WEST NEWBURY — The Massachusetts Historical Commission has found the Dr. John C. Page Elementary School has both architectural and historical significance — a decision that directly contradicts a ruling by the local Historical Commission made in the spring.
The decision could save money for the average West Newbury taxpayer. The Page School Working Group sought the designation to see if it could tap into the town's Community Preservation Act account to help pay for renovations to the school. Money in that account is collected from taxpayers to pay for historic, affordable housing and open-space projects.
In a letter addressed to Chairman Jane Wild of the West Newbury Historical Commission, Betsy Friedberg, National Register director for the MHC, stated, "The Page School is a well-preserved complex associated with the social welfare and religious and public education for more than 80 years. As such, and retaining integrity of location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling, and association, the Page School is architecturally and historically significant and fulfills National Register Criteria A and C at the local level."
Selectmen agreed to ask Wild to put a discussion of the ruling on the agenda for her board's next meeting and to encourage commissioners to reconsider a finding they made in March against giving the building single-site historic status.
Voters approved a $10 million tax hike for the project at the polls in November, raising taxes by approximately $400 annually for the next 30 years on an average property valued at $491,000. With CPA funding, the tax hike would have dropped to around $250 annually. But without a historical designation from the local commission, CPA funds can't be tapped. The town collects about $152 annually on the average property for the CPA tax surcharge.
When contacted Friday, Wild wouldn't comment on the letter until she has had time to review it with her entire board. The Historical Commission will meet Thursday at 10 a.m. in the Annex adjacent to the 1910 Town Office Building.
After members of the working group and others publicly challenged the March decision, Wild's board agreed to seek another opinion on the building from the state commission.
The state's letter details its reasons for the positive determination. "The property has a complex history that began when it was known as Pipestave Hill, owned in the late 18th century by the Dalton family. In 1795, Joseph Stanwood of Newburyport built a mansion house here. After a series of owners, the property by the early 20th century belonged to William Rogers. In 1925, it was bought by the Brothers of Charity, a Catholic organization of religious brothers that had founded an orphanage in Boston's North End in 1851. In 1947, the Brothers' orphanage in Jamaica Plain was combined with the West Newbury facility to become Boyhaven, serving more than 200 orphan boys. The orphanage provided boys with shelter, a Catholic education and vocational skills. In 1963, ownership of the orphanage was transferred to the Boston Archdiocese, and Cardinal Cushing Academy, a college preparatory school, opened here. Closed in 1972, it was purchased by the town and in 1974 reopened as the Page Elementary School, which remains the town of West Newbury's only elementary school."
The letter goes on to state, "The property's centerpiece is formed by the 1926 House of the Angel Guardian and the 1939 St. Joseph's Hall, Colonial Revival-style buildings designed by Edward T.P. Graham, prolific Boston-based architect known for his Catholic institutional buildings. The two were joined by a connecting structure in 1955."
"Given the strength of the Massachusetts Historical Commission's letter, it now seems compelling that the local commission acknowledge the opinion of the state commission," said former chairman on the Community Preservation Act Committee, Ann O'Sullivan, who led an appeal to selectmen after the initial finding in March. "I'm relieved that my pitch to the town to support the CPA in part to provide funding for the Page was validated. I just hope that we can maximize the funding from the Green Initiative, as well as the CPA funds to retain the integrity of this building, while providing a safe environment for our kids."
West Newbury recently learned it cleared the first hurdle in an effort to gain as much as $2.8 million in funding for the Page project through the state's Green School Repair program, which reimburses towns for energy improvements to schools.
In June, Wild had said if the building is found "truly historical, then it should have state designation. It deserves that."
But O'Sullivan insisted that pursuing an official designation, which would involve an additional application process, was never the goal. In fact, the renovation project could be hampered by a National Registry designation because of guidelines governing historic renovations. The point in seeking the state's opinion was simply "to get confirmation that the building was indeed historically significant," O'Sullivan said.
Erin Rich, whose detailed research on the school's historic, architectural and cultural significance was the centerpiece of the appeal in June, said she was "pleased but not surprised" by the state ruling. "I'm hopeful that after this lengthy process, our commission can now quickly recognize the value to the town. Protecting the safety of our students, while working to maintain the historical integrity of the site, can certainly be achieved successfully at the local level — with the Historical Commission support."