Commissioners Accept Firehouse Site Report, But Some Question Context

No one on the Bedford Historic District Commission disagreed at Wednesday’s monthly meeting with architectural historian Ryan Hayward’s conclusion that the building targeted for demolition to make room for a fire station “lacks the integrity to rise to individual recognition.”

His 143-page report, prepared over the past several months, is replete with evidence of the banality of 139 The Great Road and the people associated with it over the past 100-plus years.

But one member of the commission – which can deny permission to demolish the building – observed that the Historic District is more than the sum of its parts. “It was declared a historic district because of how each building contributed to the whole,” said architect Salvatore Canciello, suggesting that “maybe only five buildings rise to that level” of individual importance. 

The report declares that the house “is marginally significant but lacks integrity. As a result, the
building is considered a noncontributing resource to the historic district.” But it also acknowledges, “In the context of a group of buildings, including the Bacon House at 133 Great Road, and within the Old Bedford Center district, the building at 139 Great Road contributes to the understanding of broader patterns of history.”

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Commission member Jennifer McClain said she understands that the building “has no special anything,” but is also part of a “tapestry.”

The commission regulates the exterior appearance of all buildings visible from The Great Road in the Bedford Center Historic District, which extends westerly from Bacon Road/Hillside Avenue past Willson Park to the fork at Carlisle and North Roads.

The commission by law cannot approve a demolition permit without simultaneously approving its replacement. Design of the new fire station is still several months away.

After Annual Town Meeting in March approved acquisition of 139 The Great Road, the town hired Hayward’s firm, Preservation Collaborative, to obtain a definitive report on the building’s value to Bedford history.

The structure, which most recently was used by Utah State University as laboratory and office space, is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and was often referred to as a carriage house related to the adjacent historic Jonathan Bacon House. 

But Hayward concluded that the building came together in the early 20th century. He wrote, “The building is constructed using recycled elements. Two balloon-framed structures were joined together to form a somewhat residential massing.” The elements “have no stand-alone history and are just looked at as incidental by way of reuse. Their construction method and materials are not of any consequence and can be found in many buildings of similar vintage.”

At one point on Wednesday he said, “Everything that’s in there now you could probably go into  Home Depot and pick off the shelves.”

Two commission members admonished Hayward for including in his report statements about the value and appropriateness of a fire station in the Historic District.

A particular paragraph “was truly out of place in this report,” said Alan Long, after praising the research. “Unfortunately it indicates what you were hired to do, and I think that’s too bad.” He added, “This report should not be about the fire station.” Karen Kalil-Brown added that she did not see the relevance of any reference to the fire station.

Hayward acknowledged that “perhaps I need to review that and see how I worded that.”

In his conclusion, Hayward noted that the town’s fire station “has always been within sight of Town Common. It is important to note that the loss of the fire department to the district would be a major blow to the district’s overarching integrity.”

And the introduction to the report states: “Looking at the historic district, it is far more important to maintain the fire department as a civic anchor. The zoning was established to highlight the cluster of residential buildings and civic and municipal institutions. The loss of the fire department, having been a part of the center for nearly two centuries, would be a significant erosion of integrity. A carefully designed replacement structure can be constructed within the district.”

Long, who was out of state and speaking through a telephone connection, said, “I am distressed to think that you were also hired to try to sway the opinion of the public and the HDC about the appropriateness of replacing this structure with a fire station. I don’t think it’s your job to tell us that there’s a specific mandate to replace a building with a fire station that fits so nicely in the context of the Historic District. It really casts a shadow over all the work that you’ve done.”

Kalil-Brown noted that the frontage at 139 The Great Road is 41 feet shorter than at the current fire station. “How are you going to turn fire trucks around?” she wondered. “How are you going to get them in and out? How are you going to support the fire station we want? It doesn’t look good.”

McClain pointed out that the fire station has yet to be designed. “The way this proposed building fits in there will depend on a design team,” she said. “A good design takes time and we can wait and see where that’s going.”

Canciello said the commission will be assessing several variables in determining whether the design is appropriate, including scale, setbacks, height, and “character.” Hayward said all of those parameters are legitimate.

The director of PMA Consultants, the project manager engaged by the town, said it is expected a designer will be at work in about a month. Stephen Rusteika Jr., seated next to Hayward, said the request for quote specified expertise in working within historic areas. “One of the first things we will look at is context before any design starts,” he said. 

Member Karl Winkler called for “some conceptual layouts so we can envision what it will look like, to counter really bad Photoshops” on social media. “People are emailing me pictures that came out of Facebook. That’s damaging,” he said.

Winkler was the only member who asked questions about the details of the research, ranging from patents registered by Jonathan Bacon and the age of the stone wall along the front of the lawn to the architectural style of double window dormers.

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February 4, 2023 8:06 pm

Focusing on the house misses the point that even if the lot were empty there are still compelling reasons why the HDC could deny the necessary permit. Moreover, the possible expense and delay of moving the utility poles need to be explored sooner than later. There should be a Plan B.

February 6, 2023 11:04 pm

Poles are moved all the time. Committee can be disbanded too. I vote Aye for both.

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