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Thursday, November 10, 2005

Stop on black history trail is razed

Preservationists outraged; city says owner lacked permit By Cristina Silva, Globe Staff November 10, 2005 Hidden off a small alley on Beacon Hill, the red brick, Federal-style home was once owned by John P. Coburn, a prominent black businessman, an outspoken abolitionist, and the founder of the nation's first all-black military company. It was believed to have been a way station on the Underground Railroad for slaves seeking freedom, and today it's on the Black Heritage Trail for tourists in search of Boston's early African-American history. But the new owner has knocked most of it down, and historic preservation groups are outraged. City officials said yesterday that the owner, a local real estate agent, did not obtain the proper permits before demolishing most of the two-story house in mid-October and they have stopped construction at the Phillips Street site until further notice. Preservationists said that it's too late, that the house, built in the early 1800s, can never be restored. ''We fear it's pretty much lost to us," said James Igoe, president of Preservation MASS, which recently included the house on its list of the 10 most endangered historic sites in the state. ''We were just very surprised that in a neighborhood like Beacon Hill, where you matter-of-factly think everything is protected, it just isn't. If nothing else, there has to be a lesson learned that things like this shouldn't be happening." Eric Stevens said yesterday that when he bought the house last year for about $500,000, it was beyond repair, with an unsteady foundation and crumbling walls. ''A 4-year-old could have pushed it over," Stevens said. ''The building was an eyesore and unsafe, and I'm putting a million dollars into it to make it beautiful." Stevens applied for a permit to renovate the house in early 2004. According to city documents, he received permission to ''construct new partitioning, stairway, kitchen, bathrooms, and roof deck." James W. Hunt III -- head of Boston's Environment Department, which oversees the Boston Landmarks Commission -- said Stevens never told officials he intended to tear the house down. ''The initial project that was permitted would have at least retained most of the original structure," Hunt said. ''He was just building up initially. That's what he sought approval for, not to take down." Yesterday, the remains of the house consisted of a thin outline of bricks and a green door of rotting wood. Stevens said he had intended to restore the house based on its original architecture before the city ordered him to stop construction. ''I'm willing to do whatever the neighborhood wants," he said. ''But we can't rebuild it until we take it down." The Coburn house is one of 14 structures in the nearly 2-mile walk through downtown Boston that makes up the heritage trail. The house, however, is not an official historic landmark and does not fall under the protection of the Beacon Hill Architectural Commission, because it is not on a main street. According to a 1955 state law, the city can protect only projects visible from a public road. Coburn, who was born about 1811 in Massachusetts and died in 1873, worked with abolitionist groups such as the Boston Vigilance Committee and cofounded the Massasoit Guards, an all-black military company, said Beth Bower, university archivist at Suffolk University and a scholar of African-American history. ''This is a great loss for Boston," Bower said. ''There are not that many homes left in Boston from that era, especially if you are talking about homes that represent how the African-American community lived." Beverly Morgan-Welch -- executive director of the Museum of Afro-American History, which oversees the Black Heritage Trail -- said it will continue to recognize the Coburn house, even though it is no longer intact. ''It is so significant to be able to walk on the Black Heritage Trail and point out real places, not just what was once there," she said. ''I can't even tell you how deeply saddened we are by all of this." © Copyright 2005 Globe Newspaper Company


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