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Cash-strapped T looks to sell a gem

Newton station designed by architectural legend goes on the block

By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / September 26, 2011

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NEWTON - For sale: Newton Ctr station, 120 yrs old, open flr plan, loaded w/ charm & history, near T & shops, listed Natl Register. Motivated sellr.

“For the train buff who has everything?’’ one observer mused on a Railroad.net message board, spotting a legal notice for the MBTA’s proposed sale of Newton Centre Station.

Perhaps, but any rail fan with designs on turning the architectural landmark into a private clubhouse or railside residence will have to wait. The building is occupied by a restaurant, and the buyer must honor a lease that runs to 2030 and allow public access to the Green Line platforms behind the building.

The proposed sale, with minimum bids of $700,000 due Oct. 19, comes as the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority considers a fare increase and faces mounting pressure to wring money from other sources, such as selling ads on MBTA.com or putting properties that are not essential on the block.

“As circumstances allow, we will take this money that we receive from the sale of noncore assets and reinvest it in the system,’’ said Jonathan R. Davis, acting general manager of the MBTA, which owes $6 billion in debt, plus interest, while struggling to address a $4.5 billion maintenance backlog.

Most of the properties the MBTA has offered up recently have little historic or aesthetic charm: a parking garage beneath North Station, a squat office building in Dorchester, an undeveloped parcel in Mansfield, a concrete pad in front of a Newbury Street mural.

But the Newton Centre Station stands apart: a head-turning throwback, hard against an active light-rail line, etched with meaning for students of transportation, architecture, and local history.

The station was one of 32 designed for the Boston and Albany Railroad in the late 19th century by Henry Hobson Richardson, among the leading American architects of his day, and by close associates after his 1886 death.

“These stations were intended to be gateways to the community in one direction and gateways to the railroad system in the other direction,’’ said James F. O’Gorman, a Wellesley College professor emeritus who has written extensively on the Richardsonian Romanesque style.

Erected as monuments to the railroad boom, nearly two-thirds of those stations would be demolished amid the railroad bust. Many were destroyed in the mid-20th century to make room for the Massachusetts Turnpike and park-and-ride lots.

The station in Newton Centre, erected in 1890, marked that village’s transition from pastoral hamlet to bustling suburb. The station attracted developers and home buyers and spurred construction of large commercial blocks nearby, said Vicki Danberg, a Newton alderwoman and student of local history.

Newton alone once had nine stations designed by Richardson and his successor firm, Shepley, Rutan, and Coolidge. Of the two others that remain, one houses a dentist’s office in Newton Highlands and the other is a storage shed for the Woodland Golf Club.

All boasted the rough-edged masonry familiar to anyone who has admired Boston’s Trinity Church, Richardson’s signature work. The Newton Centre Station has a broad, hipped roof extending all the way around, like a shingled umbrella to shelter commuters between the Boston train and their horse-drawn carriages. Round-arch dormer windows peak out above the roof line like hooded eyes.

The Richardson stations dotted the main line of the Boston and Albany, which now carries the Framingham/Worcester line on the MBTA Commuter Rail, as well as its Highland Branch, also known as the Newton Circuit, which became today’s Riverside D Line. The post-war car and highway boom made that line a financial drain and prompted the railroad to plead with regulators to let it drop passenger service and unload the line. The Metropolitan Transit Authority, precursor to the MBTA, acquired it for a song in 1958 and electrified it for rapid transit, which began running the following year.

But the MTA had little use for the ornamental stations bundled with the track acquisition. They were dusty relics built to house ticket offices, telegraph stations, waiting rooms, and other amenities irrelevant to light-rail service, said Bradley H. Clarke, transit historian and president of the Boston Street Railway Association. Most were razed, but the Newton Centre building survived to provide modest rental income to the T from a series of tenants. It was in sorry shape in the mid-1970s when Dennis Rieske, a Newton resident and young architect, approached Theodore Mann, the mayor then, about listing the station on the National Register of Historic Places.

“He said to me, ‘Dennis, I don’t care about these stations; I think they should have torn them all down,’ ’’ recalled Rieske, now 66. “But then he turned around and said, ‘It seems like you know something about this. We’re starting this thing called a historical commission; would you like to join?’ ’’

Rieske’s first move was to prepare an application to list all three remaining Newton stations on the National Register, succeeding in 1976. That offered protection but did not guarantee preservation, and the MBTA had little money for maintenance.

Since then, the building has seen a cycle of occupancy and vacancy, boards removed, and graffiti scrubbed. David Zussman, who in the 1970s rehabilitated the graying block across the street into a complex known as Piccadilly Square, acquired the station lease in 1991 and has sublet to multiple occupants.

After a Starbucks closed in 2008, Zussman attracted the owners of Watertown’s Deluxe Town Diner, who renovated the inside before opening the Deluxe Station Diner earlier this year.

Zussman’s company restored part of the exterior, and a civic group, the Garden City Preservation Society, is working to replicate a landscape plan first prepared by Frederick Law Olmsted.

Zussman approached the T about buying the building, and officials liked the idea of swapping rent, roughly $4,000 a month, for a lump sum, while handing the station to an owner who might be more vested in its upkeep. “We intend to keep it just as it is,’’ said Zussman, who may be joined by other bidders vying for the building.

Still, the state’s historic preservation officer, Brona Simon, looked askance at the proposal until the T promised to add a covenant requiring owners, present and future, to clear interior or exterior plans with the Massachusetts Historical Commission.

Danberg, the alderwoman, and Rieske, the former city historical commission member, say the sale is a good thing for the station’s vitality.

O’Gorman, the Richardson scholar, said he always worries when a historic asset passes from public to private ownership, even enlightened ownership.

“It was a building type for which Richardson set the standard in his lifetime,’’ he said. “It would be a great loss, I think, if it were demolished.’’

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at emoskowitz@globe.com.