BY THE END OF 2013, Alexandra Almonacid had had enough. She and her husband had been looking for a new house for a year. They had been living in a large condo in Newtonville with a tiny kitchen and wanted a roomy house that was good for entertaining and had a big yard for their two young kids.
Almonacid had previously come to terms with the fact that they would need to spend a minimum of $1.5 million for the kind of house they had in mind, acutely aware of their good fortune in being able to swing a crazy number like that. Still, with each open house she attended, she left feeling dejected. All the Newton homes she toured in that price range seemed to need a ton of renovations. She and her husband, who both work in the medical field, had neither the time nor the skills to handle a major remodel. Like many buyers, they watched with a sort of alarmed helplessness as the warming market repeatedly pushed them past each price cap they had set for their search. At one point they found themselves looking at houses that were listed at a budget-busting $2.2 million. They were shocked when even those places fell short.
At one open house, they met a builder who got them thinking about a different model: the teardown. If you find a shabby house on a good piece of land, he explained, all you need is a bulldozer to create a new canvas. What’s more, it costs relatively little to take the old thing down. How little? The builder let them in on the trade secret: about $12,000.
They couldn’t believe how quickly that number changed their math.
Almonacid watched as her husband, Jeff, began lining up next to builders in work boots to tour sad old ranches and wallpapered split-levels, muttering with them how “this is coming down.” But while he was feeling reenergized, she was feeling dread. They didn’t know the first thing about construction. What kind of pit were they about to hurl themselves into?
On the morning of Sunday, February 9, 2014, as her husband was finalizing an offer for one particular teardown property, Almonacid sat in her daughter’s room and placed a panicked call to their broker. “How is he thinking he is going to build a house?’’ she cried. “I need help. This is not right!”
The broker’s boss told Almonacid that if her husband was serious about going the teardown route, there was someone he should talk to. “Just call Cindy Stumpo.’’
Almonacid had never heard of her before. But around the south side of Newton, Stumpo was a household name, though some knew her by a nickname: the Teardown Queen.
* * *
TEARDOWNS HAVE BEEN a source of contention in New England for a couple of decades, particularly in affluent communities where the land is typically worth lots more than whatever structure happens to be sitting on top of it. In Newton, teardowns appear to have been happening as far back as the 1690s, just a few years after town incorporation. Those long-ago demolitions tended not to be controversial, though, because they tended to be necessary. It’s hard to get angry at a colonist for tearing down his saltbox after a fire in the hearth reduced it to a post-and-beam shell.
In today’s typical teardown scenario, a modest ranch, Cape, or split-level is razed and replaced with a house that is usually two to three times bigger, has two to three times the number of bathrooms, and sells for two to three times more. Builders have every incentive to max out the size of the new house. After all, total square footage and modern amenities like trophy kitchens, luxurious master suites, and yawning three-car garages serve to drive up the selling price.
This approach often works out well for those particular builders and buyers. But critics argue that, cumulatively, all these teardowns have upended the character of entire neighborhoods, dwarfing abutting homes and draining a community of its moderately priced housing stock, not to mention many of its trees and much of its open space.
With desirable real estate and very little developable land, Newton now finds itself at the forefront of this new teardowns-at-a-tipping-point debate. Last fall, a massive crowd packed City Hall for a public hearing on a proposed one-year teardown moratorium. Preservationists decrying the scourge of McMansions squared off against builders waxing on about the rights of property owners. Elsewhere in the city and across the region, lots of homeowners have had more difficulty choosing sides. On the one hand, they want to curb the coarsening of neighborhood character that inevitably accompanies the most flagrant overbuilding. On the other hand, many of those with the bulk of their net worth tied up in their homes are reluctant to endorse anything that would hem them in when it comes time for them to sell.
Each house is its own story. And even for fierce critics of teardowns, the story of Almonacid’s new house challenges some common assumptions, introducing gray where there might have been only black and white. As abutter C.J. Goodfriend says, “The other teardowns are kind of obnoxious, but they’ve done it right.’’
