BY PAUL LEIGHTON
---- — BEVERLY — It’s an old house, invisible from the road, with a leaking roof, rusting beams and the occasional coyote in the basement.
It’s also, according to experts, as architecturally significant in its own way as such famous houses as Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater and Phillip Johnson’s Glass House.
And unless something changes in the next 12 months, it’s going to be demolished.
The fate of the Gen. Charles G. Loring House, on a rocky outcropping at 441 Hale St. overlooking the Atlantic Ocean in Prides Crossing, is once again the subject of heated debate over the balance between historic preservation and the rights of a private property owner.
The house’s owner, iRobot co-founder Helen Greiner, originally planned to knock down only a portion of the house. But she became frustrated when the Beverly Historic District Commission imposed a one-year demolition delay last November, with the hope that she would come up with a plan that preserved more of the building’s historic characteristics.
Instead, Greiner filed a new application to demolish the entire building, setting up a second hearing Monday night at City Hall.
Greiner said she wants to proceed with her original plan, but the delay imposed by the commission has driven up the costs of the multimillion-dollar renovations and forced her to consider a complete demolition.
“I think you’re trying to get me to knock it down, and that’s atrocious,” she told the board.
Built in 1881, the house was designed by Boston architect William Ralph Emerson, a cousin of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and is considered one of the country’s best remaining examples of Shingle-style architecture. Its first owner was Charles Loring, a Civil War general who became the first director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
In a letter to the Historic District Commission, the former chairman of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission called the Loring House “a piece of our national heritage” that is mentioned in every lecture on the era by architectural historians.
“If it is removed, its memory will come to haunt us like the old Pennsylvania Station in New York or Frank Lloyd Wright’s Larkin Building in Buffalo,” James O’Gorman wrote. “It is a work of art as much as a painting by Homer or Eakins. Would we condone the willful destruction of one of Homer’s finest seascapes or one of Eakins’ powerful portraits?”
The house was taken care of for 40 years by Samuel Codman, a bachelor who lived there and gave tours of the home until his death, at age 100, in 2008. Descendants of Loring who live nearby on Hale Street repurchased the property for $4 million in 2009.
Last July, the Lorings sold the house to Greiner for $3.75 million. Greiner is a native of England and an MIT graduate who gained fame with iRobot, best known for its robotic vacuum cleaner called Roomba. She left iRobot in 2008 and started a new company, CyPhy Works, in Danvers.
Greiner’s original plan was to demolish all of the wings and additions that were added to the Loring House in 1906 and retain and renovate most of the original 1881 structure.
But Historic District Commission Chairman Bill Finch said he was concerned about some of the proposed changes, in particular the elimination of an ocean-side fanlight that he called “an essential characteristic of the house,” as well as the removal of a fireplace, chimney and porch.
When Finch mentioned those concerns, Greiner said, “I am concerned about which building I wish to live in for the rest of my life.”
Three members of the Loring family, as well as several other neighbors, spoke in support of Greiner’s original renovation plan. Jonathan Loring said the house was on the market for four years, but none of the people now advocating for its preservation stepped forward. He said the house has deteriorated over the years and is in “atrocious” condition.
“If anybody wants to buy the house and preserve it, show us the money,” Loring said.
Tony Bolland, who lives next door at 435 Hale St., said all of the people who wrote letters supporting the house’s preservation “should’ve formed a club and kicked in $700,000 each to properly renovate it.”
By enacting a one-year delay on Greiner’s renovation plans, Bolland said, the commission forced her hand in applying for a permit to demolish the entire building.
“Bottom line, what I believe this Historic Commission has done is you’ve failed to save any historic portion of this house in exchange for a hole in the ground,” he said. “I think you blew it.”
Steve Rosenthal, an architectural photographer from Manchester-by-the-Sea who has photographed the Loring House, said proper historic renovations can be done if an owner is willing. He pointed to the example of Fenway Park, which the previous owners of the Red Sox said could not be preserved.
“The new owners of the Red Sox saved a treasure,” Rosenthal said. “This house is a treasure.”
Neighbors urged the commission to reach a compromise with Greiner that would allow her to proceed with her original plan in some form, without having to wait until November for the demolition delay to expire.
The commission voted to enact a one-year delay on the plans to demolish the entire house. But in the meantime, Greiner and the commission agreed to meet at the house, at a date to be determined, to discuss renovations that they can agree on that would save the house from being completely demolished.
“We hope we can find some way of reaching a solution that preserves a significant portion of the building,” Finch said.
Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or firstname.lastname@example.org.