In Mattapan, a farmhouse restoration project uncovers countless mysteries
Even as construction begins to transform a 200-year-old farmhouse in Mattapan into a working farm again, project managers continue to encounter mysteries on nearly every visit to the Fowler Clark Epstein Farm.
Why is there a drinking fountain basin embedded in a brick archway? Why does an interior wall feature an unfinished mural depicting the farmhouse aglow with flames? Why does another mural show the same house in a bucolic 18th-century setting, but peopled with men and women in 20th-century clothes? Why is a door of the nearby barn branded with the name “H. Clark”?
These are a few of the puzzles that faced the four nonprofit organizations restoring the Fowler Clark Epstein Farm, named for three of the families who lived there. The property at the corner of Norfolk and Hosmer Streets is about to undergo a $3.2 million restoration in an ambitious project spearheaded by Historic Boston Incorporated.
When the work is completed, the 30,000-square-foot property, which includes a house, a barn, and a jumbled landscape of stone walkways, brick arches, and other architectural embellishments, will again be a farm, as well as headquarters for the Urban Farming Institute of Boston, one of the project partners.
The new location has special resonance for Patricia E. Spence, executive director of the Urban Farming Institute, a nonprofit that promotes agriculture in urban settings. Spence grew up in the neighborhood in the late 1950s.
“I lived five minutes from here,” she recalled. “This is the area where my brother and I were allowed to ride our bikes.” She described peeking over the stone walls to see strange artifacts and intriguing clutter on the lawn. “It was always a place of mystery for kids.”
Mysteries remain, due in part to the convoluted history of the Fowler Clark Epstein Farm. The land was once part of a 330-acre parcel given to three brothers, Samuel, Stephen, and Jesse Fowler, by their grandfather, a veteran of the Revolutionary War, according to Historic Boston. Members of the Fowler family lived on the property until the 1820s; they built the 2½-story wood-frame house between 1786 and 1806. Henry Clark purchased 11 acres of the property in 1837; the barn on the site was built around 1860.
The land was subdivided in 1895 and sold off; in 1941 the house and barn was purchased by Jorge Epstein, a brilliant if eccentric antiques dealer. Epstein, known as “The Scavenger King,” ran the Old Mansions Co. on Blue Hill Avenue, which salvaged and sold architectural relics from demolished Boston buildings.
Over the years he expanded the house and re-shingled the exterior. He also decorated the grounds with scrollwork, moldings, and artifacts rescued from demolition sites, meaning the site contains bits and pieces of Boston history, according to Walter Santory, 63, of Brockton, a longtime employee of Epstein’s.
Blue slate slabs salvaged from South Station were incorporated into a terrace. Fence walls were built from granite foundation stones claimed from demolished three-deckers. A “Keep off the grass” sign came from the Boston Common. There’s a chunk of a building from the Franklin Park Zoo.
Epstein “was a pioneer of architectural salvage,” Santory said. “He repurposed Greater Boston. He was green before there was green.”
Epstein died in 1998, and the property fell into disrepair in the early 2000s. In 2005 the Boston Landmarks Commission granted the property landmark status. The city of Boston acquired the property in 2013; it was purchased in 2015 by Historic Boston.
This fall, Historic Boston, The Trust for Public Land, the North Bennet Street School, and the Urban Farming Institute are beginning to repurpose the grounds for a small farm and farmstand. The barn will be restored and used as space for farm training and public education programs. The house will provide offices for the Urban Farming Institute and Baraka Community Wellness, a nonprofit that serves at-risk families and communities.
Neighbors loved the property even when it became dilapidated, said Kathy Kottaridis, executive director of Historic Boston. “So now it can go from being a drain to being a very positive environment for the community.”
It’s no small task. The partners must preserve the house and barn, as well as bring them up to code and ensure handicapped accessibility. Historic elements will have to be maintained per requirements by the Boston Landmarks Commission. To create planting beds for vegetables and other crops, soil, and fill will be brought in, and a greenhouse built.
The North Bennet Street School will spearhead restoration of the farmhouse. Students have already started to remove shingles and clapboards to probe the original framework. The barn will be stabilized this fall with completion scheduled for 2017. The restoration is being funded through a combination of historic tax credits, public grants, and private donations.
The property’s multiple eras will be preserved, creating a record of its evolving uses. “We typically don’t just choose one era and restore to that era,” said Lisa Lewis, senior project manager for Historic Boston. “That’s an approach that a house museum might take. That isn’t how we operate. If there is something interesting in the house, like molding or trim, and if it’s more than 50 years old, we tend to keep it.”
That means preserving evidence of the Clark and Fowler eras as well as protecting Epstein’s additions. This, however, poses another challenge. What might appear to be a 18th-century door may not be original to the house but rather installed by Epstein, turning restorers into historical Sherlock Holmeses.
Santory has proved to be a wealth of information about the Epstein era. That drinking fountain, for example, came from the Christian Science Monitor Building. He said the murals were painted in the early 1960s by an Epstein employee who was an art teacher, and he thinks the unfinished mural depicts Epstein’s belief that the previous owners opposed selling the property to Epstein, because he was Jewish, and attempted to burn the house.
Those stories just add to the intrigue. “We will keep these,” said Kottaridis, looking at the murals in the dim light of a musty room that will otherwise need major work.