Save the Simonds House

The current condition of the Simonds House, which is being threatened by the wrecking ball. The Simonds House could become modern condos.

MIDDLESEX - One might say a price can't be put on history.

But in Burlington, where a Lexington Street home that predates the founding of the United States is threatened by the wrecking ball, local historians estimate somewhere around $500,000 should do.

Over the past few months, town officials and neighbors of the late 18th century building at 121 Lexington St. have bewailed the likely loss of the home, which was built for the family of Deacon Jonathan Simonds some six years after the Revolutionary War veteran marched to the Battle of Lexington and Concord.

Besides being erected some eight years before George Washington became the fledgling country's first president, the building is also notable because it housed the family of one of Burlington's founders.

Not only was Simonds one of the United States first-ever war veterans, he also was one of the community's first elected officials, as he served as a town assessor, selectman, and school board member.

"He served as a member of Captain Joshua Walker's Militia Company, and both married and became a church deacon after the war. [He] held many town offices prior to passing away in 1827," reads a Mass. Historical Commission narrative of the property's significance.

Making the loss even more bitter, the newest plans to demolish the 2.5-story Federal Period residence comes after the property was twice spared from similar dates with a bulldozer over the past decade.

However, unlike the previously defeated and withdrawn development initiatives, the newest plans are virtually assured of passage, members of Burlington's Planning Board warned neighbors earlier this month.

Given that reality, community groups have been scrambling to find a potential donor to help move the approximate 3,700 square foot structure, which Historical Commission members say will cost at least $500,000 to relocate and renovate.

Already, many have given up in light of that steep price tag.

"What we're doing is looking to salvage hardware, hinges, doorhandles, and some [fireplace] paneling. But the building itself is what you'd like to save," lamented Historical Commission Chairman.

"Once these buildings are gone, your history goes with it," agreed Planning Board member Paul Raymond during a Town Hall gathering earlier this month. "I don't know what more we can do. Sometimes, we make difficult decisions and it's no fun at all."

Over the past week, those hoping for a miracle have refused to lose hope of finding a generous benefactor to save the important relic, which the Mass. Historical Commission deemed an asset of significance some two decades ago.

One such dogged advocate is Burlington Historical Society member Andria Nemoda, who has suggested the structure could be relocated to to the 100-acre Minuteman Sportsmen's Club off of Francis Wyman Road.

The privately owned club's expansive grounds, which mostly fall within neighboring Billerica, largely consist of open-space areas used for shotgun sports shooting competitions and practice. Nemoda, who has also been exploring alternative sites, recently teamed up with Historical Commission member Robert Costa in a call for help broadcast over Burlington's cable access television (BCAT).

"Time is running out for saving the house, and Andria has worked very hard in trying to find sites to move it," Costa told BCAT news director Rich Hosford.

"This could be used as a clubhouse or something beautiful, because it does have a lot of features inside that you just can't buy. It's really a marvel to see how people in that era lived," Nemoda later commented, as the trio strolled around the perimeter of the Lexington Street property. "At some point, this will vanish. It's a sad thing to think about, because there's an opportunity here."

Trading history for condos

Earlier this spring, Burlington's Joseph Currier and his Danvers business partner Richard Bertone formally filed a special permit application seeking to demolish the Colonial era house near the Mall Road and the Burlington Marketplace.

Both petitioners, who purchased the home in Nov. of 2017 for an undisclosed sum through a foreclosure auction, had tried to raze the structure shortly after acquiring the parcel, but were blocked from doing so after the Historical Commission voted to exercise its authority under Burlington's demolition delay ordinance.

That six-month moratorium on the town issuance of a demolition permit has since lapsed.

Insisting the existing house has fallen into such a dilapidated condition that renovations are cost prohibitive, local attorney Thomas Murphy, representing the new Lexington Street landowners, in May unveiled plans to erect a 7,340 square foot building that will house three condominiums with attached two-car garages.

"The existing structure on this property is about 200-years-old. It's in pretty tough shape," said Murphy, who noted the Simonds House has long been used as a legal non-conforming three-family house. "At the end of the day, it's a very old building that I think is beyond saving."

Described by state officials in 1999 as "one of Burlington's finest 18th Century residences, the three-family dwelling apparently became a victim of neglect after being purchased some six years later by the late Mohammad Bilal Yaqub.

In 2009, the former Lexington Street landowner filed a similar petition to raze the historic dwelling and replace it with three attached-homes with a common prayer space. At the time, Yaqub, the leader of the nearby Islamic Center of Burlington, reportedly told the planners the home would be too costly to renovate.

The Planning Board, ruling the oversized redevelopment would cause a "substantial detriment" the neighborhood, rejected that proposal in March of 2010.

Months later, Yaqub applied yet again for a special permit, presenting a downscaled plan. With that multi-home development appearing yet again doomed, the petitioner had threatened to challenge a denial on religious liberty grounds.

But before the dispute was brought to a resolution, Yaqub died in a drowning accident.

In the ensuing years, as the home continued to fall into disrepair, the previous homeowner's surviving family members fell behind on the mortgage, which eventually ended up in foreclosure.

Given that history, many town officials and Lexington Street abutters have acknowledged being taken by complete surprise when the newest special permit filing came around, as many had presumed the non-conforming multi-family use had been abandoned as a result of the home being left vacant for years.

However, with the town's building inspector apparently ruling the underlying three-family use remains protected — despite the years long foreclosure process — the planners insist their hands are tied.

"The point is moot. It comes to us with that [building inspector] ruling," Planning Board Chairman John Kelley told neighborhood abutters this month. "The abandonment is something the building inspector takes into consideration, and [this petition] comes to us with that decision made."

"There's no funds to do anything [to save it]," later bemoaned Historical Commission member Kathleen Horton, who recalled living in the Simonds House for some 27 years. "That's what is so heartbreaking about this. That house is loaded with history."

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