When I mention that to the city alderwoman who proposed the moratorium, Amy Sangiolo, she agrees that not all teardowns are created the same. One of her goals for stopping the clock on demos, she says, was “to study what makes a good teardown and how do we attract that kind of development.’’ So that makes understanding the story of this particular teardown even more valuable.
The city’s public hearing in October began with Sangiolo delivering a lengthy PowerPoint presentation that featured photo after photo of over-the-top and, in some instances, grotesque teardown replacements. After that, dozens of residents, representing both sides, lined up to weigh in. Around the 90-minute mark of a three-hour hearing, Almonacid’s husband took to the microphone, explaining their frustrating home search that ended when they met a “benevolent builder” who helped make their “dream home” a reality.
Although he didn’t identify that builder by name, he was referring to Cindy Stumpo. Later, she would tell me, “I packed a ton of my people into the room for that hearing.’’
* * *
I’M RIDING WITH Stumpo in mid-December as she pilots her black Range Rover along winding Dudley Road, not far from the old Atrium Mall. The sign says Dudley, but it might as well be renamed Stumpo Street. She has either built, or is in the process of building, eight homes on this street, all of them involving some form of demolition.
And her work has inspired a host of copy-cat teardowns. Dudley Road once consisted of modest split-levels and multilevels (splits that are one story for half the house) near where it intersects Brookline Avenue on one end and rolling estates as it gets closer to Route 9. Now there are trophy homes up and down the street, with a smattering of original houses serving as vestigial reminders of Dudley’s more modest past. There can be a certain sameness to many of the hulking new homes around Newton, with their beige stucco and stone exteriors, making you wonder if you’ve accidentally drifted into a gated community in Atlanta or New Jersey. As we pass a newer house, I ask Stumpo, “Is that one of yours?’’
She squints disapprovingly and then swats my arm. “No! You can always tell my houses by the doors. Grand doors made of Honduras mahogany.’’
In some ways, she began preparing for this Dudley Road makeover when she was still in the eighth grade. A week before the Blizzard of 1978, young Cindy Leonard and her family moved from West Peabody to a ranch at 530 Dudley in Newton. By the early 1990s, she was a married mother of two who was helping her husband, Joe Stumpo, run a car dealership. She had also become a small-time player in the male-dominated world of residential construction after taking over a single-family project when, she says, the builder she had hired blew all the money she had advanced him.
But her career really took off in 1996, when she bought a ranch at 533 Dudley, directly across from her parents’ former home. She paid $390,000 for it, but concluded it would be worth more dead than alive to her. She moved in her family, though she knew they wouldn’t be there for long. One day, her daughter, Samantha, who was 9, came home to discover that the house had been razed. Peering into the pit of rubble, she was crushed to see some collateral damage in the form of blue and yellow shards of plastic, the remnants of her backyard playhouse.
Within just a few months, Stumpo had replaced the small ranch with a 5,200-square-foot, five-bedroom, five-bath, hip-roofed stucco showpiece, which she sold for just shy of $1 million.
That project launched her company, C. Stumpo Development, on a teardown spree that made Stumpo very wealthy and reshaped the landscape of the south side of Newton as well as parts of Brookline. While the neighborhoods of Waban, West Newton Hill, and Chestnut Hill had a long tradition of grand estates, South Newton had been largely overlooked. But because all those ho-hum ranches and multilevels sat on decent-size lots, Stumpo saw tremendous value in replacing them with big, luxurious houses.
Eventually, her work attracted intense criticism. She recalls walking into a hearing at Newton City Hall many years ago, when officials were debating measures designed to curtail McMansions, which her critics had taken to calling “Stumpo monster homes.’’ Resting on easels in the hearing room were photos of nine controversial new homes. Eight of them were houses she had built. Her friend, a lawyer, turned to her and whispered, “Maybe you shouldn’t talk.’’
