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Plan to tear down Beacon Hill house riles residents

Essdras M Suarez/ Globe Staff

Up the cobblestone steep or down by the Flat, Beacon Hill is well known for zealously guarding its architectural history. So when Dean Stratouly recently received a city order to tear down his three-story English Revival town house, residents in a neighborhood of vintage gas lamps and strict rules for even small renovations were not happy.

They lit up phone lines at local preservation offices, and speculation ran rampant that the city approved the demolition only because Stratouly is a prominent Boston developer who residents say “knows his way around.”

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“This does not happen,’’ exclaimed Greg Galer, executive director of the Boston Preservation Alliance. “This is totally unprecedented. There has never been a demolition of a significant building in Beacon Hill in decades — in at least 35 years.”

Stratouly has protested that the house is falling down, with severe failures in the building’s foundation and structure. City inspectors in March issued a violation notice, directing Stratouly to demolish it, placing a large red “X” on the building and mandating sidewalk protection to ensure that bricks do not fall from the facade onto cars or pedestrians. Scaffolding now stands on the sidewalk, along with a giant tarp to contain debris. But many are still upset.

“I’ve had some phone calls, and I’ve been stopped in the street,’’ said Stratouly, who owns the building with his wife, Mary Jo. “My wife has been challenged as she walked through the neighborhood.”

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The controversy over the Chestnut Street row house erupted more than a month ago, when residents got word that the Stratoulys had sought permission from a city commission to remove a portion of the building’s historic facade and make room for a garage.

Rumors started, and so did worries about what Stratouly’s plans might bring.

‘There has never been a demolition of a significant building in Beacon Hill in decades — in at least 35 years.’

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“I’d hate to ultimately see a design that contradicts the spirit of the neighborhood, because this is a remarkable space,’’ said Stephen Score, a resident and owner of an antiques shop in the neighborhood. “Beacon Hill is a village, and as a consequence of that we’d all love to see things preserved as best as they can and to see things go in a neighborly and noncontroversial fashion.’’

Charlotte Thibodeau, another Beacon Hill resident, said the demolition is concerning to residents and preservationists on the Hill because it opens the door for other developers of aging buildings to follow suit.

“What’s most important for me is that we are a National Historic District, and so everything should be done to maintain the integrity of the National Historic District,’’ said Thibodeau, cochairwoman of the architectural committee of the Beacon Hill Civic Association. “We’re basically there to protect what’s there and what has been there.”

Stratouly has launched a website, saying he wants to improve communications with his neighbors and keep them up to date with his plans.

Stratouly, cofounder and president of the development company The Congress Group, is a longtime member of the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority board that oversaw development and construction of the 2.1 million-square-foot Boston Convention & Exhibition Center. He is also a board member and former president of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board.

He and his wife bought the Chestnut Street house for $2.3 million in January, after a six-month hunt. The building’s features include a raised-seam copper mansard roof, a medieval-inspired wood door, and an ornate iron balcony. In its former life, the 148-year-old property served as a stable. In the 1920s, it was renovated into a single-family home.

It needed a lot of work. The Stratoulys did not know how much until their hired team of engineers, a masonry façade specialist, and an architect found extensive structural problems, massive water infiltration, and parts of the building that had separated from the backing.

Stratouly said he is not planning any major embellishments to the property, which he said will be reconstructed with the highest quality materials in a design that will be reflective of the prior building.

“This is my home,’’ he said in a Globe interview. “This is not a speculative development. When we started looking at the house, we knew it was in tough shape, but it wasn’t until we got in and actually started to do some demolition to look at the structure that we realized it had gone beyond salvageable.”

After learning of the Stratouly’s plans, residents swarmed a meeting in May held by the Beacon Hill Architectural Commission, the city group that reviews and signs off on major renovations to exterior portions of historic buildings that are visible from a public way.

Preservationists appealed to members of the commission to allow another independent engineer to look at the property before signing off on the demolition. But it was clear the commission had already made up its mind, Galer said.

The building’s owner says it is a safety threat — and must go.

Wendy Maeda/ Globe Staff

The building’s owner says it is a safety threat — and must go.

“To us, what would be the harm?’’ Galer said. “This seems to highlight a flaw in the system whereby if there is a ruling from ISD [the Inspectional Services Department] that there is a safety issue and that a building has to come down, there is no opportunity for review. But what if they are wrong?”

The commission said it had no choice but to comply with ISD, because it is the city agency charged with ensuring building safety, said Walter Maros, preservation planner with the commission.

Bryan Glascock, ISD commissioner, defended the demolition order, saying the building threatens public safety. He said two engineering firms hired by the landlord looked at the property, and both said it could not be saved. But he did indicate that there was some wiggle room to save the Chestnut Street building.

“If the property owners had come forward and said that [they had] an option for preserving it or if the Beacon Hill Architectural Commission had said it had hired a third-party engineering firm and determined that there was some way to save the building in place, then we certainly could have entertained that discussion,’’ Glascock said.

None of that happened, he said.

Glascock called the demolition plans “an unfortunate and sad situation,’’ but one that had to be done.

“We all should be upset,’’ he added. “It’s a lovely building. It would be great if there was some way of restoring it as is.”

Stratouly, who has owned four town houses on Beacon Hill and in the Back Bay, said that preservationists, instead of focusing on him, should have a good look around the neighborhood they want to preserve.

“I’ve stood on top of that roof and looked around my neighborhood, and you should see some of these buildings. Not good. There are indications of chimney failures, wall failures, and water penetration,’’ he said. “What’s upsetting to me is that there are buildings that are going to be confronted with the same situations, and it’s not just in Beacon Hill — it’s the Back Bay, it’s the South End. These buildings require a lot of attention and they are not getting it.”

Meghan Irons can be reached at mirons@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @MeghanIrons

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of the Boston Preservation Alliance.

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