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With sale pending, Belmont scrambles to save historic house

By Evan Allen
Globe Correspondent / August 7, 2011

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It was the home of Belmont’s first official voter when the town was incorporated in 1859. It has stood on Common Street since before the American Revolution, and it’s one of the town’s best-preserved examples of 18th-century Georgian architecture.

But now, the Thomas Clark House, built circa 1760, is in danger. The owners are selling the property to a builder who intends to raze the structure.

The town’s Historic District Commission will meet at 7 p.m. Tuesday to try to change the home’s fate. Michael Smith, the board’s cochairman, said he hopes the meeting will draw concerned citizens to brainstorm ideas for how the house might be saved.

“We are looking for a cooperative way to work with the developer and the owner,’’ said Smith. “We’re not expecting to take any legal action whatsoever.’’

The Clark House sits just outside the Belmont Historic District, which runs for much of the length of Pleasant Street and stops just blocks from Common Street.

“There is no legal jurisdiction that we have over this property,’’ Smith said of the town.

The Clark House has a long history with the town. Folklore holds that the original builder, Thomas Clark, and his family watched the beginning of the American Revolution in 1775 from the hill behind the house. Tradition also maintains that the house was a stop on the Underground Railroad, with a dusty brick hollow where the house’s five fireplaces come together offering room to hide a runaway slave.

“The small-town feeling of Belmont is embodied in that property,’’ said Joseph Cornish, past president of the Belmont Historical Society and current member of the Historic District Commission, who has written about the house’s history.

The house remained in the Clark family until 1954, when it was sold to a doctor named Peter Sifneos. Sifneos died in December 2008, leaving the house to his three children. Currently, his two daughters, Ann Callahan and Jean Sifneos, own the house.

“We really wanted to sell it to someone who would fix it up and restore it to its former glory,’’ said Callahan. “We were willing to lose money on the house and sell it for less if we could find someone’’ to restore it, she said, “but we couldn’t.’’

The house is simply too expensive for Callahan and her sister to maintain, she said.

Property taxes are nearly $13,000 a year. They pay vacant property insurance, adding another $5,585.56 a year.

The cost of upkeep runs into the thousands: Snow plowing cost $945 for the month of January alone, Callahan said. Leaks in the ceiling have caused water damage to the floors and walls, and falling branches have damaged the roof to the tune of about $4,000.

Callahan estimates that since January, she and her sister have spent $22,200 simply to maintain the property.

“I am just very depressed every time I go to the house and find something else that I have to deal with,’’ said Callahan.

Selling the house to the builder, she said, was a painful decision. “I feel that my hands are tied,’’ she said. “But we did what we had to do, and now I guess we have to deal with the consequences.’’

Callahan said she has signed an agreement to sell the property for $1,050,000, but the deal has not yet closed.

The house sits in the middle of two buildable lots. The builder, Mark Barons, said he plans to tear it down and replace it with two homes. “We’re applying for demolition permits,’’ he said. “It’s ongoing as we speak.’’

The town’s Historical Commission tried to persuade the owners to market the property as a historic site, add a deed restriction protecting the 18th-century section of the home, or work out a land swap with a neighbor, but they declined, according to an announcement by the commission.

Historical officials have also suggested moving the house to another property, but so far have been unable to find an available spot. The cost of moving the house is high: Stan Wildes, owner of Granite State Building Movers, gave the town a ballpark estimate of between $20,000 and $30,000. The real expense of moving the house, he said, would more likely run closer to $75,000 or $85,000, including the cost of a foundation at the new site, plumbing, and electrical wiring.

Nor does the town have a demolition delay bylaw, which would allow officials to stall the house’s razing while they tried to figure out alternatives that would preserve the structure.

“I would really love to save the house,’’ said Callahan. But she’s not optimistic.

“I think that there’s not much hope for these negotiations for moving the house. As much as it breaks our hearts.’’

Evan Allen can be reached at evannn524@gmail.com.


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