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Bringing back a Mattapan farm

Historic Boston Inc. will restore 18-19th century Fowler-Clark farm, home and barn

Jule Pattison-Gordon
Bringing back a Mattapan farm
An architect’s rendering shows the proposed renovation of the Fowler-Clark farm. (Photo: Image courtesy Historic Boston Incorporated)

The 18th and 19th century Fowler-Clark farm has long languished in disrepair, its yard overgrown and buildings so dilapidated that two years ago city officials expressed fear that this slice of Mattapan’s past was at risk of being lost as the property fell apart.

Now the farm is on the brink of a new future as a restored historic site and urban farming training and education center.

Historic Boston Incorporated purchased the property and now works in partnership with the Urban Farming Institute, North Bennet Street School and the Trust for Public Land to revitalize the 30,000 square foot farm and restore its 19th century carriage barn and 18th century farmhouse. The partners intend to add a greenhouse, planting beds and historic signage, ultimately converting the farm into UFI headquarters.

The UFI not only will grow crops for sale at an on-site farm stand but also engage the community with urban farming educational programs, volunteer opportunities, and, they hope, a test kitchen.

HBI is the Fowler-Clark owner and developer of the farm and will oversee the construction process. The North Bennet Street School will carry out restoration work on the farmhouse and barn, while the Trust for Public Land focuses on fundraising and building the farming component, such as the planting beds, greenhouse and periphery fencing. The UFI will manage operation of the site, its gardens and programs.

Harvesting health

Patricia Spence, UFI executive director, said that the organization’s mission is to train residents of Mattapan, Roxbury and Dorchester so that they leave qualified for farming jobs or their own farming business. The UFI also seeks to educate communities about healthy eating.

The organization, now in its third year, will be making the Fowler-Clark farm their base. It will become one of the farms used by trainees participating in the UFI’s eight-week exploratory program, which is open to anyone for a small fee, and its 20-week training program, for those planning a fulltime career in farming.

Volunteer opportunities are open to all ages from children to the elderly, to provide insight into how food is made and help keep the farm running.

“We’ll be the key for urban agriculture in Boston,” said Spence. UFI’s larger goals include vacant land acquisition, then leasing to those who wish to start urban farms. The organization also conducts research and development of new farming ideas.

“There’s a lot to be learned here by a lot of different people. Hopefully it will be a real inspiration to the people who are already growing tomatoes in their front yards, but also to people who are thinking about it or who would like to,” said Kathy Kottaridis, executive director of HBI. “It should draw people throughout the region who really want to learn techniques for urban farming and harvesting methods and use of planting beds.”

Spence expects UFI members and helpers to grow an extensive selection of crops at Fowler-Clark: several varieties of peppers, tomatoes and beets; romaine lettuce, kale, collards and other greens; yellow and green squash; zucchini; watermelons; tricolor carrots and more. The farm stand will sell fresh produce to the neighborhood.

Vivien Morris, executive director of Mattapan Food and Fitness Coalition, which provides support to Urban Boston on the project, said the farming activities speak to a strong local need for access to healthy food.

Mattapan has the highest obesity rate in the city, coupled with limited access to full-service grocery stores in the area, thus making this alternate source of produce especially important, Morris said. According to the Tufts Clinical and Translation Science Institute, Mattapan’s obesity rate is 16 percent higher than the Boston average.

“Part of what encourages us to eat healthy is understanding where food comes from, and what makes some food healthier than others,” which is why the Fowler-Clark farm is such a valuable educational resources, said Morris.

If the partners achieve their hoped-for test kitchen, it will be a place for instructors to teach healthy meal preparation techniques.

Major renovations

Revitalizing the Fowler-Clark farm is a large undertaking, according to Kottaridis.

“Almost every corner of this property will be fully redeveloped,” she said.

The project task list includes shingle replacement, restoring the buildings’ faces and windows, and building the test kitchen. A farmhouse apartment also will be built for both the caretaker, UFI’s farm trainer, and his wife

North Bennet Street School carpentry students will work on historic restoration.

Final costs

Total costs are expected to be $3.1 million, of which $1 million still needs to be secured.

HBI put up some of its own money as an equity investment, said Kottaridis, and state and federal historical tax credits have contributed to about 36 percent of the total rehabilitation costs. A mortgage to cover the balance will be taken, paid back from earnings generated by the various program offerings.

“The $1 million is the gap between sustainable sources of funding and financing and the development cost to transform the site,” she said.

The partners will focus the next 6-9 months on raising that amount. The Trust for Public Land is looking into a mixture of public and private sources, including local, state and federal grant programs, as well as grants from foundations and individuals, said Darci Schofield, urban program director of the TPL.

Once the farm is up and running, Kottaridis expects the property to be financially self-sustaining via proceeds from tuition, rent receipts and farm stand sales.

Community enthusiasm

HBI solicited community feedback at a recent summer barbecue, which they advertised through a multi-block fliering campaign. Kottaridis and Morri said they considered the feedback to be very positive.

Older residents attending the barbecue said they wanted public access and spaces where they could sit and visit.

“We are taking that very seriously in our consideration of restoration of spaces in both the barn and the house,” Kottaridis said. They also are considering summer outdoor events.

Historical roots

“[The farm] is really a place that’s evolved over time as the city grew up around it. It is a great story to tell about Mattapan,” said Kottaridis.

Signage will be added both inside and outside the property, so that those walking by can get a sense of the history of both the land and Mattapan. The house and barn will provide an opportunity to see the construction methods and architecture of the time periods.

The Boston Landmarks Commission’s report on the Fowler-Clark farm called it “among the earliest, intact, vernacular examples of agrarian properties identified in Boston and other urban centers across the Commonwealth,” stating that such “tangible remnants” of Boston’s agricultural past provide insight on the city’s development, such as settlement patterns, architectural influences and agricultural practices.

The farmhouse was constructed between 1786 and 1806 by Samuel Fowler. In 1827, his descendants sold a section of land including the house to Mary B. Clark. The carriage barn dates to 1860, according to HBI. Towards the end of the 19th century, the Clark family divided up their land and, in 1941, the current Fowler-Clark farm property was sold to Jorge and Ida Epstein.

In 2013, the City seized the land from the Epstein estate, claiming that the property, at that point a designated historic landmark, was at risk of severe damage from neglect. In 2014, HBI purchased the farm.

Renovations are expected to be completed by fall/winter 2017. Schofield said they have been focused on engaging with the community and will continue to do so throughout the process. The next big step is fundraising, after which the partners can generate designs for the landscape and architectural restoration, gather community responses to the design plans, secure permitting, then ultimately, start construction.