Lesley Argues With City Over Church

Building’s historical landmark status may prevent art library expansion

Harvard is not the only institution in Cambridge that has clashed with city residents over the particulars of expanding its real estate holdings.

At a meeting of the Cambridge Historical Commission last night, board members and Cambridge residents debated whether North Prospect Congregational Church would be given historical landmark status—a designation that may prevent Lesley University from expanding the structure to house an art library. The church, which is located near Porter Square, is one of only seven pre-Civil War structures still standing in the city.
The university bought the building in 2006 to house the Art Institute of Boston, which it acquired in 1998.

The Commission voted to designate the structure as a historical landmark according to the recommendations of a report commissioned 16 months ago.
But William B. King, the chair of the commission, said that they did not fully adopt all of the report’s findings—which include strict bans on any changes to the outside facade of the building—because they were too “prescriptive and restrictive.”

The tentative plans to adapt the building for use by Lesley involve lowering the structure to ground level, removing the steeple, and transporting it to the opposite side of the lot on which it currently stands.

In addition, one three-story structure and another five-story building would be constructed on the lot and a glass “art commons” would be placed in the center of the newly-created quadrangle.

Representatives of Lesley University, including its president, Joseph B. Moore, said that they agreed that the church should be granted the status, but maintained that the proposed alterations should not be written off due to the building’s designation as a landmark.

Many of the Cambridge residents who spoke against the proposition said that they were opposed to the school’s suggested alterations to the church, not the plan to bring the Art Institute of Boston to Cambridge.

“We are absolutely supporting AIB coming to our neighborhood, but we want it to be an addition,” said Dr. Peter Lang, Harvard Medical School professor and longtime resident of the Porter Square neighborhood. “We don’t want it to destroy some of the things that we have.”

Andrea Wilder, another Cantebridgian, characterized the proposed renovations as akin to “punching out a person’s front teeth.”

“The term being used is restoration,” she said. “The restoration of a building includes respect for its social and physical context, and that is not evident here.”

—Staff writer Sofia E. Groopman can be reached at segroopm@fas.harvard.edu.