The Villa Victoria Center for the Arts building, a longtime landmark of Boston’s South End, has been demolished.
The building at 85 West Newton St., which was originally built as a Lutheran church in 1898, has been completely taken down and all that remains is debris that is being removed from the site.
For more than 30 years, the nonprofit organization Inquilinos Boricuas en Acción had used the former church building as a community center, performance space, and hub for Latino arts and cultural programming. But the structure had fallen into such a state of disrepair that it became too expensive to save, officials said.
Vanessa Calderón-Rosado, the chief executive of Inquilinos Boricuas en Acción, said in 2017 the nonprofit planned to do major capital improvements to the building in two phases. But those renovations had to be put on hold when significant structural problems were discovered.
The decision to demolish the former church and construct a new building was not taken lightly. IBA officials said over the years millions of dollars had been put into maintaining and making improvements to the property, which included repairing the roof, replacing windows, and improving handicap accessibility.
The community center, which first opened in 1986, was originally called the Jorge Hernández Cultural Center, in honor of a Puerto Rican community leader who served as executive director of IBA for many years. In 2009 it was renamed the Villa Victoria Center for the Arts. The building was a familiar landmark in the neighborhood, and one that many were sad to see go.
“It’s been hard, to be honest,” Calderón-Rosado said in a recent telephone interview. “When we started three years ago with our dream of renovating the building, we never, ever foresaw that we were going to be taking it down. That was definitely not in the plan.”
But the cost of the necessary fixes were “astronomical” and repairing the building not a viable option, she said.
Engineers determined that “extensive masonry deficiencies” would require the entire church tower to be completely demolished and rebuilt, and a portion of the north wall was damaged so badly that it would need to be torn down and rebuilt from the foundation up. They also concluded that “dry rot has compromised the end of a timber roof truss, requiring the end of the truss including the bottom chord to need repairing,” according to a Sept. 2019 letter from Buro Happold Consulting Engineers.
Calderón-Rosado said the two-phase renovation project was supposed to cost only $11 million; to make those necessary repairs to save the building would have cost $24 million, she said.
“We have been very open about the troubles with the building... the city deemed the building so unsafe in fall 2019 they ordered us to shut down the building completely,” she said. “It posed a risk to the community and obviously to the people coming in and out of the building.”
“The most economical option for us was to remove the building and build a new building,” she said.
Demolition work began Nov. 30, and it’s expected to take two to three months to remove all the debris from the site, she said.
If all goes according to plan, the newly constructed Villa Victoria Center for the Arts could open in 2025, she said.
“It’s kind of bittersweet,” she said. “It’s really sad but it’s also exciting. We’re now excited about the possibility of what will happen there... We’ve gone through the grieving phase, and now we’re coming to a more aspirational phase, and we’re dreaming of what will happen at the property.”
The new building will give the nonprofit additional square footage and more flexibility, she said.
So while residents and users of the building are experiencing a sense of loss at seeing the old church come down, there’s hope for the future, she said.
“It’s a big part of our community,” she said.