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Nonprofit will buy Historic Roxbury church from City Realty

Catherine McGloin
Nonprofit will buy Historic Roxbury church from City Realty
Historic Boston Incorporated plans to purchase the St. James African Orthodox Church on Cedar Street, saving the historic building from demolition. Banner Photo

Roxbury’s St. James African Orthodox Church has found a savior.

Historic Boston Incorporated reached an agreement last Wednesday to purchase 50 Cedar Street from City Realty for $1.4 million, saving the church from demolition. Now the nonprofit is asking the community to inspire future plans for the historic church. 

“We look forward to working with the community to find a feasible and positive reuse that complements the neighborhood’s goals and preserves a century of neighborhood history,” said Kathy Kottaridis, executive director of Historic Boston Inc.

Community members, who will have the chance to share their redevelopment ideas with HBI early next month, welcomed the news. One relieved long-term Cedar Street resident is Rodney Singleton.

“The number one reason we have been so engaged and went through everything was to save the building,” said Singleton, “and if anyone’s going to do a good job it’ll be [HBI].” He cited their “good track record” on other projects in the neighborhood.

The property management and preservation nonprofit has renovated several buildings in Highland Park over the last 30 years, including the 19th-century Alvah Kittredge Park Rowhouses and the Edward Everett Hale House on Morley Street.

In a statement, Mayor Martin J. Walsh called the agreement a “positive resolution,” and committed to working with HBI on the restoration of the St. James church building.

“It has been made clear by local residents that this church has been an integral part of their community for many years and still has an important role to play in the neighborhood’s future,” said Walsh last Wednesday.

Curtis Perrin, co-chair of the Highland Park Neighborhood Coalition’s Preservation Committee, and the driving force behind efforts to save the neighborhood’s historic church, said St. James “has an important historical story to tell the present.”

In June, Perrin wrote a report outlining the church’s cultural and historical significance, collected more than 2,600 signatures in support and made the case to save St. James to the Boston Landmark Commission, along with Edmund Barry Gaither, director of the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists.

Conservation district

Now Perrin hopes this victory will bolster their campaign to have the neighborhood designated an Architectural Conservation District, which would give the community more power to save sites like 50 Cedar Street from demolition.

The campaign to protect and restore St. James can be used as a template for future development in Highland Park and beyond, Perrin said. “I feel pretty confident that [HBI] will do right by the community,” he said.

Once the deal is closed in October, HBI will have to balance preservation of the building’s history and development of its sustainable future with its own bottom line.

“Our single goal is a quality restoration that preserves the integral character of the building, and identifies revenue-generating uses for the community, now and for the long term,” said Kottaridis. 

But, she warns, as with any project, financial realities may dictate which community-sourced plans proceed and which prove too costly to implement.

“There will be a reality check,” said Kottaridis, who estimates that if the church’s sanctuary were transformed into a community space and the lower levels developed into housing, expenditures could reach $5 million.

To help with costs, Kottaridis said HBI will apply for state and federal tax credits from the Massachusetts Historical Commission and the National Park Service, granting these agencies a limited vote in determining the future vision for St. James.

Future plans

Community members have already begun sharing their plans. Many would like to see the sanctuary opened as a community resource.

Singleton suggests it could be used as an auditorium for nearby Nathan Hale Elementary School, which does not currently have such a facility. Alternatively, he said it could become a collaborative community space for a number of different groups.

While there are no definite plans, Kottaridis said there is potential to develop retail space and landscape the grounds to provide more green areas for public use.

John Ellertson, a resident of Thornton Street and secretary of the Highland Park Neighborhood Coalition, said he is open to any suggestions “as long as they don’t become 100 percent market-rate houses.”

Similarly, Singleton would rather not see housing on the site, but “if there were to be housing, then who better to do it than Historic Boston Inc.,” he said.

“I’ve heard people say they want another church,” Singleton added. “Imagine that.”

The first community meeting with Historic Boston Inc. will be on Aug. 2 at 6.30 p.m. in the Putnam Chapel at First Church in Roxbury, 10 Putnam St.

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