically significant doesn’t mean it has to be preserved. It does mean that the stakeholders have to talk to one another and reach some kind of agreement about what to do. If they decide to tear the property down and the local historical commission disagrees, then the commission can place a one-year delay on the demolition and the state agencies would not look favorably on funding the city’s high school proposal.
But such an adversarial process would be very rare, even if demolition is the ultimate outcome. There also may be other options.
They may decide to move the house on the property or use it in some way for the high school. They will compare the house to other historic buildings on high school sites that they have encountered, and they will talk with one another to find a balance. Mass Historic will ask if any other sites exist in the city where the property could be preserved. They will see that the school committee has preferentially chosen this site, and then they will work with the other stakeholders to find a way forward.
Often, striking that balance means that the stakeholders do agree to the demolition of the property, not because it’s the best outcome, but because the need for a school is greater than the need for saving the property. Since there are options, and because most of the stakeholders are reasonable, it’s very rare for a project proposal to be rejected because of the presence of a historic building on the site.
The Fernald was one such site, where the city’s proposed project would almost certainly have been rejected. Fernald was the first institution of its kind in America, home to the first medical center of its kind in America (the Eunice Kennedy Shriver Center), the site of a major civil rights movement for people with disabilities, and full of buildings that are among the largest remaining collections of Queen Anne architecture, and among the oldest disability-accessible architectural examples in the United States.
As a result, the entire Fernald site has been a National Register Historic District for over 25 years and two-thirds of the property were purchased with special funds that oblige the city to have to preserve most buildings. Because of its significance, the city also signed a separate historic agreement with state agencies guaranteeing preservation of many structures there.
In comparison, the home at the Stigs is important, but it seem unlikely that it has the kind of historical significance where people should expect the high school project to be held up.
Most importantly perhaps, is the fact that this process is routine and it is not arbitrary. For too long, Waltham has lost out because our leaders and the media seek to portray every major project or event as unique to Waltham. They refuse to acknowledge or follow an existing process, treat legal requirements as if they are suggestions, and choose the path of politics rather than policy.
In this instance, it would appear that the MSBA, Mass Historic, and the Waltham Historical Commission have chosen the policy path instead. That bodes well for their ability to make sure the city falls in line too, and while we may not all agree about the outcome, it may actually be a rare example of a process working the way it was intended to.