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Mattapan’s oldest building to become urban farming center

From left: Jeffrey Morgan, Patricia Spence, Barbara Kenecht, and Jackson Rand are restoring the land.
From left: Jeffrey Morgan, Patricia Spence, Barbara Kenecht, and Jackson Rand are restoring the land.Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff

Mattapan's oldest building, a 200-year-old farmhouse, might soon see another harvest.

Its barren grounds will transform into planting beds. The 2½-story wooden house will be restored to its 18th-century appearance. It will become a gathering place for residents and a training hub for farming entrepreneurs.

A symbol of the region's agrarian past, the Fowler Clark Epstein Farm will soon provide a glimpse into the future as headquarters for the Urban Farming Institute.

On Monday evening, community leaders will kick off a campaign to raise more than $1 million to restore the property at 487 Norfolk St. through partnerships with Historic Boston Inc., the Urban Farming Institute, the Trust for Public Land, North Bennet Street School, and the city.

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"The urban farming movement in Boston is fledgling and new," said Kathy Kottaridis, executive director of Historic Boston Inc. "But building on the successes so far, this development has the potential to create more farms and green-collar jobs."

Mayor Martin J. Walsh will also announce the appointment of Tosha Baker as director of the mayor's office of food initiatives.

"People are really far removed from their food these days," Baker said. "With urban farming, you have a better understanding of where your food comes from, who's growing it, the effort it takes to get it to market, and an enhanced appreciation of what you're eating."

As a nutritionist, former lactation consultant with Women, Infants, and Children, and a professionally trained chef, Baker said she has seen the effect of good nutrition as well as hunger on low-income families in the city.

The community will have a chance to go behind the scenes at the farm during Monday's celebration, from 5 to 7 p.m.

The structure has been at the corner of Norfolk and Hosmer Streets for generations. The property, now 30,000 square feet in size, was originally part of a 330-acre inheritance three brothers — Samuel, Stephen, and Jesse Fowler — received from their grandfather, a veteran of the Revolutionary War, according to a study done by the Boston Landmarks Commission.

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From left: Jackson Rand, Lisa Lewis, and Darci Schofield examined drawings on a wall at the Fowler Clark Epstein Farm.
From left: Jackson Rand, Lisa Lewis, and Darci Schofield examined drawings on a wall at the Fowler Clark Epstein Farm.Joanne Rathe/Globe staff

The farmhouse appeared on the property sometime between 1786 and 1806. Three families who lived there — the Fowlers, the Clarks, and the Epsteins — left the greatest mark on the land.

The city took over care of the farm in 2013, trimming the weeds and clearing away refuse. Historic Boston Inc. purchased the property for redevelopment in June for $250,000. Plans include classrooms, a demonstration kitchen, and offices in the 1860s carriage barn, as well as a greenhouse and farm stand.

The project's total cost is about $3 million, with $300,000 already raised as of last week. A portion of the project will be funded through state and federal historic tax credits.

This is the third urban agricultural commercial effort to sprout in the city since new zoning laws were passed at the end of 2013 during Mayor Thomas Menino's administration. Three more urban farms are in the works in Mattapan and Dorchester.

At a barbecue on the Fowler Clark Epstein Farm in August, the community shared stories, folktales, and memories of the families who lived there.

Urban legends persisted even as locals watched the property deteriorate, fighting to prevent it from being torn down and turned into condominiums.

Its mythology ranges from buried treasure to underground tunnels. It's said President Abraham Lincoln once visited the property. That Brigham Young, a 19th-century leader of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, was thought to have trudged through the rural land. That even Harriet Tubman set foot on its soil.

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Organizers of the project have heard the stories, as well, but have yet to see them confirmed.

Mabel Walker, 80, remembers getting bitten by a dog on the property and crossing the street often to visit her neighbors.

Aleefah Ilyas-McNish, 43, grew up playing on the street outside the farm. Both welcomed the news of cultivating the soil again at the Boston landmark.

"Every time we're out, someone is walking by asking what the plan is for the land," said Patricia Spence, executive director of the Urban Farming Institute. "Often, the residents are the last to know. We didn't want that. We need each other to make this happen."

Spence has lived five minutes from the property since she was 5 years old. She said her grandparents in Roxbury were always growing fruits and vegetables, canning and pickling their produce. She's familiar with the community, especially the elders. She knew they would want to contribute to the farm's planning.

Albert Middleton, 75, was friends with the last owners of the property, Jorge Epstein. Epstein was well known and ran a salvage business, Old Mansions Co. His decorative panels of vintage architecture are still embedded in the perimeter wall.

A mural of lush green hills and the farm itself can be seen in one of the home’s original rooms.
A mural of lush green hills and the farm itself can be seen in one of the home’s original rooms.Joanne Rathe/Globe staff

Middleton moved near the old farm in the 1960s. The neighborhood consisted mostly of Jewish families back then, and he was one of the only black residents on the street.

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He sold Epstein a marble sink from an old church and curiosities he brought back from demolition sites.

"Epstein came around and spoke to me because he knew I was in the business as a general contractor," Middleton said. "He had a fascinating eye for antiques."

At the back of the house is a room that resembles an ancient Greek temple with high ceilings. Despite cobwebs and deterioration inside the house, the dark wood threshold surrounding the entrance looks regal.

Two murals, one unfinished, can be seen in one of the home's original rooms. On the left is an image of a house in the winter and snowbanks. On the right is a colorful glimpse of lush green hills, a familiar farmhouse and stable.

There is great interest in the farm as a place where people can learn and come together, Middleton said.

"The neighborhood has changed so much . . . there's so much crime," he said. "I raised five kids in this house. I've watched the change. People ask me why I don't move. I believe in investing in the community. That's why I'm still here."

The Fowler Clark Epstein Farm dates to the late 1700s or early 1800s, officials say.
The Fowler Clark Epstein Farm dates to the late 1700s or early 1800s, officials say.Joanne Rathe/Globe staff

Cristela Guerra can be reached at cristela.guerra@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @CristelaGuerra.