Near the end of a meeting where answers were hard to come by, a quiet descended over the meeting attempting to find some way, any way, to save the historic Thomas Clark House on Common Street from the wrecking ball.
"It's like a wake," said Michael Smith, co-chairman, breaking the silence.
"It's like a funeral," said Peter Sifneos, who was part-owner of the house with his two sisters after the death of their father.
The representation of a final good-bye to a significant part of Belmont's history was apt as the Commission and the handful of residents who attended the meeting held at Town Hall, Thursday, Aug. 11, could find little to stem the realization that one of town's best-known homes will soon be a pile of rubble.
"I wish we had better ideas," said Smith.
Built less than two decades before the Battle of Lexington and the Declaration of Independence and a century before Belmont became a town, the Thomas Clark House (the original "Salt Box" main house with a 19th century addition) was the ancestral home of the Clark family – one of the town's leading residents and the impetus for the naming of Clark Street – for two centuries before it was sold in the 1950s to Peter Sifneos.
While numerous homes in Belmont have been torn down over the years, the Clark House has struck a nerve because of the family's history in town and that it highly visible to everyone in town.
Sifneos, the son of the owner, said he "has a lot of great memories growing up in that house" saying that the homestead was once home to a used car lot.
But now Sifneos "wakes up in a cold sweat" thinking that his family's home will be gone in a few months.
Sifneos sold his interest in this father's house – Peter Sifneos died in Dec. 2008 and the house is part of his estate – for $300,000 to his sisters, Jean Sifneos and Ann Callahan.
Sold for $1.05 million
Sifneos' daughters are reportedly ready with developer Mark Barons, the owner of New England Construction Corporation of Lexington, to close on the property. The house is currently assessed by the town at $939,000 while a $1,050,000 Purchase and Sale for the property has reportedly been signed.
What is moving the demolition forward is the desirability of land in Belmont and recent development along Common Street. The Clark House is on two-thirds of an acre of land, which can be bifurcated into two residential lots "by right" under the town's zoning bylaws.
And if the developer needed an example of the potential profit from new construction on the lot, he needs only look across the street. 40 Common Street, a recently-built "McMansion" – 40,600 square foot, five bedroom, four-and-a-half bath on 6,200 square feet of land – fetched $2,125,000 earlier this year. An existing house in the same Underwood Estate complex sold in the midst of the 2009 recession for $2.1 million.
"This is prime land and that's the unfortunate fact," said Sifneos, who currently lives in Arlington.
While Sifneos said he would "love to find a way" to stop the destruction of the home he was brought up, it became clear that little was available to residents to prevent Barons from his intended goal.
Smith said the Historic Commission does not have jurisdiction over the land since it does not lie within the two historic districts in town: along Pleasant Street and the Town Common where Common intersects with Concord Avenue adjacent First Church Belmont.
In addition, Belmont does not have a "demolition delay" bylaw that would halt the destruction of "significantly historic" homes until all efforts had been exhausted.
Sign off needed for demolition permission
Glenn Clancy, the director of the Community Development Office said the town requires a 'sign-off' from all town departments and all utilities.
"The applicant is required by the state building code to notify all immediate abutters of the demolition and we require proof of notification," said Clancy.
Nor would an attempt to have the popular PBS television show "This Old House" save the property since the home owner is required to put up the funds for the renovation.
One option that had gained traction over the past few weeks was moving the structure to another location, either on town land or to a privately-owned parcel.
But it was unlikely the town would attempt the move due to cost – it would cost between $25,000 to $40,000 – finding a suitable location and then finding a use for the 250-year-old house, said Smith.
Recently an Ashland man had contacted all sides on possibly transporting the property to that community.
"But he had to decline because his wife was not so excited," said Smith.
"We are at our wit's end," he said.
"It's an unfortunate situation and we could see it again," said Commission member Lisa Harrington. "I wish we could make this a precedence and learn from it so this does not happen around town."
Smith does believe that the end of the Clark House could become the "poster child" for demolition delay and that it will make the town and historic groups for proactive in saving "our historic assets" by creating a list of similarly significant structures.
Smith said a preliminary plan will be presented to the Board of Selectmen at their Aug. 15 meeting with the goal of going before Town Meeting in the near future to establish a bylaw.
Clancy said other communities have by-laws for such matters.
"I expect we will look at successful examples from other communities to help guide us," he said.
But as for now, it appears the house's two-and-a-half century legacy will be limited to photographs and memories.
"The only thing that helps is that in my heart, I know I exhausted every possible means to save the house," said Sifneos.
"But I guess it's beyond our control now," he said.