By Paul Leighton
BEVERLY — To the hundreds of people who drive past it every day, the real estate office building in the strip mall at the busy corner of Dodge and Conant streets looks like, well, a real estate office building in a strip mall.
To the members of the Beverly Historic District Commission, however, it's historically significant and worth saving.
The five-member commission has voted unanimously to impose a one-year delay on the owners' plan to demolish the nearly 300-year-old building. In its ruling, the commission said the structure, which was built in 1715, is one of the last remaining First Period homes from Beverly's earliest settlement.
"One by one, they're going to disappear," Commission Chairman Bill Finch said. "We think it's important to preserve this for reasons of community value."
The building's owners use another phrase to describe it — functionally obsolete.
"It does not work anymore, so we don't feel we have much choice," said Landers Symes of Symes Associates, a partner in the strip mall where the building is located. "We have a responsibility to our investors and to the people who own the strip mall that we have to do what we have to do."
Symes said the owners want to knock down the building and a portion of the attached strip mall and redevelop the 1.6-acre site, which is at 48 Dodge St., across from the Shaw's Plaza in North Beverly.
Coldwell Banker, which has its offices in the old house, would move to vacant space on the other side of the strip mall. What would be built in its place has yet to be determined, Symes said.
None of that will happen until at least May of next year. The Historic District Commission can't stop buildings from being torn down, but it does have the authority to delay for one year the demolition of structures it deems historically significant and "preferably preserved."
The idea of the one-year delay is to encourage the owner to preserve the building or sell it to someone who will. Finch said the process worked a few years ago when a condominium developer decided to renovate rather than tear down a First Period building, also on Dodge Street, after he realized its historic significance.
Finch said the Coldwell Banker building has undergone several changes over the years, including vinyl siding and replacement windows, but it could be restored to better reflect its history.
According to research by the Beverly Planning Department, the building was built as a wood-frame house by a shoemaker named Nehemiah Wood between 1715 and 1725. Wood was one of the original signers of the covenant that was the basis for the formation of the Second Parish Church, which is now the Second Congregational Church on Conant Street.
The house was next owned by Nathaniel Greenwood, an officer in the Boston Regiment. More than a century later, in 1904, it became a grocery store. It was bought by Johnny Appleseed's in 1947 and became the clothing company's headquarters.
Symes said the owners have offered to try to move the building, but Finch said it should stay in its original spot.
"It's important where it is, defining that corner," Finch said. "Once you move it off somewhere else, it's just another old house."
Asked if the owners will go ahead with the demolition once the one-year moratorium expires, Symes said, "Yes."
Finch realizes there is nothing more the commission can do, but is hoping a solution will arise before the clock runs out on the building's stay of execution.
"If you turn around and make it a parking lot like all the other strip malls," he said, "we're working on becoming Route 114."
Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.