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Failure to preserve JP home shows cracks in landmarks law

The owner called changes to the historic Marie Elizabeth Zakrzewska house an “alteration.”

The owner called changes to the historic Marie Elizabeth Zakrzewska house an “alteration.”

In a city that preserves the houses of famous men from James Michael Curley to Malcolm X, the unassuming home of trailblazing female doctor Marie Elizabeth Zakrzewska might have deserved some protection too. Unfortunately, historical-preservation advocates never even had a chance to make the case: The Victorian-era house in Jamaica Plain was gutted recently without the review by the city’s Landmarks Commission that’s legally required before demolishing older buildings in the city.

The property owner filed an application claiming the changes would only amount to an alteration, rather than a demolition, exploiting a loophole to avoid a preservation hearing — even though only a small section of the house now remains standing.

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It may be too late to undo the damage, but the owner should restore some connection to the site’s past — at minimum, with a marker. Zakrzewska, a Polish immigrant, was the founder of the New England Hospital for Women and Children, the first hospital in the city to employ women as doctors. (It’s now known as the Dimock Center.) She was also a fundraiser for the women’s suffrage movement, and an associate of Lucy Stone, William Lloyd Garrison, and Julia Ward Howe.

But the city should also take this loss as a wake-up call. When there is ambiguity about whether changes to a property qualify as a demolition or not, authorities should err on the side of caution. It’s not as if the landmarks law imposes an especially onerous burden; the most the Landmark Commission can ordinarily do is order a 90-day demolition delay, which is a far shorter wait than in many other Massachusetts cities.

Boston can also do a better job flagging buildings that are historically significant. The Zakrzewska house was well known to preservationists, and was a stop on the Jamaica Plain Women’s History Trail. But many owners may have no idea whether their home has historic significance; there is no central list of historical properties in the city. Some neighborhood inventories are incomplete, 20 years old, or exist on paper only. In a city like Boston, where history-related tourism is big business and historic architecture lures many newcomers, a comprehensive, modern survey should be a priority.

With an easily accessible, digitized list, homeowners would know if their property has historic significance, and preservationists could more easily detect when developers apply for permits to alter or demolish notable buildings. That does not mean that every old house in the city will or should remain untouched forever. But it would help ensure that the careful, deliberative process required by law always occurs before more pieces of Boston’s past disappear.

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