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A developer offered $1 million to the aging owners of the Fowler-Clark Farm in Mattapan.
A developer offered $1 million to the aging owners of the Fowler-Clark Farm in Mattapan. (Christina Caturano for the Boston Globe)

History faces the future

City may block the sale of antique Mattapan farm

On a busy corner of Mattapan, a block from one of the city's more violent streets, a single farmhouse has survived from the days when cornfields sprawled across empty acres and cows grew plump off the land.

The Fowler-Clark Farm, at least 200 years old, has changed little since it was built on land handed down from a Revolutionary War veteran. The wood-shingle house with its red stable, now hemmed in by worn three-deckers and urban sidewalks, is a rare remaining farmhouse in a city whose agricultural heritage lives on only in history books.

Now, the owners want to sell to a developer who has offered $1 million and proposes to demolish the buildings to make way for 22 townhouses on the half-acre site. A firestorm has erupted.

The Boston Landmarks Commission, agreeing with preservationists and neighborhood groups, has recommended preserving the buildings. But the owners, an 88-year-old woman in failing health and her son, argue that the city has ignored the buildings for decades and now, by blocking the sale to the developer, is inadvertantly dooming them to live in a dilapidated house.

''We've got to rot in Mattapan in this old house that's falling down?" said Norman Epstein, 64, who lives with his mother, Ida. ''What wealthy person is going to buy this place, spend a huge amount of money to restore it, and move to Mattapan?"

A landmark designation for the property, which must still be approved by the Boston City Council, would block demolition. It would also prevent exterior alterations to the house without permission from the city. For the buildings to be restored, a buyer would have to come forward willing to spend large sums on renovation and conform to the Landmarks Commission's strict rules, facts that Epstein fears will mean few, if any, interested bidders.

The debate over the property's fate is a familiar one in Boston, where desires to preserve remants of the city's rich history constantly compete with a ravenous demand for real estate. In this instance, it has pitted preservationists against an aging family wishing to flee the city for a quieter life in the suburbs.

''They're preventing us from selling it and getting out of this peaceful community where people get shot every day," Norman Epstein said.

His parents, Jorge Epstein and his young bride Ida, bought the house in 1941, becoming its fifth owners. They raised two sons there -- Norman's younger brother, Martin, died in 1984 -- and Jorge Epstein built a salvage empire called Old Mansions Co. He scoured historic houses that were about to be demolished, saving and reselling windows, mantels, doors, and other artifacts.

At his own home, he hired full-time gardeners to maintain the elaborate garden built along his property's brick and iron fences and walls. ''This place was manicured like the Versailles court in France," Norman Epstein said. Unlike most of their white neighbors, the Epsteins didn't flee as Mattapan became more racially integrated.

But now the house has fallen into disrepair. Overgrown grass outside the house is littered with an old bathtub, a lawnmower, a toilet. Inside the house, where exposed wooden beams support the ceilings, the Epsteins have covered the historic fireplaces with blankets to keep out drafts.

In recommending that the property be saved, the Landmarks Commission said that the antique buildings ''serve as a very tangible reminder of a time when this area was sparsely developed." The half-acre yard, though overgrown, ''lends the property a pastoral quality, unique in the densely developed neighborhood."

The commission also said it evokes a period when Mattapan was still a village of Dorchester and, in the words of one 17th century writer, covered by ''orchards and gardens, full of fruit trees, plenty of corn-land." Records show that the Fowler-Clark farmhouse, which then included 11 acres, was built between 1786 and 1806. The barn was erected in the mid-1800s.

The house is one of the city's few remaining farmhouses from that era and the one that has been altered the least, said Roysin Bennett Younkin, an architectural historian for the Boston Landmarks Commission. ''It's a remnant from a time when Mattapan was an agricultural community," Younkin said. ''In urban centers, it's very rare to have any remnants of the agricultural past."

The farm came to the city's attention last spring when the Epsteins sought permission to demolish the house and stable so townhouses could be built. Members of the Landmarks Commission, which had to approve their request, voted to delay demolition. In the meantime, neighbors and preservationists petitioned the city to designate the farmhouse and stable a Boston landmark.

On Jan. 10, the commission recommended the farm be named a landmark. Mayor Thomas M. Menino concurred Jan. 17. Unless the City Council rejects the site's landmark status by Feb. 16, the designation will be official.

Historic Boston Inc., a preservationist group, joined the fight to protect the Fowler-Clark Farm. Historic properties like the farmhouse are especially appealing to developers if they sit on relatively large pieces of land, said Jillian Adams, a project manager at Historic Boston.

''It's a trend where it will be a large lot," she said. ''It's a developer looking to subdivide the lot, seeing ways to put in new construction and [they see] the historic home as more of a nuisance than anything else."

Norman Epstein said he is not immune to the lure of the house's history. Before his father's death in 1998, he worked in the family business preserving the historic treasures of other houses.

''It would be nice if the city bought the house from us," he said. ''They could keep it as a museum."

Kathleen Burge can be reached at kburge@globe.com.


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