Historic buildings across the state face challenges. This organization is sounding the alarm on them
When Wendy Joseph takes visitors inside the Grand Army of the Republic building in Lynn, she closely watches their expressions as they enter the main hall.
And the reaction is always the same.
“They lose their minds over the grandeur of it,’’ she said. “It’s so impressive. You’re breathing history in there. They say, ‘Are we in Lynn?’ ’’
The General Frederick W. Lander Post 5 G.A.R. building, erected in 1885 to support a fraternal organization of Civil War union veterans and their families, is one of 11 structures on the 2018 Massachusetts Most Endangered Historic Resources List.
The list is published every other year by Preservation Massachusetts, a statewide nonprofit dedicated to saving the Commonwealth’s historic and cultural heritage. It’s a way to raise awareness about historic properties in disrepair that are in danger of further deterioration or even demolition, said James Igoe, the organization’s president.
Hundreds of people may walk by the Lynn G.A.R. building but have no idea of its significance, Igoe said. By putting a spotlight on some of these properties, Preservation Massachusetts hopes to save them.
“This is American history moldering and dry rotting away,’’ said Joseph, president of the recently created Friends of the Grand Army of the Republic Hall and Museum of Lynn. “It’s something we owe future generations.’’
Of the 230 historic resources designated as endangered since the list’s inception in 1993, 95 have been classified as saved, 31 have been lost, and the rest are either making progress toward preservation or continue to face threats.
The 2018 endangered list includes Arlington High School, historic stone walls throughout the state, and the railings on the Echo Bridge in Newton and Needham.
Joseph hopes the placement of the Lynn G.A.R. building on the Preservation Massachusetts list will bring attention to the building and its place in American history.
At one time, the Lynn G.A.R. was the largest in the nation in terms of members and the amount of money given back to the community. The main hall, “the jewel’’ as Joseph described it, is rich with history.
The walls of the hall are filled with photos of soldiers, while the center of the room features an ornate chandelier and capstan from the USS Kearsarge. The ship was involved in an important battle off the coast of France during the Civil War.
But over the years, as veterans and their families died off, so did financial support for the building, which was turned over to the city in 1919. Today, the building — a museum and meeting space — is in disrepair with no climate control, leaving historical documents, such as letters from Abraham Lincoln and artifacts including Union uniforms, at risk, Joseph said.
“To say it was deferred maintenance would be kind,’’ she said. “The building is in poor shape. We are tasked with getting this to be a 21st-century museum.’’
Within the past few months, the city of Lynn created a committee to help raise funds for the building. Joseph said it will likely take between $10 million and $12 million to get the building up to code, make other repairs, create the museum, and establish an endowment.
Currently, the building is open by appointment and hosts community meetings. But the goal is to turn the property into a modern museum with interactive displays and all items properly catalogued. Joseph said they are discovering new items each day.
“We don’t even know what will be found in all of those closets and cabinets,’’ she said.
On the Needham-Newton line, Echo Bridge was built in 1876 to span the Charles River at Hemlock Gorge. The ornamental railings, now rusted and cracked, are an important piece of the bridge’s history, said Lee Fisher, chair of the Echo Bridge Railing Committee.
“It’s a gem,’’ Fisher said. “Some people say there are a lot of other priorities in the world. But why can’t we take care of our infrastructure better and honor our forefathers who built this thing? It has required such little maintenance.’’
Fisher said the committee needs $1.5 million to replicate the railings. In the meantime, a self-supporting rail system has been put in place so the pedestrian bridge is safe, he said. The group is hoping to raise $200,000 and also apply for grants to fund the project. He hopes the placement on the endangered resources list will bring it attention.
“This is an opportunity to bring real grandeur back to this promenade,’’ he said.
There have been several preservation success stories in recent years — Fenway Park, Union Station in Worcester, and the Robbins House in Concord. Others, like the National Pilgrim Memorial Meetinghouse in Plymouth, are making progress.
The meeting house was placed on the list in 2014 after the owner, First Parish Plymouth, a Unitarian Universalist congregation, was unable to keep up with the ongoing maintenance. The 1899 building needs about $3 million worth of work, said Jan Blanchard, president of the Friends of the First Parish Meetinghouse.
After failing to secure the money through fund-raising or grants, the church recently transferred the building to the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, which plans to renovate the building and turn it into an educational facility honoring the Pilgrims.
Church groups have had a difficult time raising funds for historic preservation in recent years after a lawsuit was filed in Acton over the use of Community Preservation Act funds for church buildings, Blanchard said. She said the Mayflower Society will have a better chance of securing money for the building.
“It’s going to be a win-win for all of us,’’ said Blanchard. “I’m sad it doesn’t belong to the congregation anymore. I have a lot of sentimentality about the building, but it’s the best thing for the building and the congregation because we can move on without worrying about the building.’’
The congregation is still allowed to hold services at the meeting house during the off-season tourist months.
Igoe agreed that saving church buildings can be difficult. One of the group’s recent “losses’’ was a church in Worcester. The Notre Dame des Canadiens Church was built in 1929 and had been closed since 2008. A developer purchased the downtown property and demolished the church last fall to make way for a new multi-use project.
“It was a difficult loss for nonprofits like ours,’’ said Erin Kelly, associate director of Preservation Massachusetts. “Losses tend to be very emotional. It’s like the five stages of grief.’’