During these years of ascent, Stumpo frequently moved her family around, initially because she had limited capital and later because she simply got an offer that she couldn’t refuse. In 2013, she showed a house-hunting executive around town, but he couldn’t find anything he liked. When they went back to her place in Brookline to talk, he asked, “Can I just buy your house?’’ So she sold it to him for $3.35 million. She rented until she found her next teardown, which became her current home in Brookline, where, she notes, her neighbors include Bob Kraft and “Tom and Gisele.’’
Stumpo prefers to snatch up the houses she’s going to tear down before they go on the market. For years she patrolled her territory, looking for tall grass and other clues suggesting a property might be ripe for an offer. These days, her leads typically come from estate lawyers, realtors, and sellers. She doesn’t necessarily pay homeowners more than they’d get from someone looking to keep the existing house. But she usually offers them quick sales, with no contingencies for home inspections or mortgage approval, removing much of the uncertainty that can make sellers nervous.
“We’re not tearing down historic, classic homes,’’ she insists. “We’re tearing down postwar multilevels. There’s no skin on these bones.’’
A key to her financial success, she says, is “buying it at the right price.’’ She argues that the market has once again become overheated, comparing it to the 2004 bubble, which burst in 2005. She usually tries to keep her offers in the $700,000 range, but says lately she’s found herself being outbid, sometimes by several hundred thousand dollars. The median price for a single-family home in Newton last year, according to the Warren Group, was $941,000, nearly three times the state median.
Although she builds luxury homes, has styled hair and a blindingly big diamond, and starred in a one-season reality show, Stumpo says she’s a homebody at heart who doesn’t like to stray from her comfort zone and is usually found wearing jeans and muddy boots. She remains close with her ex-husband a decade after their divorce, and her current boyfriend is someone she knew in high school. Professionally, despite having reshaped the South Newton landscape in her image, she complains about new “in your face” builders squeezing too-big houses onto too-small lots. When she was in her 30s, she was building more than a dozen houses a year. Now that she’s 50, she’s far more cautious, averaging about half that.
Still, for the right property in the right spot, she won’t blink at writing a big check. She maneuvers her Range Rover onto Baldpate Hill Road, an expensive street adjacent to Dudley Road that offers sweeping views. We pass a house she bought for $1.35 million, naturally to tear it down. Others have spent far more for teardowns on this street.
We cruise back onto the estate end of Dudley, where she shelled out $3.2 million for a 5-acre property. She subdivided it and is in the process of building three homes here that she expects will each command more than $3 million.
As we idle in front of the first of these new houses to go up, a black limo drives past us. Stumpo tells me she believes Sheldon Adelson was riding in it. Adelson, the casino billionaire who is one of the richest men in the world, has hung on to a 5.5-acre estate on Dudley Road. She says they have a mutual friend and she’s hoping to get “first dibs on his property when he’s ready to sell. He hardly uses that house.’’
She shifts into gear and we pass through another South Newton neighborhood, this one featuring expensive homes with double front doors and a style that calls to mind architect Mike Brady’s groovy masterwork from The Brady Bunch. I ask Stumpo if she ever worries her houses will someday look similarly dated, prompting future builders to want to tear them down. Even though I’d heard her dismiss the city’s Historical Commission as “the hysterical commission,’’ she tells me now, “They’ll never be able to knock down my homes.” When I ask why, she says, “Because I was the first female builder to have built this many homes in Newton, they’re going to end up probably landmarking — historical — my houses.”
Above: In South Newton, this 4,900-square-foot home (right) replaced a 1,296-square-foot multilevel (left) from the 1960s.
* * *
THE FIRST TIME Alex Almonacid saw her new property was on February 11, 2014. Stumpo had given her the addresses of two houses she planned to tear down. Almonacid ruled out the first one without even getting out of the car. As the mother of a 5-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter, she found the street way too busy. The second one was a homely 1,296-square-foot multilevel house built around 1960, with a two-car garage as its most prominent feature. The 15,055-square-foot lot sat on a steep slope, rendering much of the large backyard unusable. Still, she loved its location on a quiet, dead-end street in South Newton, surrounded by well-kept older houses. She also liked that it was perpendicular to a street with several large teardown replacements, meaning she wouldn’t be the first — or likely, the last — to be building a new house on the block.
