Preservation Plans Unclear for Historic Ferris Place House

 

By KATIE MOEN
For The Westfield Leader

WESTFIELD — After months of passionate discussion, debate and review, the plans for Westfield’s newest residential complex — the oft-contested Sofia — have become a heated topic of conversation among local residents. Though the project is slated to appear before the planning board of Monday, details surrounding one particular aspect of the development are still relatively unclear.

On Monday, representatives for redeveloper James Ward addressed the Westfield Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) regarding his intentions for an 18th-century settlement home located at 112 Ferris Place. Earlier this year, Mr. Ward agreed to designate the structure as one of local historic significance in order to preserve it as a cultural center and living museum. HPC Chair Maria Boyes, who recused herself from the conversation due to her home’s proximity to the proposed development, said Monday that while the commission appreciated Mr. Ward’s willingness to preserve the structure, the decision to convert the home into a museum was not in line with their recommendations.

“I would like to take a moment to correct the public record as stated in the May 24 town council meeting by the attorney for the developer of 112 Ferris Place, as well as by a member of the developer’s family in the press,” Ms. Boyes said. “Neither myself, nor any commission member, in any meetings, suggested, requested, or insisted that the historic home be used as a museum or cultural center.”

Ms. Boyes went on to note that Mr. Ward’s plan to move the home from its current location during construction and relocate it to another part of the property also was problematic.

“We stated that we did not believe that moving and attaching the historic structure to any new construction would be beneficial to the 1700’s homestead,” Ms. Boyes said.

The 2021 Prospect and Ferris Redevelopment Plan, prepared by Topology, mandates the preservation of a historic home on the site and proposes a vision for the conversion of this home into a new cultural and educational amenity. It goes on to state, “The Prospect and Ferris Redevelopment Plan (the “Plan”) sets forth a vision to advance…the framework for an attractive residential development in the center of Westfield that will introduce distinctive architecture, strengthen the vitality of the downtown, and preserve a historic asset for the benefit of current and future Westfielders.”

So far, however, the details of what that might look like in terms of construction, renovation or incorporation into the new multi-use complex are still somewhat hazy.

As a historically-designated structure, the home (known locally as the Mills-Ferris-Pearsal House in honor of the original Westfield families that built it) technically falls under the somewhat limited purview of the HPC. When asked to make some recommendations to the planning board in an advisory capacity about the project, however, commission members said Monday that they would be hesitant to do so without more information.

In a letter drafted to the planning board on July 18, architect and HPC board member Barton Ross said, “The Site Plan Application is not complete as no architectural drawings (existing, demo or proposed) depicting the historic house were provided in the application packet. No details nor specific written specifications were provided, either, besides an incomplete protection plan report, which makes it difficult for the Historic Preservation Commission members to adequately review and make insightful comments or recommendations.”

The letter goes on to note that certain mandated documentation — specifically “documentation of the existing condition of the historic building and significant history fabric (including, but not limited to, windows, stairs, masonry and cornice details) prior to relocation” and drawings or spec designs of how the chimney will be protected during the move — also was missing from the initial application.

As part of the application process, Mr. Ward also was required to submit a construction protection plan report in order to, as Mr. Barton stated in his letter, “ensure that physical damage to existing historic properties adjacent to demolition and construction activities is prevented” as demolition and new construction can cause harm and damage to the physical integrity of a historic structure such as this one.

“This protection plan scope of work is limited to the protection of the house during relocations only. The rehabilitation and restoration of the house will be covered under a separate plan to be developed after the house is moved to its final location. The demolition work includes the removal of the existing non-historic addition on the rear of the house, prior to moving, and the protection of the ‘scar’ area afterwards.”

While the protection plan was submitted on time for Monday night’s meeting, Mr. Barton noted that it “defers a lot of responsibility to the house moving company, which is fine, if they provide their credentials, work plan, more specificity, etc.” As of Monday, however, those details had not yet been worked out by the project’s management team.

“My concern with all of this is that we have been burned before,” said HPC board member and town historian Carol Tener, who went on to compare the arrangement with Ferris and Prospect LLC (the managing entity behind the project) to another made in 2000 with developer Michael Mahoney, who ultimately reneged on a promise to restore a similar home on East Broad Street.

Still, said Ferris and Prospect LLC Attorney Richard Skolnick, Mr. Ward has already demonstrated a great deal of personal responsibility and investment into the Sofia and would not be willing to tarnish his reputation within the community by taking any shortcuts.

“The proposal that’s before you, as I think you all know, does not come up from a vacuum,” Mr. Skolnick said Monday. “My client has had many discussions — many, many discussions — with the various stakeholders in the municipality. [He has had] informal discussions with this commission, town council people…meeting after meeting after meeting. Many of those discussions, really all of them, were completed before the historic designation was formally made.”

Mr. Skolnick went on to note that many of Mr. Ward’s subsequent conversations were held “in good faith” and with the requests of the HPC in mind.

The recommendations of the HPC were not made available at the time of publication.

The Westfield Planning Board is scheduled to hear the site plan application for the Prospect and Ferris Redevelopment on Monday, August 1, at 7:30 p.m., in the council chambers of Town Hall.

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