Belmont’s oldest church was slated for demolition after being sold early this month to a developer who received permission from the town to demolish it.
Developer Edward Hovsepian closed a deal to buy the former First Congregational Church on Trapelo Road in Waverly Square for $1.3 million on Jan. 7, according to John Veneziano, owner of Andrew Realty Services, which handled the sale. Hovsepian was issued a demolition permit on Dec. 12.
On Thursday, a fence had gone up around the church, and there was construction equipment parked around it. A man who said he worked for Hovsepian said employees were just removing things from inside the church.
Town officials said they wanted to work with Hovsepian to prevent the church from being razed, but acknowledged that the town had no power to stop him.
Sparked by the church’s potential demolition, the Planning Board began drafting a bylaw to provide incentives for preserving certain historical buildings, according to chairman Sami Baghdady.
“It was that church and the knowledge that the church was for sale that inspired us to consider and start working on the preservation bylaw,” he said. The board is hoping to bring the bylaw before Town Meeting in April.
Hovsepian did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Veneziano said that Hovsepian planned to build townhouses on the site, but no plans have been filed with the Community Development Department.
Baghdady said that by right, three two-family homes may be built on the lot.
The Rev. Daniel Chungsoon Lee, who heads the congregation, declined to comment on the decision to sell the church. Its name was changed to All Peoples United Church three years ago, Lee said.
“We are still feeling very sad and brokenhearted because we lost our building,” he wrote in an e-mail.
The church was built in 1870 in the gothic revival style, according to Historic District Commission chairman Michael Smith, and has been well preserved, with the original clapboards still in place. The first minister of the church was Josiah W. Turner, whose house still stands on Pleasant Street.
“Its loss will be devastating for that Waverly neighborhood,” said Smith, who said it is the town’s oldest church. “This is one of the most historic and architecturally important buildings in Belmont.”
Longtime Belmont residents say the church’s demolition would leave a hole in the heart of Waverly Square.
“People built these institutions to gather, to pray,” said Raffi Manjikian, a Town Meeting member who grew up near the church, in an interview Wednesday. “They’re part of who we were. To go forward, it’s not so easy for me to think we could be so casual to just let that go.”
Manjikian said he had only heard about the church’s possible demolition a few days before, and he wishes that the town government and residents had thought to act earlier.
“This seems to have been something that could have been prevented had we been more thoughtful,” he said.
The church is listed on the state inventory of historic assets, but that does not protect it from being torn down, said Smith.
“This offers another reason why the town of Belmont needs a demolition delay bylaw,” he said.
In the summer of 2011, the proposed demolition of another historic Belmont building – the Thomas Clark House, which was built circa 1760 – sparked controversy in town and inspired the Historic District Commission to write a demolition delay bylaw. The commission plans to put that bylaw, which is separate from the Planning Board’s measure, on the Town Meeting warrant for April.
The bylaw would allow the commission to halt temporarily the demolition of buildings deemed historic while the town searched for alternatives to razing.
The developer who purchased the Thomas Clark House worked with the town to delay demolition and allow the house to be moved to another location.
Veneziano said that people should not be surprised that the church had been sold to a developer.
“People congregate to protect areas, but they won’t do it with dollars and cents,” he said. “The community could have easily gotten together and bought the property. It wasn’t like it was a secret sale. . . . There was an opportunity for anybody to buy it to do what they wanted.”