, Newburyport, MA

November 1, 2013

'historic' snag hits ale house


---- — NEWBURYPORT — State historical officials have “recommended” to developers of the proposed Merrimac Ale House that they alter their architectural plans because they don’t coincide with proportion or historic uses of the property.

But lawyers for restaurateur Joseph Leone say they will meet with state historical commission members with the expectation that “the project will go forward.”

Brona Simon, executive director of the Massachusetts Historical Commission, recently wrote to lawyers for Leone, who is seeking to develop at 442-seat restaurant at 40 Merrimac St., stating that plans should be changed as part of the MHC’s “consultation process.”

Simon said, “The currently proposed design is overwhelming and incompatible, most specifically due to its size.”

The building that Leone purchased is the red structure at the base of Green Street, formerly housing Davis Auto Parts. Historically, it is known as the Richard W. Drown Building.

Leone, a restaurant operator and developer, has proposed to alter the structure and introduce the Merrimac Ale House. Architects had visualized an expansion of the building and the creation of an elevated outdoor deck that would permit diners to see the river.

In a letter dated Oct. 25, Simon said, “I have determined that the proposed design of the large three-story brick addition and the large glass addition will have an adverse effect on the Drown Building and the Newburport Historic District.”

The executive director added, “As currently designed, the proposed new construction dwarfs the Drown Building, and incorporates incompatible materials and architectural features, including a large glass enclosure with rooftop seating.”

A key aspect of the intercession of the state historical commission appears to be whether the building is part of the Newburyport Historic District — a district designated in 1984 by the federal government that encompasses most of the city’s old core, such as the downtown, South End and North End. There are an estimated 2,800 buildings in the district.

Paperwork provided by the Ale House development team had indicated that the property does not come under historic guidelines.

But a study by the state Historical Commission staff declared that the site is part of the historic texture, and should conform to state historical guidelines.

In the letter to Leone’s lawyer, Richard A. Nylen Jr. of the Boston law firm of Lynch, DeSimone and Nylen, LLP, Simon said, “Your correspondence erroneously stated that the subject property is not listed in the State Register and is not included as a contributing element to the Newburyport Historic District.”

But, “The property at 40 Merrimac St., historically known as the Richard W. Drown Building, is included in MHC’s Inventory of Historic Assets of the Commonwealth, and is listed in the State Registry of Historical Places and the National Registers of Historical Places as a contributing element within the Newburyport Historic District.”

Douglas Trees, an architect working for the Leone team, said he was surprised that MHC has entered the discussion in this way, as his information had been that the building was not in the local historical district. He said that city officials here were advocating in favor of the ale house.

Trees yesterday said that his team had expected to receive “a long-awaited Chapter 91 (filled tidelands) license, our final permit to start construction.”

The Hamilton architect indicated that his team had presented its plans before the Newburyport Historical Commission, and that those members had stated the building was not in the Newburyport Historic District.

Now, the letter from Simon suggested it was a “contributing element” in the local district — and thereby falling under state review. By law, if a historic structure within the district is altered and the work requires a state or federal permit, it triggers a review by the state historical commission.

Nylen, the attorney, yesterday said the structure is not in the district. He stated the state commission is attempting to gain leverage by saying the building is “a contributing element.”

“The first thing we did was have a meeting with the Newburyport Historical Commission,” said Nylen. “We understood it was not in the district, and we worked with them on ideas and design.”

The lawyer stated that the Leone team had acquired a demolition permit to remove a red wall added in the 1950s and replace it with a glass structure that would lend itself to views of the river.

“We’re disappointed with the recent (Simon) letter but we plan to go forward with the project,” said Nylen. “We will have a discussion (with state historical officials) on what happens next.”