Hill History: Local history group keeps fighting for landmarks

In 2001, the historic Mission Church complex was under threat. A developer had purchased its southern campus, comprising of three buildings, and planned to demolish them all.

Thanks to the Friends of Historic Mission Hill (FHMH), that never happened. Those buildings were designated as historic landmarks in 2005, thanks to FHMH volunteers’ efforts.

“That was the impetus, to try and band together to devise ways we could object to this plan to tear down those buildings, founding member Lois Regestein told the Gazette this week. “We thought a more general title, instead of Friends of Mission Church, would do us more good in the future.”

Thus was born Friends of Historic Mission Hill.

“Mission Hill is a neighborhood of limitless opportunity. The challenges are recognizing the projects that can have the greatest impact,” co-founder Alison Pultinas told the Gazette. “Physical improvements to the public realm [like] bike racks, park and community garden renovations [or] the plaza at One Brigham Circle enhance the daily experience. However, the necessary level of care and protection for our historic resources that could stabilize the diverse community has been difficult to achieve.”

Described by Pultinas as “just a minor little bit of the neighborhood’s horizon,” this ongoing advocacy campaign for Mission Hill’s historic buildings has nevertheless made its mark.

One of the three threatened buildings at Mission Church, the original Mission Grammar School building, was renovated by its current tenant, the Harvard School of Public Health. The other two, St. Alphonsus Hall and a former convent, are still standing, but have not been recently renovated.

Numerous other buildings and public infrastructure are now on landmark registers thanks to the work of FHMH volunteers, including the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, designated 2013, and the Parker Hill Branch Library, which has been approved for and is expecting its landmark designation any day.

FHMH has also organized “Lost Parker Hill,” an exhibit at J.P. Licks at Brigham Circle in 2013, as well as several neighborhood walking tours, according to Regestein and Pultinas.

Recent campaigns include attempting to landmark 55 Shattuck St., the building in which the iron lung was invented. Boston Children’s Hospital (BCH), its owner, is planning to eventually demolish the building in favor of new development.

The Boston Landmarks Commission study report said the building met the criteria for designation as a city landmark, “yet the Commission voted not to designate” it as such last October, Pultinas said.

“That was a disappointing outcome,” Regenstein said.

FHMH has also been active in seeking protection and funding for rehabilitation of Mission Hill’s historic walls and steps, including the walls on Sachem Street and Delle Avenue, and the Wait Street Stair and Hayden Steps, as the Gazette has previously reported.

FHMH “is not an organization in the strict sense of the word, but a series of campaigns and projects focused on advocacy and education,” Pultinas said. “We pick up different people interested in different things depending on what we’re doing.”

Its current main push is to tighten preservation of the Mission Hill Triangle, an area created by Wigglesworth and Worthington streets and Huntington Avenue. According to the City’s website, the area is remarkably well preserved, with nearly all of the structures built after 1872 still in place. It is already a protected historic district.

Its dedicated volunteers show no signs of slowing. The group is also currently planning for various displays around Mission Hill during Preservation Month in May and working up new means of preserving historic sites.

“Together with the Boston Preservation Alliance, we have been discussing strategies for a broader consideration of neighborhood conservation, for preserving historic context so that city landmark status is not the only tool,” Pultinas said.

The group does not have a website, but can be reached at [email protected] or 617-739-1489.

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