Antique homes face growing threat from hot real estate market
Steve Evers can’t bear to drive along Walnut Street in Natick, past the vacant lot where a circa 1760 farmhouse had stood for more than 250 years.
The chairman of Natick’s Historical Commission was among a group of residents and town officials that tried to save the William Farris House from the wrecking ball after its owner decided to take it down. But when the commission’s six-month demolition delay expired this year, the historic property was knocked to the ground.
“We tried to work with the owner to come up with alternatives for demolition, but she didn’t have any purpose for it and didn’t want to invest in it,’’ Evers said.
Evers and other antique-home enthusiasts say historic structures are in danger now more than ever.
As the real estate market around Greater Boston continues to heat up with homes in short supply, buyers are gobbling up land where they can, and are no longer just tearing down outdated ranches.
At the same time, fewer families have the time or interest to take on older homes as projects, they say. Most are more interested in moving into ready-made homes with mud rooms, big kitchens, and open floor plans rather than a fixer-upper that requires time and money to finish.
Miceal Chamberlain, founder and president of Historic Homes Inc., a real estate firm in Newton, said there is still a market for antique properties, but interest is waning.
“Ten years ago, there was a bigger appetite on the part of buyers to be interested in historic homes and doing the work, but there aren’t as many today,’’ he said. “They seem to gravitate more to instant satisfaction, and these old homes don’t have the elements people are looking for without major surgery.’’
According to the secretary of state’s office, 145 communities in Massachusetts have bylaws that allow local officials to delay demolition of eligible properties for a certain period of time. Delays typically range from 90 days to a year.
Officials said their purpose is to give communities and preservationists time to work with owners to come up with alternatives to razing a structure.
Dover, Brookline, Northborough, and Weston are among the area communities where residents and town officials have sought to preserve historic properties, and are trying to find creative ways to sell, move, or repurpose the homes.
■ Residents at Weston’s Town Meeting approved a preservation restriction that would pay the owners of a home $250,000 if they agreed to permanently protect the home from demolition.
■ Northborough officials are actively involved in marketing the White Cliffs function hall to attract a new buyer.
■ In Brookline, neighbors have banded together to create a local historic district where a an American Arts and Crafts home is located to make demolition more difficult
“This is happening all over,’’ said Marisa Morra, a member of Weston’s Historical Commission, who has been trying to save the Benjamin Loring Young Estate House from demolition. “Modern is in, and that is not great for these houses. It’s an arc and we hope it goes down. We have to educate people about why they are worth saving.’’
Norm Corbin, a member of the Northborough Historic District Commission, said White Cliffs, also known as the Wesson Estate, was put on the market last year, but has not sold. The business closed at the end the year, and after the owners applied for a demolition permit, the town obtained a delay that expires in July.
Corbin said town officials initially considered creating a local historic district covering the property, but held off in an effort to work with the owner, who said it would be easier to sell the 1886 mansion without the restriction.
The town has hired a consultant that specializes in converting old buildings to new uses, Corbin said.
“In the past month, we’ve had a lot of inquiries, so I’m more optimistic than I was three months ago,’’ Corbin said. “Not all buildings are worth saving, but we’ll do our darndest to find someone interested in preserving this one.’’
In Dover, a local developer is working to save a home that was built in 1650 in Amesbury and moved to Dover in 1969. The current owner of the property wants to build a new home on the land, but rather than having the antique building demolished is hoping someone will buy it and move it, said Ken Soderholm, with Soderholm Custom Builders in Natick. Soderholm, who has been hired to build the new home, said it’s time consuming and expensive to renovate an old structure, so many buyers aren’t interested.
“It’s tough and it’s why there are so many tear downs,’’ Soderholm said. “It’s sad. I’ve seen houses come down in Southborough, Framingham, and Dover, but we’re trying to prevent that on this one.’’
Residents in Brookline are also trying to save a house from the chopping block. Barbara and John Sherman, who live on Adams Street, say they are trying to preserve a distinctive single-family neighborhood in the area of Crowninshield Road. A developer has purchased a home there and plans to demolish it to make way for several units of affordable housing.
Residents worked with the town to propose a local historic district for the neighborhood with the hope that it would make demolition more difficult. Town Meeting approved the status last month.
The Shermans said they’d love to see at least parts of the home reused so the character of the neighborhood is not completely destroyed.
“Property values are going up, and developers are seeing it as an opportunity to destroy historic buildings,’’ Barbara Sherman said. “It’s a real shame for people who have lived in neighborhoods and raised generations of families.’’