Duxbury prides itself on its shipbuilding history and its stately Federal-style homes from that era, a few of which grace the former Battelle Memorial Institute property on Washington Street, the main road running through the town’s historic downtown streetscape.
But the marine lab pulled out of that 11-acre site three years ago in favor of more modern facilities in Norwell and is selling it to developers who have taken out demolition permits for several of its buildings, including the First Nathaniel Winsor/Richards House. The turn of events has left preservation advocates stunned that the town has little apparent power to prevent historic structures from being razed.
“Any town that had a 217-year-old Federal style shipbuilder’s home, with a rich history intertwined with that of the town itself, would not let it be demolished,” wrote Duxbury resident Sheila Lynch-Benttinen in a letter to Battelle and copied to town officials and media. “I am amazed it is happening in Duxbury, Massachusetts.”
The developer seeking the demolition permits said he hoped not to use them.
Merrill H. Diamond, founding partner of Boston-based Diamond/Sinacori, said in a phone interview that the firm hopes to sell two of the historic houses along Washington Street to someone willing to restore them, but he said there are no guarantees. He said they are “more likely to be preserved than not.”
Katy Delaney, spokeswoman for Battelle, said her institution believes Diamond has a strong track record. “We have confidence that Diamond Sinacori will develop the property with a keen eye toward historic preservation and in a way that will be beneficial to Duxbury,” she said in an e-mailed statement.
The latest proposed plan — an earlier one for 35 residential units was rejected by Town Meeting — calls for an eight-house subdivision, with homes designed to fit in with the neighborhood, said Diamond. As a former member of the Massachusetts Historical Commission, he said he understands people’s desire to keep the historical nature of properties. He said he plans to keep two of the more significant homes along Washington Street, including the Winsor house. He said he also hopes to move the Shore House, now located more in the middle of the campus, closer to Washington Street.
Robert W. Galvin, a local lawyer representing Diamond/Sinacori, said building regulations are sometimes to blame for the lack of preservation. He said older homes and properties are sometimes expected to conform with rules written long after they were built. He added that in his opinion the properties would have been more protected under the previous plan, which the town rejected.
The Duxbury Historical Commission has set hearings for the Shore House and the First Nathaniel Winsor/Richards House for Oct. 18, but the head of that body acknowledged that the most it could do to stand in the way of demolition would be to issue a six-month delay.
“There’s not enough,’’ said Chairman Robert C. Vose III about the ability of the town to protect historical homes.
The Alden House, once home to John and Priscilla Alden, who arrived on the Mayflower, is designated as a National Historic Landmark and so cannot be demolished, he said. But there is no such protection for other historical buildings in town, said Vose, whose Duxbury ancestors date back more than 200 years. Some, in fact, once lived in the First Nathaniel Winsor House, named for a Revolutionary War fighter credited with building the town’s first trading wharves. (The Richards were later residents.)
Vose said there is a proposal being worked on for the spring Town Meeting to extend the delay option to 12 months, but even then, it may only stall a project, not kill it. “An awful lot of buildings have been torn down,’’ Vose said.
Jean Lang can be reached at email@example.com.