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Preservation Studies Program helps a building with a cause

Historic designation earns tax credits for Back Bay YWCA

The Boston's YWCA headquarters on Clarendon Street, built in 1929, is on the National Register for Historic Places. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

The GRS Preservation Studies Program is concerned mainly with the restoration of historic structures, not with providing affordable housing, but a recent project it was involved in does quite a bit of both.

The 14-story YWCA headquarters on Clarendon Street was renovated last summer in a $53 million redevelopment project with the help of city and state grants, tax credits, and a $20 million loan from the Bank of America. It was converted into 144 apartments, 79 of them subsidized. The Y also opened the 40-room Hotel 140, which is creating revenue to help pay for the affordable housing.

The project got an encouraging boost from the efforts of Elaine Finbury, a College of Arts and Sciences adjunct assistant professor, and three of her students, who did the research and work necessary to file nomination papers to put the building on the National Register of Historic Places. Their efforts were successful, making it eligible for federal historic restoration tax credits.

Five years ago, because the building, built in 1929, was sorely in need of renovation, the Y considered selling it and moving to another neighborhood. Among its problems were leaks in the basement that required constant pumping. Then in 2002 the Y hired GLC Development, a real estate consulting firm, to look into the possibility of converting it into affordable housing. The firm contacted Finbury (CAS’76), who took a look at the building’s ornamental balconies, curved marble staircase, and copper cornice, and suggested pursuing federal historic designation.

“We investigated whether or not the building would meet the criteria for listing on the National Register of Historic Places,” says Finbury. “We had to get it listed individually, because unfortunately it’s located right between two historic districts, the South End and the Back Bay. One would assume that it was included in an existing historic district, but it wasn’t. And it has to be a notable building to be individually listed on the National Register, so we started researching the history of the YWCA headquarters.”

Finbury and students Kara Cicchetti (GRS’03), Jason Reeves (GRS’03), and Sarah Hansen (GRS’03) got to work documenting the building’s historical and cultural importance, which included the Y’s spearheading of educational and recreational programs for women and its advocacy of racial justice and social equality. “The YWCA made a significant contribution to social movements in the United States,” says Finbury.

The Preservation Studies Program has worked with numerous restoration efforts, from a 19th-century black church in Portsmouth, N.H., to a historic stadium in Haverhill, Mass. But the program has also been engaged in adaptive use projects. “I had three exceptional students who were really interested in adaptive use,” says Finbury, “but they had never worked on historic rehabilitation tax credit applications.”

The YWCA headquarters has traditionally served as an affordable option for travelers and as housing for low- and moderate-income people. Hotel 140, named after its address, charges $129 a night. Those living in the subsidized apartments, who earn between $17,350 and $33,960, pay 30 percent of their paychecks in rent. Tenants in the unsubsidized units pay market-rate rents of between $1,500 and $1,700 a month.

The project thus enabled the Y to buttress its finances and further its mission of helping people, providing reasonably priced housing in an area known for its million-dollar townhouses.

Finbury says her students liked the idea of aiding a worthy cause, particularly one that was consistent with the history of the building, which is a stop on the city’s Women’s Heritage Trail. “It’s an important social institution,” she says. “The history of the building and the organization is woven into the history of Boston.”