The oldest church in Belmont was demolished on Monday morning, according to town officials and the developer who plans to build three duplex houses where it stood.
“It’s over. It’s pretty sad,” said Belmont Selectman Andy Rojas. “I’m sure [the developer] will build some nice houses on there, but it’s really not the same.”
The First Congregational Church on Trapelo Road in Waverly Square sold this month to developer Edward Hovsepian for $1.3 million, who had obtained a demolition permit from the town in December.
Hovsepian said he looked at the possibility of saving the church and building housing units inside and behind it, but ultimately, the church needed too much work, and parking was too big an issue.
“It doesn’t make sense to keep it, and that was just the bottom line,” he said. “I don’t feel good about tearing down a church. No one feels good about that.”
Hovsepian said he is having plans drawn up for the duxplexes, which he said will be sold as condominiums, and that he hopes to break ground on the project in the next five or six weeks.
Demolition started at around 8 a.m., said Hovsepian, and the church was completely demolished by about noon. Stained glass windows, pews and light fixtures were sent to a salvage company, he said.
Residents were saddened by the loss of the church, which had stood at the heart of the square since it was built in 1870.
“I am more emotional than I even thought I would be today,” said Lisa Oteri, who grew up in Belmont and serves as a Town Meeting member. “I think it’s just a great loss.”
With the demolition of the church, she said, Belmont has lost a piece of its quaint New England charm.
“We’re just losing these wonderful reminders of architecture past,” she said. “We’re losing small houses, we’re being crowded out by oversized townhouses on small lots. I just feel like part of it could have been saved as a remembrance of a time past for Waverly Square. But I guess not.”
Rojas said that the town did make an effort to save the church, and that one individual approached Hovsepian about the prospect of buying the church, but was turned down.
Hovsepian declined to comment on who approached him or what they offered, other than saying it was a town official.
Rojas said he was surprised that no members of the community picketed or otherwise acted to save the church.
“The community, in a way, didn’t respond forcefully enough,” he said.
The sale and demolition of the church has prompted drafting of bylaws by Belmont officials to ensure that in the future, historical buildings have protection.
Michael Smith, chair of the Historic District Commission, said the commission will put a demolition delay bylaw before Town Meeting in April, that would temporarily halt the demolition of historic buildings while town officials search for other options. The Planning Board is also drafting a bylaw, according to the chair, that would create incentives for developers to preserve historic buildings.
Hovsepian said town officials approached him about the Planning Board’s incentive bylaw, but that the bylaw still had to pass before Town Meeting, and the timing did not work.
Hovsepian said he understands why residents are upset, but that the church went up for sale early last year, and no one made a move to buy it.
“If the citizens of the town were that concerned about the church, and they knew since last February it was for sale – there’s been plenty of time to do something about it,” he said.
Town officials’ proposed bylaws, said Hovsepian, came too late.
“You have to understand, I paid for this,” said Hovsepian. “The timing – they’ve had years to get a demolition bylaw in place. They don’t do it.”
While Rojas said that Hovsepian was right that the town did not step up to buy the church, the developer could have been more flexible, and waited for Town Meeting to see if the bylaw proposed by the Planning Board passed.
Oteri said that the responsibility for letting the church be demolished was spread all over town.
“Maybe we should have helped each other create a public outcry earlier in the process,” she said, “but I don’t know where the opportunity was lost.”
Evan Allen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org