Two months later, she and her husband signed a purchase-and-sale agreement with Stumpo, putting down 5 percent of the roughly $1.8 million they would eventually pay her for their new 4,000-plus-square-foot house. At the time of this purchase and sale in April, Stumpo didn’t actually own the house. She had signed a P&S with its owners, agreeing to pay them $700,000. She knew the house had some serious structural problems, so the owners were anxious to sell.
Almonacid and her husband put their Newtonville condo on the market, selling it in one weekend over asking price. Fortunately, the buyer agreed to let them rent back the place until their new house was done.
Stumpo told Almonacid that because they were buying during “pre-construction,” they’d get a good deal. She would give them “allowances’’ for everything from appliances to bathroom tiles. If they chose something extravagant in one category, they’d need to make up for it with a more modest option in another category — or pay out of pocket.
Almonacid told Stumpo and her architect that they wanted a contemporary home with an open floor plan — sort of an urban loft in a suburban single-family home. They envisioned a kitchen eating area that could accommodate the whole family, including her husband’s older children from his first marriage.
In June, Stumpo closed on the house and the previous owners moved out. On July 9, she applied for a demolition permit. In Newton, houses more than 50 years old like this one can be subject to a one-year demolition delay if the Historical Commission finds them to be “preferably preserved” (or 18 months if the structure is on or eligible for the National Register of Historic Places). But acting planning director James Freas says that if city staffers determine that the house has no particular historic value, they can quickly approve the demolition permit “administratively.” Among the factors that could give a structure historical significance are if it was designed by a noted architect, housed a notable person, or remains a key part of the overall historic fabric of the neighborhood.
In the last fiscal year, the city received 125 applications for full-house demolitions subject to this review and approved 42 percent of them administratively. The city signed off on Stumpo’s application to demolish the house on the same day she filed it.
Later in July, bulldozers took only a day and a half to reduce the old house to rubble. The new foundation went in at the start of August, and by the first of September, the house was entirely framed. That’s when Stumpo took Almonacid and her husband on a “framing walk-through,’’ allowing them to experience the layout of their new house in a way that was not possible by simply looking at architectural plans. In response to their requests, Stumpo had her crew relocate a couple of walls.
When Stumpo asked about the color of the exterior stucco, Almonacid said, “Anything but beige.’’ They settled on white.
While her husband focused on big decisions and took the lead in managing relations with the neighbors (including delivering fruit baskets at Christmastime), Almonacid was Stumpo’s point person for the endless stream of day-to-day decisions. An elegant native of Colombia, Almonacid leveraged her Spanish to speak directly with many of the Latino workers on the job.
Across the months, Stumpo and her clients grew close. “Working with a family is like a marriage,’’ Stumpo says. “Alex and Jeff know everything about me.’’ She opened up to them about the debilitating panic attacks she sometimes suffers.
At different points, Almonacid and her husband each separately greenlighted overages beyond the allowances Stumpo had given them. He signed off on $1,400 for built-in nightlight/footlights running along the staircase and upstairs hallway, a feature he fell in love with after touring Stumpo’s home. And not long after Almonacid asked Stumpo about the bathroom salesperson’s suggestion that she add the steam feature to their master shower, her cellphone buzzed.
“Alex, come to my house right now!’’ Stumpo said.
“I’m at work, Cindy,’’ Almonacid replied.
“I want you to come sit in my shower.’’
She did, and soon signed off on adding the steam feature, to the tune of $4,000.
A few days before Christmas, on her 36th birthday, Almonacid went to the house, not to check on something, but just to enjoy it. Sitting on the central staircase, beneath the chandelier she had selected, she quietly celebrated how quickly her five-bedroom dream house had come together.
