Restoring History, Step by Step

Photo by Judy Neiswander/Boston Preservation Alliance The crumbling stone wall on Sachem Street, seen here last winter, soon will see repairs.

Fixes coming to Hill’s walls and stairs

After years of attempts and failures, the historic walls and steps of Mission Hill are finally getting a little recognition and restoration.

These low stone walls and cement steps include the Sachem Street wall, the Delle Avenue wall, the Pontiac Street wall, the Wait Street steps and the Hayden Street steps.

These walls and steps all date from the 1930s and connect the hilly landscape of Mission Hill. The steps at the end of Wait Street join it to Sachem and Iroqouis streets. Those on Hayden Street link Lawn Street to Heath Street on the Back of the Hill. The low walls provide support for the hill and clear property lines for the city.

Currently, the steps are crumbling. Their handrails are rusting. The walls are dropping stones and are graffittied. The Sachem Street wall was hit by a car in 2008 and is still not repaired. Water damage is further deteriorating all of these structures.

But they’re finally getting a little attention—the Sachem Street wall’s renovation is due to start “any day now,” City Councilor Mike Ross told the Gazette last week.

“Individually, none of them are highly significant, [but] as a collection, they tell a story of what was happening during the Great Depression, when they were [part of a] program trying to energize the economy, bringing jobs to the community. They help to tell that story of what was happening nation- and statewide,” said Sarah Kelly, the executive director of the Boston Preservation Alliance.

Alison Pultinas, along with other participants in the Friends of Historic Mission Hill, has been trying to restore and maintain these Work Projects Administration (WPA)-era stone walls and pedestrian steps since 2000.

WPA projects employed millions of unemployed workers during the Great Depression in the 1930s. WPA was responsible for many public works projects such as roads, parks and schools all over the country.

Pultina started on her quest eight years ago, when she first tried to include the stone walls of Mission Hill as a historic resource with the Boston Landmarks Commission. She didn’t let that first failure stop her.

Last year, Pultinas nominated them, as a group, for Preservations Massachusetts’s Most Endangered Resource (MER) list and was denied in September. This was her third rejection for the MER list.

“We probably didn’t get [on the MER list] because we’re not talking about architecture. We’re talking about infrastructure,” she said. “It’s not like we were nominating them to national preservation [status].”

But, Pultinas added, the MER list is “the first step in acknowledging that there’s something of value.”

“Often, features like these walls and stairways lend as much character to the community as buildings themselves,” Kelly said. “The impact they have in the circulation of the neighborhood is something that people that live in the neighborhood want to continue to see.”

Although not specifically documented as WPA projects, it is likely that the funds for the walls and steps were part of a general appropriation to the city for public works projects that the federal government distributed in the 1930s to provide work for the needy unemployed.

“These projects happened during Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration, when federal money came to urban areas to rebuild infrastructure. They employed people from the area, used local materials and added value to neighborhood,” Pultinas said.

Pultinas has a copy of the 1935 City Record page with the advertisement for the Hayden Steps public works project. Those steps were completed that same year. The other sites also date from that era.

Since last fall’s MER list rejection, there has been significant, if slow, progress.

The city is expected to move ahead with a restoration of the Sachem Street wall this spring, Kelly said.

“That’s really great news,” she said. “The community deserves a lot of credit for pushing.”

The wall has already been pressure-cleaned in preparation for the $150,000 restoration, Ross said. The Sachem Street wall underwent a quick fix in 2002, but it’s currently suffering from “major problems” because of the car accident, Ross said.

Meanwhile, Pultinas, Kelly and their fellow conservationists are looking into private foundations, “exploring what the costs would be to restore the [Hayden Street] stairs and make them usable again…Some of these things are at a point where they’ve deteriorated quite significantly,” Kelly said.

“We started with the [Sachem Street] wall. Then the next step is to move on to the Hayden steps, try to identify funds, and try to figure our what this will cost to have work done,” Kelly said. So far, they’ve had no luck, she added.

“Community groups and our organization are pretty small, we try to tackle these things one at a time,” she said. “It tends to be most effective.”


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