Council halts landmark calls for buildings in Port Norfolk

The building at 12R Ericsson St., now housing the Boston Distillery, was termed by the BLC as being a “rare survivor of its type and form.”
John Clemson/Boston Landmarks Study Report photo

In a rare move, the Boston City Council has voted to reject a recommendation from the Boston Landmarks Commission (BLC) to designate two buildings on the Port Norfolk peninsula that once housed parts of the Putnam Nail Factory as historic sites. The buildings on Ericsson Street now house the offices of Rise Construction and the Boston Distillery and sit next to the popular Venezia restaurant.

The commission voted in April to approve the landmark designations and the recommendation was sent to the council on May 1. The matter came before the council for a vote on May 22, where Sharon Durkin and John FitzGerald flagged concerns at the last minute that pulled the petition from the docket.

Minutes later, that move turned into a 10-0 vote to strike down the recommendations. Councillors Julia Mejia, Tania Fernandes Anderson, and Brian Worrell voted present.

The Putnam Nail Company was a massive and successful operation on Port Norfolk in the 1800s after it invented and perfected a nail that could be used in horseshoes without hurting the horses. The two buildings in the landmarks case were built around 1890. Later, the George Lawley & Sons Shipyard became famous for building championship competitors for the America’s Cup, and, later, for pivoting to build warships for the US government in World Wars I and II. The Seymour Ice Cream Company occupied the buildings from 1946 to 2002.

The vote to oppose the BLC recommendation took members of the commission and other veteran preservationists by surprise.

“I think it’s precedent-setting,” said Lynn Smiledge, chairperson of the Landmarks panel, who recently decided step down effective June 30 in an unrelated decision.

“I’ve been on the commission for 14 years and this has happened one other time and it was during the transition of [mayors] Menino and Walsh and it was politicized. This was different and it was upsetting, because the Council brought this to a rushed vote without being informed.”

Dorchester Historical Society President Earl Taylor, who had pushed for the Putnam site to be designated, said he was “disappointed. I think the Landmarks Commission described it as one of the most intact industrial sites in the City of Boston,” he said. “There are only three buildings involved in what was determined to be saved…Most of the peninsula is not affected at all…It seems to me it’s a symbol of the past that should be saved.”

FitzGerald, both at the Council meeting and in an interview with The Reporter said the owner of the buildings was taken by surprise by the recommendation and reached out to the Council. The councillor said that given those concerns, he and others felt it appropriate to stop the existing petition.

The listed owner of the buildings is Port Norfolk Development LLC, an entity controlled by Carmine Bruno, a member of the family that also owns the popular Venezia restaurant and function hall.

An unrelated project by City Point Capital and the development company Rise Construction next to the buildings is currently in bankruptcy and is not part of the landmark petition.

“What this seems to be is it is like a cold case re-opened and there’s a new owner and he does not want the landmark designation,” FitzGerald said at the May 22 meeting. “Unfortunately, the history in this area of building the PT Boats during the war – where those boats were built – those buildings were actually torn down long ago. So, we missed that chance to properly make a historic landmark out of what was history. These buildings that are currently there are actually not very historic at all.”

In a later conversation, FitzGerald said he had followed up with the preservation community and explained to them that the property owners were not prepared for the vote, and he felt that was important before private property was landmarked. So “we felt it was best to hit the pause button,” he said.

District 8 Councillor Durkin said at the Council meeting that there were too many questions and then urged a ‘no’ vote.

“The owner had not been notified of the process to designate this as a landmark and only learned of it after the study report had been published in February this year,” she said. “The subsequent vote for designation came in April, which the owner was not able to attend due to receiving the wrong Zoom meeting link. It is unclear who is behind this current landmark petition, but the owner says no one from the community has asked for this.”

But Smiledge and Taylor indicated that it has been very clear throughout the process that Dorchester preservation advocates like Taylor have championed the cause, which was public and ongoing for years. The report was issued in February, and it is common to have to wait many years for such a report to be produced. The BLC staff recommended that both buildings were worthy of being landmarked, with the only restrictions being on the exterior of the building.

“The two surviving buildings of the Putnam Nail/Lawley Shipyard that are the subject of this study report are superlative examples of industrial design in terms of their condition of preservation and architectural elaboration,” the study report concluded.

“Distinctive segmental-arched window labels and an elaborated zig-zag cornice, serving to bring attention to and serve as an advertisement for its owner’s products, contribute to the building’s significance. Number 12R Ericsson may be a rare survival of its type and form,” the report maintained.

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