The steep slope out back had by now been transformed into a two-level yard, plus a patio. But there had been a big cost, in the form of tens of thousands of dollars for retaining walls and the loss of about 30 trees, many of them exceeding 70 feet in height. They were replaced with 37 new trees. But since those are about 5 feet tall, the backyard now offers much less privacy for them and their neighbors.
Next-door neighbor Joan DiCarlo moved onto the block in 1971, raising her kids in their multilevel. Now three generations of her family live there with her. She says it’s hard to shed tears for the disappearance of the abutting old house, since it was literally slipping into its slope. The lot was in such bad shape, she says, that she once saw the owners’ above-ground pool “slide down the hill.” There’s no denying that the new house is big — the city lists its living space at 4,900 square feet, but the true number is higher, since almost the entire walkout basement is finished. Still, DiCarlo is pleased that the house was designed to hide a good deal of its height in the slope so that its front blends in fairly nicely with the other houses on the street. Unlike many teardown replacements that are maxed out to the setback lines, she says, this relatively restrained new structure doesn’t distort the lot or the block (except perhaps from the perspective of Almonacid’s backyard abutter, who did not respond to interview requests).
Yet DiCarlo laments the wholesale change that teardowns are bringing to the wider neighborhood, particularly the over-the-top ones. Standing at the end of her driveway, pointing at the stark differences between the new and old houses, she says, “We look like the caretakers’ cottages.’’
* * *
THE TOUR ON A snowy January day begins in Oak Hill Park, a flat, sprawling subdivision in South Newton, with small but affordable houses built after World War II for returning GIs. To foster neighborliness, the houses were built across narrow paths from each other.
Instead of Stumpo, my guide for this tour is Amy Sangiolo, the chatty 50-year-old teardown critic who proposed the Newton moratorium. She’s been an alderwoman in Newton for 17 years, which, she says, makes her the longest-serving sitting Asian-American elected official in the state. For many of those years, she’s been hearing complaints about teardowns, and last year decided to do something to stop them. Instead of cruising along in a black Range Rover, I’m riding shotgun in Sangiolo’s gray-green 2003 Chrysler minivan. In the back are two activists and members of her anti-teardown posse.
With its unusually flat topography and its unusually small original houses, Oak Hill Park offers an especially dramatic view of the Teardown Economy in action. On nearly every street there are teardown replacements looming over modest original ranches and multilevels. They’ve usually been flipped around so they now face their wider street rather than their neighbors across those narrow paths. Sangiolo turns her minivan onto G Roadway and throws it into park. “Look at that!’’ she says, pointing to a tiny tan house sandwiched by two giant new homes.
As Sangiolo continues the tour, pointing out other eye-popping teardowns, rear-seat passenger and activist John Koot calls out the corresponding figures from a spreadsheet he compiled. “Old house was 1,416 square feet, sold in 2013 for $415,000,’’ says Koot, a retired computer specialist. “It was replaced with a new house that is 3,554 square feet and sold for $1.4 million.’’
The problem, Sangiolo says, is hardly confined to the city’s south side. After dropping off Koot, we head toward the neighborhood of Waban, where we pick up architect Bill Roesner. During his 24 years on the city’s Historical Commission, he became a passionate critic of teardowns, both of residential homes and city buildings. “We recycle our plastics, bottles, and paper, pretending to be environmentally proper, while at the same time trashing substantial brick and stone buildings,” he wrote in a 2013 letter to the editor of the local paper. He says he was surprised to learn last year from the mayor that he would not be reappointed.
In his own neighborhood, Roesner points to the large teardown replacements that he and other critics refer to as “snout houses.’’ Their enormous garages are pretty much all that is visible from the street.
I ask the architect and the alderwoman if it’s the best use of city authority and time to focus on aesthetic decisions for homeowners, like whether their garage doors dominate the front of their houses. After all, some conservative 19th-century Yankees objected to the garishness of the same Victorian houses that preservationists now uphold as the epitome of architectural class.
