How Does a Building Become Historic? Some Thoughts from Bedford’s Historic Preservation Commission

~ Submitted by John Linz,
Chair of Bedford’s Historic Preservation Commission

What do you think of when told that a particular building is designated as “historic”?

Some may tell you that it refers to a building that faithfully captures, or “freezes”, a period in the life of the building and/or its surroundings – like a museum. Others may tell you that it refers to a building with an interesting story to tell — like how it continued to be relevant to its community throughout its lifetime.

This question is especially relevant to members of Bedford’s Historic Preservation Commission.

Per Article 29 of the Town’s bylaws, the Commission’s purpose “…is to promote the educational, cultural, economic, and general welfare of the public through the preservation and protection of the distinctive characteristics of the buildings, places, and sites significant to the history of the Town of Bedford”.

Of course, if the building is to be considered historic, it must be old. But old is not enough—it must also survive. We have several historic buildings in Bedford. Most of them are privately owned, with a history of private ownership.  These buildings have gone through many changes in their lifetimes—maintenance, expansions, even repurposing. At various times in their history, owners had to make changes that allowed their buildings to remain relevant during changing times.

The Job Lane House

Best in Show: Photographer Robert Bass’s image of the Job Lane House — Image (c) RWB, 2013 all rights reserved

A case in point is our historic Job Lane House. It is a farmhouse, built circa 1713, and served several generations as a private residence for 260 years — until it was purchased by the town in 1973 for use as a historic farmhouse museum.

The original house was built by Deacon Job Lane, a small saltbox consisting of three small rooms downstairs, and a bedchamber and garret above.

This house served Job Lane and his descendants for over 100 years. Around 1827 one of the descendants, Oliver Reed Abbott, found it necessary to expand the house with a large addition that tended toward the Federalist style.

It can be interesting to speculate about the discussions that may have resulted if Mr. Abbott’s plans were reviewed by an 1827 version of one of our historic commissions! But the changes were made, and the house survived by being relevant to its owners for another 194 years.

If you are not familiar with the story of the Job Lane House, you are urged to take a house tour at one of the Job Lane Museum summer open houses, where the guides will fill you in with very interesting detail about the ways this house stayed relevant.

First Parish Church on Bedford Common

The steeple at First Parish on Bedford Common ~ Image (c) JMcCT, 2017 all rights reserved

Another example is the First Parish Church. Its origins are tied directly to the origins of the town in 1729, in that the construction of a “meeting house for public worship” was a necessary condition for the formation of our town, out of parts of Billerica and Concord.

The original meeting house served the town for over 80 years but was falling into disrepair over this time. A new building, our current First Parish Church, was built in 1817 and used many beams that were salvaged from the original meeting house.

At 204 years old, First Parish Church does meet one criterium for historic – it is old. But it also meets the criteria for maintaining relevancy through the generations that it served, and it survives. An example, at one time the leaders must have decided that it was time to install some indoor plumbing. No doubt, they thought this would be a very modern convenience for the membership, while today, we take it for granted that it is simply a part of its historic character.

Another example is the decision of church leaders to electrify the building, with poles and wires that bring electricity into the building. This change enabled many modern conveniences to be added to the building, further enhancing the relevancy of the building for later generations.

More recent “added conveniences” are modern cell phone towers hidden within the church spire, that add to the building’s relevancy by enhancing our cell phone communications! And we still consider the building historic with all of these “modern” changes – changes that allowed it to maintain its relevancy and continued survivability. Our Town Historian, Sharon McDonald, has written a compelling book that shows how the First Parish Church has stayed relevant over all these generations. The book has more detail about this continued relevance and is highly recommended.

Are You Interested in Bedford’s Historic Buildings?

An understanding of how buildings, places, and sites become “historic” is helpful as the Historic Preservation Commission pursues its purposes as defined in town by-laws. The work is at times challenging, but also rewarding. We would like to share these challenges and rewards with additional Bedford residents. And we can do so at this time due to two Commission vacancies!

If you are interested, check in with Bedford’s Volunteer Coordination Committee (https://www.bedfordma.gov/volunteer-coordinating-committee) for information about obtaining an appointment to the Historic Preservation Commission.

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