Gloucester is America's oldest seaport; a small city founded in 1623 where preservation should be paramount. Peabody, a short distance away, is a tired industrial city with less to preserve. A significant building, one that was familiar to me, in Peabody was also threatened with demolition.
The following story is taken from a piece I wrote at that time and submitted to Enduring Gloucester, a local blog, (enduringgloucester.com) some of which I will repeat here along with a follow-up. The date was October 13, 2015.
LEADING BY EXAMPLE
We accept the fact that Gloucester is America's oldest seaport but it is easy to take this distinction for granted. In addition Gloucester has a rich history in the art world. The list of painters who came to Gloucester, drawn by the scenery and the special light, is a who's who in art. Throw in the history of the granite industry, the uniquely ethnic neighborhoods and last but not least, the architecture.
Switching gears, let's talk about the City of Peabody. Peabody? Of all the towns and cities on the North Shore what's so historic about Peabody?
The City of Peabody was separated from Danvers and was the scene of leather workers and tanneries. The tanneries are mostly gone and although that city is proud of its history few would compare it to Gloucester on any level. It is a city of malls, old factories, busy highways and a central square that is sometimes under water. Above all it doesn't have a harbor and any comparison to Gloucester, Le Beauport, would seem to be ludicrous.
Although Peabody doesn't have much going for it compared to Gloucester, in one respect it has Gloucester beat hands down. Here's why.
In the late 1890s J. B. Thomas built a house for his grandson. He spared nothing to create a beautiful house smack dab in the middle of the city on the corner of Main Street and Washington Street. It also had fabulous carriage house in the rear not to mention an enormous and beautiful old beech tree in the front.
The Thomas family lived in the house for 15 or 20 years before selling it to the O'Sheas. It then became known as the O'Shea house until sold around 1970 and converted into a furniture store. After the furniture store owners retired the house was sold to a social agency.
In recent years the house has fallen on hard times and was foreclosed. Bank owned, it was available for sale.
In a scenario that is far too familiar, a developer from our own City of Gloucester eyed this high visibility site for redevelopment and negotiated to purchase it. He made it known that his intent was to demolish the old house. He was so taken with the site he had not, according to reports, even looked at its wonderful interior. This is when the story takes a remarkable turn.
Unlike Gloucester, this community, Peabody, has a demolition delay ordinance and has had one since 1986, more than thirty years ago. It was invoked in an attempt to save the O'Shea house. But when the City realized that the delay was not long enough to be effective the city council boldly extended the ordinance from 90 days to one year, 365 days, to buy more time, a lease on life for the old house in question.
The trend is for longer delay periods as towns where demolition delay has been tested understand that in order to be effective, longer delays must be enacted and are addressing this finding. Meanwhile, remember, Gloucester doesn't even have a demolition delay ordinance, still rolling out the red carpet for developers who care little for the historical value of the properties they would demolish.
(Newburyport, a most beautiful nearby city, has found out the hard way that developers gutting their beautiful Federal period mansions for condo conversion leaving them a pretty shell with all of the original interior fabric, destroyed or scrapped. They are just now recognizing and assessing their loss.)
Determined not to lose this historic house, the City of Peabody, led by the mayor and supported by the Peabody City Council, made a second bold move. They announced they would take the house by eminent domain! The house will be saved and it will be interesting to see what happens next. The City can potentially recover their fair market value purchase price and will have the option to sell it with preservation covenants or easements to protect it into the future. This is what anyone caring about the house hopes will happen.
Perhaps eminent domain is a tool that Gloucester should invoke from time to time when a historic building is in jeopardy. How is it that Peabody can take such a decisive seep while Gloucester languishes totally vulnerable with no demolition delay and only a tiny historic district?
Who would think that Peabody would have the foresight and courage to act so decisively? Why is Gloucester so indifferent?
Is it because Peabody has so much less to save that they are galvanized into making such a bold move?
Regardless of what motivated them, I say, "Kudos to Peabody" May they lead by example!
June 20, 2017
I wrote the above story on October 13, 2015. Having heard no more about the O;Shea house I moved on and did not follow up. This morning's paper and the following article jolted me into the realization that I had taken for granted that the house was safe.
The developer, Michael Corsetti, who happens to come from Gloucester, is suing the City of Peabody saying that his civil rights were violated when the City took the property.
Here is an unbelievably exquisite property now in the hands of a developer who is is determined to win this battle with the City of Peabody although he has no credentials and no background in preservation. He is typical of the developers such as those that have attacked the City of Newburyport to convert historic properties into money makers for themselves and then move on. When preservation easements are ignored they offer the community a sum of money to compensate the community in lieu of having respected the history, architecture or even the covenants on the property. This trick has worked in some instances.
It is a sad state of affairs and I hope Peabody keeps fighting this callous developer tooth and nail.
For more details here is a link to the updated newspaper story published today, June 20, 2017.
Also, related to this sad story is the piece I wrote in this blog called "Why Are You Gutting This House" October 13, 2016, exactly one year after the O'Shea house story. This piece addressed what was happening in Newburyport, a city that has a lot to lose.
Each community has its sob story recounting the loss of special properties. It is not an easy problem to solve but demolition delay and preservation easements can help. These historic towns and cities need to employ all the tools available to slow down the destruction of antique and significant properties.
Good luck to Peabody!