Sangiolo insists that she and her camp are not motivated by their personal tastes in aesthetics. She argues that the biggest problems with teardowns are that they reduce the city’s supply of affordable housing, cause the loss of trees and open space, and change the character of neighborhoods by creating oversize structures that impose on the existing houses.
Before long, we’re cruising in the minivan over the Mass. Turnpike, heading to the neighborhoods of Auburndale and West Newton. Driving down Auburn Street, Sangiolo points out several examples of “linguini’’ houses. By this she means a single-family house replaced by jamming the lot with two attached dwellings built like one long strand of pasta, typically with the side of the first house facing the street, and the fronts of both houses facing the side.
Sangiolo was perturbed that so many of her fellow aldermen were cool to the moratorium, framing their reluctance around the concerns of elderly residents who may want to sell their homes and leave Newton. “But what about all the elderly who want to stay?’’ she asks.
As we pass one construction crew after another, introducing more and more linguini to the neighborhood, Sangiolo says, “There are very few aldermen who can look me in the eye and say this neighborhood is not under attack.’’
In the end, the moratorium failed to get enough support to pass last fall. Officially, the board took no action, meaning the measure can be reintroduced at any time.
Sangiolo admits she was disappointed. But if the moratorium had to be shelved, she was at least relieved that it happened before Thanksgiving. “I have one brother-in-law who is a developer and another who is an architect, and they say, ‘What are you doing to us?’ ’’ Sangiolo explains. “So it turned out to be a friendly Thanksgiving.’’
* * *
ON THE SECOND MONDAY in January, the piano movers arrived, followed immediately by the arrival of a letter from NStar. Alexandra Almonacid realized it was her home now.
Meanwhile, sitting at the island of their kitchen a couple of miles away, Michael Gankin and Nina Plaks marveled at what had become of their old place. In 1995, the couple had bought the modest multilevel that Stumpo would go on to tear down for Almonacid. The $262,000 price tag reflected its settling problems, the result of having been built on fill land. But it took a while for them to grasp just how structurally unsound it was. They eventually put the house on the market, but every offer fell through during home inspection. So they went back to living in it.
Years later, when Stumpo found out about the place, through their broker, they were glad to sell. They moved forward with a $10,000 down payment on a $700,000 purchase price, rather than the standard 5 percent. In return, Stumpo allowed the couple to remain in their home for several more months as they searched for a new one.
Plaks says they’re happy to be in their new contemporary home in Newton and out of that sinking multilevel. Her husband, however, admits there’s something their new house can’t match. He pulls out his iPhone to retrieve a photo of his old finished basement. As it turns out, they had bought the place from a noted interior designer, Helene Levenson, and her husband. The house may have had a homely exterior and been a structural nightmare, but Levenson had turned its interior into a series of showrooms. As a master stroke of environmentalism and elan, she had rescued wood from a 200-year-old dilapidated barn in Maine and used it to reproduce the look and feel of the barn in her basement.
Levenson has since passed away, but when I track down her son, Barry, who grew up in the house, he says the unyielding wave of teardowns in the city of his childhood just makes him sad. He and his wife are wrapping up a long renovation of an old captain’s house in Marion, on the state’s south coast. “It has cost me more to restore this 200-year-old post-and-beam house,’’ he says, “than it would have been to tear it down and build a house one and a half times its size.’’
He and his parents moved into his childhood home when he was a toddler. He’s 58 now. In the mid-’90s, before his mother and father sold it to Gankin and Plaks, they offered it to their son. As many good memories as he had in the home, and as much as he loved the way his mother had transformed its interior, he couldn’t get past the fact that it was a multilevel that was badly built. “If I did buy it,’’ he admits, “I was going to tear it down.’’
Neil Swidey is a Globe Magazine staff writer. His book “Trapped Under the Sea: One Engineering Marvel, Five Men, and a Disaster Ten Miles Into the Darkness” is out in paperback on February 18. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @neilswidey.