BY PAUL LEIGHTON
---- — BEVERLY — To most people, it will always be known as the Press Box, a former bar and rooming house so notorious for trouble there was a metal detector at the door.
To historic preservationists, it’s the stately Hotel Trafton, one of the last remaining landmarks of the “high iron” era when the railroad first came to town.
However it is viewed, the building at 9 Park St. is slated for demolition. Its owner, Windover Construction, plans to knock it down to build apartments and shops.
The company has applied for a demolition permit from the Beverly Historic District Commission, which has scheduled a public hearing for Jan. 31.
The commission has the authority to delay the demolition for up to a year if it considers the building historically significant. But after that, Windover would be free to proceed with its plans.
That, local preservationists say, would be a big mistake.
“People will always remember the Press Box, but this building is a lot more than that,” said Matt Pujo, a former Beverly Historical Society volunteer.
The building is a former railroad hotel, a term used to describe the hotels that sprung up near train depots as the railroad expanded across the country in the 19th century.
The Trafton was a smaller version of the big resort hotels in Maine and New Hampshire, like Wentworth-by-the-Sea, that were built in the same era when train was the major mode of transportation.
“They were the forerunner of hotels that surround airports now,” said Stephen Hall, the former executive director of the Beverly Historical Society. “They were providing short-term places for people to live who were visiting the area on business or staying for the summer.”
The Trafton opened in 1886 under the ownership of Darling Trafton, a native of Maine who bought the building in 1884 when it was a house and store.
Trafton embarked on a two-year renovation and expansion that created an elegant Victorian-style hotel with a mansard roof and porches that stretched along two sides of the first and second floors. The hotel had baths on every floor and offered meals on either the “European or American plan,” said local historian Richard Symmes of Beverly.
The presence of the Trafton, along with the adjacent Casa de Lucca restaurant, another former railroad hotel, and the train depot across the street gives Beverly a rare grouping that was once common but is now increasingly rare, Pujo said.
“I would argue the arrangement of historic buildings in the Beverly depot area can be found in no other large city in Essex County,” he said.
Both the former Press Box and the Casa de Lucca buildings were declared “historically significant” by the Massachusetts Historical Commission in 2008. Pujo said the area has been nominated to be included in the National Register of Historic Places.
Pujo said the city of Beverly touts the importance of historic preservation in its master plan and should be working to save the Hotel Trafton.
The City Council’s Finance Committee last week passed an ordinance that would give developers tax incentives to develop on Rantoul Street in the area of the train depot. If the ordinance is passed by the full City Council, Windover stands to benefit with its Press Box project.
City Councilor Scott Houseman included a provision in the ordinance that would exclude the train depot from the tax break district, so as not to incentivize developers to change the historic depot. But he did not exclude the former Hotel Trafton.
Houseman said he talked to local historians about the building and decided it was not as significant as the depot and would be costly to preserve. The historical features of the building’s interior, he said, have been “eviscerated.”
“It’s not a home run in terms of the historic preservation community, and it is a difficult building at best from an economic perspective to try to come up with a use that would be viable,” Houseman said. “We want to transform the Rantoul Street area, and it’s important to have respect for historically significant buildings, but that can’t be the only factor that ends up getting taken into account.”
Windover Construction President Lee Dellicker has also said it is not “economically feasible” to restore the Hotel Trafton. The company purchased the building from North Shore Veterans Counseling Services, which was using it as a rooming house for veterans. The rooming house will move into a nearby building at 45 Broadway, another historic building that had been scheduled for demolition.
“To be able to save another building that was slated to come down is great, and it opens up the site for what I think will be a project that will bring strong economic development to the whole area,” Dellicker said.