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Latest Hope to Save Clark House Bumps Up Against Committee Reality

While timing a concern for supporters, Community Preservation Committee will insist that all obstacles be resolved before considering a grant proposal.

If appeared on Monday, Nov. 18 that the supporters of the historic Thomas Clark House had saved their best Harry Houdini-like escape trick just before the final curtain fell.

After initially telling the Belmont Board of Selectmen that due to limited finances and time the likely future for the 250-year-old house now perched along Concord Avenue would be disassembled as hundreds of numbered sections in a 20-foot-long shipping container, the team behind saving the structure – the Historic District Commission's co-chair Michael Smith and Sean McDonnell, president of Boston-based Architectural Heritage Foundation which holds title to the house – proposed a last-minute plan that would secure a permanent homestead for the 1760's-era house using both public land and funding.

And with the encouragement of the Board to pursue the proposal, it appeared Monday that the Clark House could possibly elude its pending undesirable fate by a hairbreadth. 

"It was great to see that spark from the Selectmen when they discussed the plan," McDonnell said after the meeting to Belmont Patch. 

"We haven't given up the ghost just yet on this house," he said.

But unlike the Great Houdini who could break out from the most perilous predicaments, the town committee Clark House supporters will need to win over appears unlikely, once again, to provide the pre-Revolutionary War house a timely escape from a future in pieces.

"There are numerous obstacles they need to resolve before they can come to us. And those will take time," said Floyd Carman, town treasurer and co-chair with Paul Solomon of the Community Preservation Committee which the Clark House will seek public funding.

After a remarkable community effort saved the Colonial from the wreaking ball in February 2012 by moving it a half-a-mile, the blue/gray two-floor house that once stood on Common Street has been stranded high and dry like a grounded vessel adjacent to Belmont High School's White Field House, waiting for some resolution.

Yet as Smith told the Selectmen at Monday's "update" several attempts to find a enduring location to place one of the few "true" Colonial homes in the area have failed as private donors have balked at accepting the house.

"We’re at a crossroads right now. We’ve been unable to secure a site. You know of our efforts to work with local institutions. That has not come to fruition," said Smith.

With Architectural Heritage's limited funds to commit to the house, the lack in raising public funds and a February deadline in which the town will need to relicense the house at the current location, Smith said it would likely the house would be orderly dismantled and stored in a container until someone wanted it unless a site could be found.

Smith then asked the Selectmen to consider yet another effort to save the house: transport the house up Cottage Street, taking a right at School Street and parking it on a town-owned lot across from the Wellington Elementary School.

At the lip of the steep sledding hill above the Underwood Playground, the House would become the possible home of the Belmont Historical Society, Smith suggested.  

And it appeared that the selectmen were receptive to Smith's blueprint. 

But there is a caveat: the supporters will be seeking to pay for the move and placement with a last-minute reprieve for public funds from a committee that has been less than hospitable the last time Clark House backers requested money. 

In fact, Smith said the CPC – the group which dispenses funds raised through an added tax on real estate – was been downright hostile to the supporter's last overture, funding approximately $650,000 to move the house into the Belmont Garden Club's plot on Belmont Public Library land.

"The resistance I received was overwhelming. I was stunned," Smith told the board. 

But undaunted by its last reception, Clark House proponents will submit an "off-cycle application" to the Committee since the CPC is already mid-way into its 2014 funding year on a long list of proposals seeking monies for affordable housing, recreation and preservation projects. 

"There is no greater purpose that I know of than to restore this old house using CPA funds," said Smith.

The unusual move on the supporters part is all to do with timing, according to McDonnell, whose non-profit actively preserves historic buildings and structures throughout the region. 

"The whole thing is a timing issue," said McDonnell. 

"My concern is that we would bump into a timing problem in February when the licensing agreement expires and we wouldn't have time to come up with a backup plan," he said.

A successful move will also mean persuading the public to accept the supporters 180 degree reversal of its initial plan for a privately funded venture to one which public CPC money will be used to preserve the house. 

The U-turn was necessitated as private funds are difficult to solicit for a structure without a site. Unlike Joey's Park, said Smith, there is no natural base of donors for the Clark House.

"I think we are being painted by the same brush when [the Clark House] was presented to the Town Meeting as a privately funded plan," said McDonnell. 

Yet to both Carman and Solomon. Clark House supporters have placed the funding cart before the title horse.

At its Wednesday afternoon meeting, Nov. 20, Carman told Belmont Patch that the CPC will not consider a grant proposal until the Clark House proponents have secured ownership, or title, to the School Street parcel.

"Because it's public land, they will need to get approval from Town Meeting to obtain the title. It's not up to the Selectmen," said Carman, who has sent a note to Town Counsel George Hall concerning any deed restrictions.

It is at the same Town Meeting, scheduled in April 2014, when each CPC grant request will be voted by the town's legislative body. 

According to Carman, the earliest the Clark House could submit an off-cycle application is only after the Town Meeting decides to transfer ownership of the parcel. 

"Before they come to us, they need clean title," explained Carman. 
steffen pierce November 25, 2013 at 12:51 PM
Saving the Clark House is an essential step in honoring Belmont's connection to its own history. I grew up in Lexington and have lived in Belmont for the past 25 years, yet I am always surprised to observe Belmont's indifference to its own history. A visitor to Arlington or Lexington cannot help but encounter buildings and museums that celebrate the history of these towns, yet Belmont for some reason has taken another path. I am told that Belmont's Clark House was once a stop on the Underground Railroad, yet the town seems uninterested in honoring or celebrating this. In contrast, in nearby Newton another historical home, the Jackson Homestead is celebrating its connection to the Underground Railroad with exhibits that educate Newton students of all ages : http://www.newtonma.gov/gov/historic/exhibits/current/confront/ugrailroad.asp. We are surrounded by communities that understand and promote their own history, yet Belmont refuses to do the same. The Clark House is an opportunity that should not be left to the wrecking ball. Steffen Pierce, 211 Belmont St, Belmont

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