Historic Beverly home slated for demolition

The Loring House at 441 Hale St. in Beverly is scheduled to be demolished.Courtesy photo/Steve Rosenthal

BEVERLY — One historian compared it to tearing down Penn Station or destroying a Winslow Homer painting. Another said it’s more historically important to the city than the 17th-century Balch House.

Despite those pleas, a grand oceanfront home on Hale Street looks like it’s about to come tumbling down.

The owner of the General Charles G. Loring House filed an application with the city last week saying she intends to demolish it and build a new house.

The building’s demise would mark the end of a battle between the owner, Helen Greiner, and the Beverly Historic District Commission, which imposed a one-year delay on its demolition last year.

The delay expired in April, leaving Greiner, who bought the house for $3.75 million in 2012, free to raze it.

“It’s a tremendous loss to architectural history, and not just to people on the North Shore but to people across the country and all over the world,” said Bill Cross, a Manchester-by-the-Sea resident who was among a group of advocates that tried to preserve the house.

The Loring House was built in 1881 for Charles Loring, a Civil War general who became the first director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. It was designed by Boston architect William Ralph Emerson, a cousin of Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Cross said the house is the greatest surviving example of shingle-style architecture from the brief period when it flourished in the late 19th century. Another shingle-style home from the era, in Manchester-by-the-Sea, was demolished in 2000, he said.

“(The Loring House) was built for the founding director of the Museum of Fine Arts, so it always got a huge amount of attention,” Cross said. “It’s been studied by countless hundreds of architects since.”

A group called The Friends of the General Charles G. Loring House tried to raise money to buy the house and donate it to Historic New England, but failed.

For all of the passion the house has generated among preservationists, the controversy has played out largely out of the public eye, in part because few people have ever seen the house. It is located at the end of a private road near Landmark School and Endicott College and is not visible from the main road, Hale Street.

Greiner, the owner, gained fame as a co-founder of iRobot, the company best known for its robotic vacuum cleaner Roomba. She left iRobot in 2008 and started a new company, CyPhy Works, that makes flying robots  in Danvers.

Greiner could not be reached for comment for this story. In an appearance before the Historic District Commission last year, she lashed out at the board for rejecting her original plan, which called for removing additions to the house but preserving most of the original 1881 structure.

“I think you’re trying to get me to knock it down, and that’s atrocious,” she told the board.

Commission chairman Bill Finch denied that the board’s rejection of Greiner’s initial plan is driving her to demolish the entire building. He said the changes she had proposed were so extensive that they would have destroyed the house’s historical integrity anyway.

“As far as we were concerned, there would be hardly anything left,” Finch said. “Essentially what she wanted to do was no different from demolition.”

The commission voted in April of 2013 to enact the one-year demolition delay, which it can do on any building older than 50 years that is eligible to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

A month later, Greiner and her design team met with commission members at the house in an attempt to work out a compromise. In a follow-up letter to Greiner on June 7, 2013, Finch thanked her for hosting the meeting, calling it a “fruitful effort to bridge the gap” between her and the commission.

“We are very pleased with the new direction of your design and your commitment to the preservation of several features of this unique property,” Finch wrote.

Despite that conciliatory note, Finch said he has not heard from Greiner since. He said he knew nothing about last week’s application with the Conservation Commission saying that she planned to demolish the house.

“The only thing I can say is I sailed by it a couple of days ago, and it was still there,” he said.

Cross said he spent time with Greiner trying to convince her of the house’s historical value. He said he hasn’t spoken with her in more than a year.

“She’s a very intelligent person, and I had hoped she might have fallen in love with the house as so many others have,” he said.

Not everyone has been critical of Greiner’s handling of the house. At last year’s public hearing, she received the backing of several neighbors, including three members of the Loring family, which sold the house to Greiner. They told the commission that the house was in disrepair and nobody else had stepped forward to buy it in the four years it was on the market.

Tony Bolland, who lives next door at 435 Hale St., told the commission that 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.”

Greiner’s application with the Conservation Commission mostly relates to improvements that are planned for wetlands on the property, including a pond and a brook. It says the proposed new home is larger than the existing home.

“Demolition will be conducted in a controlled manner to preserve the existing stone terraces on the water side of the home,” the application says. 

Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or pleighton@salemnews.com.

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