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Congregation, Harvard Mull Counteroffers As Developer Bids on Swedenborg Church


The 98-year old Swedenborg Chapel on the corner of Quincy and Kirkland streets has been for sale for years, but it the last month a $3 million offer from a Somerville developer has thrown its future into doubt.

Since that offer, a variety of initiatives aimed at stopping the developer--and his plans for an 11-story apartment building on the site--have complicated the proposed sale.

Harvard has tentatively entered the fray--the University "did not oppose" a petition to have the building's facade legally protected as a historical landmark. The University is also considering the possible purchase of the site.

The developer will only buy the site if he is allowed to build an 11-story building. If community pressure makes that plan impossible--through a proposed change in the zoning code--he will pull out

The one thing that remains certain, however, is that the church building will be sold.

That makes the two most prominent would-be buyers the church's own 50-person congregation and Harvard. The congregation has the will, but perhaps not the money; and Harvard has the money, but perhaps not the motivation to buy a plot of land that in all likelihood it could not develop.

The chapel is owned by the Swedenborg School of Religion, a Newton-based seminary teaching the doctrines of a Christian sect. The congregation using the chapel is called the Church of the New Jerusalem.

Congregation leaders have hinted in the past that the school is in debt and is seeking to sell the chapel in order to put itself back in the black.

However, congregation leaders say, the school is not supposed to sell the church, provided that the congregation is still viable--which they claim they are.

The speculative plans of the potential buyer, Frank Fodera, call for an apartment building which would still preserve the "historical" exterior--as its lobby. When those plans were revealed in late January, "Save the Chapel" signs went up in church windows and a bevy of petitions, meetings and lawsuits sprung out of the surrounding community.

The congregation has publicly stated its desire to buy the property outright--to the point of making a $2.7 million counteroffer that congregation leaders admit, they likely cannot pay.

To improve their chances, the congregation has gone to court asking a judge to determine what a fair price would be if the church were to be preserved. They argue that it is unfair for a congregation to have to match bids with the developer.

Harvard enters the equation because it legally has the second right of first refusal--meaning that, after the congregation, the University has the first chance to make an offer on the building.

But Harvard's decision is complicated by several obstacles. First, at least the building's exterior must be preserved, making development of the site as classroom space difficult. Second, the congregation still wants to remain in the church--creating further public relations problems for any potential development.

"For the University the value is probably considerably less than the value to a developer," Power said.

Lars-Erik Wiberg, the congregation's president, says that even with Harvard as a landlord, the chapel is committed to staying.

"It's awfully difficult," Wiberg says. "For a congregation that has been in one place for almost 100 years to imagine someone else owning [the chapel]."

Administration sources this week hedged when asked about Harvard's interest in the property--the University has as much against an apartment building on the site as anyone, and could buy the site simply to keep it out of any other developer's hands.

"Given how much this development proposal has been a lightning rod for community activists, [buying the site] does a lot for Harvard as a white knight," says David A. Zewinski '76, associate dean for physical resources and planning for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

The University gave its tacit agreement to the plan to make the chapel a historical landmark--but opposed protecting the interior. This could perhaps open the way to University purchase of the site and modification of the interior for academic use.

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