By John Ruch
Pinebank, the decaying, abandoned mansion overlooking Jamaica Pond,
will be gone by the end of the month.
Its existence spanned three centuries. Failed attempts to preserve it
spanned three decades.
When the house was built in 1870, Jamaica Plain wasn’t a part of
Boston and the Emerald Necklace park system hadn’t been thought of
yet. By 2005, its dangerously crumbling remains could be safely
explored only by an engineer’s Space Age robot.
When perhaps the most promising preservation attempt was made in the
early 1990s, Margaret Dyson was president of Historic Massachusetts,
Inc. and a leading member of a Pinebank citizens advisory committee.
Now, she’s the city’s director of historic parks, fated to oversee the
Times have changed during Pinebank’s lifetime. Now, its time is up.
On Jan. 3, exactly 51 weeks after announcing that Pinebank was too
weather- and fire-ravaged to save, the city began demolishing it.
It’s a slow-motion demolition that involves salvaging some of the
imported English brick and terra cotta decorations, possibly for use
in a rebuilt Pinebank, and more likely in a modest memorial the city
is planning on the site. Memorial construction could start this
The only active advocate for rebuilding the mansion is the
Brookline-based Friends of Pinebank, which envisions it as an arts
center. But the group needs to add a couple of zeroes to the $40,000
bottom line of its bank account to approach the realm of financial
A week into the demolition, most of the decorative elements had been
removed, along with all of the exterior brick from the western wall.
The rear portico was gone. Dyson told the Gazette last week that the
building was in such bad shape, workers were able to simply yank
bricks out of the wall.
“It’s relatively rare to be able to dismantle a building with your
bare hands,” she said.
The current Pinebank is the last of three mansions with that name
built on the site by the wealthy Perkins family, for whom the nearby
street is named. The first went up in 1806, then was demolished to
make way for a fancier second Pinebank in 1848.
Pinebank II burned in 1868. The current version was built on its foundation.
The site is atop the high embankment along the north side of the pond.
Conifers still grow in the area, which is presumably the origin of the
The city took over the property in the 1890s. Frederick Law Olmsted
intended the mansion to be a “refectory,” or a place to get light
refreshments, in his Emerald Necklace design, but that never happened.
A fire, one of Pinebank’s many, gutted the building in 1895.
From about 1914 to 1936, the mansion was the home of the Boston
Children’s Museum. Mostly, it served various Boston Parks and
Recreation Department uses, including providing arts courses and a
theater program that staged productions in the dell outside the
mansion’s front door.
Pinebank was boarded up and abandoned in 1978 after another huge fire.
Reuse proposals were numerous, but all foundered on a lack of money
and many complex site issues, including a lack of parking and park
impact concerns. The 1990s process culminated in a nationwide request
for proposals that only drew an infeasible idea for a wine bar.
Meanwhile, the mansion found unofficial reuse as a graffiti billboard
and “haunted house” for thrill-seeking kids.
As Pinebank became a fenced-off eyesore in the park, many activists
gradually and grudgingly came to believe that it should go.
Last year, the parks department announced that there is no way to save
the building, and the city’s Inspectional Services Department ordered
its demolition for safety reasons. The building was crumbling rapidly.
On Jan. 1, the Gazette observed what appeared to be a recent fall of
bricks from the west facade, and an existing hole that had recently
become much larger.
The parks department and the Emerald Necklace Conservancy held a long
string of meetings about planning some kind of memorial to replace
Pinebank. The city’s general idea involves rebuilding low walls and
some kind of informational displays. That would also leave open the
possibility of reconstruction.
The Boston Landmarks Commission (BLC), which authorized the
demolition, continues to oversee the entire process. It heard the
latest update last week.
Workers are salvaging all of the white terra cotta decorations; all of
the west side exterior brick, which is the wall in the best shape; and
as many carved stone pieces as possible, according to Dyson.
That includes the “date stone,” a stone above the mansion’s door that
bears the dates of all three Pinebanks. The date stone is especially
desirable for a memorial, she said.
But, Dyson warned, even the salvaged material may fall apart, as old
masonry sometimes does when it’s no longer held together by the weight
of the building. The date stone is going to a conservator for special
examination, she said.
“In some ways, we need to do the deconstruction piece to even know
what we have to work with,” Dyson said.
Dyson said it’s already known that none of the decorative yellow brick
can be used in an outdoor memorial, because it will continue to
She also acknowledged that reusing any of the material in a memorial
is controversial to Friends of Pinebank, which argues that it would
reduce the amount of original material available for a reconstruction.
After the salvaged materials are examined, a memorial plan will be
presented to the BLC, Dyson said, adding that if there is a
significant new problem with reusing materials or the site itself,
another round of public meetings might come first.
A memorial isn’t the only place for salvaged material. The city will
archive samples of the materials along with “study packets”—CDs
containing detailed plans, photos and other information about
Pinebank. Samples would go to city and state archives, and possibly
the Jamaica Plain Historical Society.
“[Someone] could, with that information, possibly rebuild the
building,” Dyson said. That would involve recasting the bricks and
decorations to match the surviving samples.
Boston Children’s Museum curators were on the site last week,
attempting to examine and perhaps acquire some salvaged material for
its archives, according to spokesperson Rick Stockwood. The idea, he
said, is for the museum to keep a sample in its permanent collection
and possibly use it somehow in the museum’s 100th anniversary
celebration in 2013.
The material is not being handed out that way on the fenced-off site,
and Dyson said she was unaware of the museum’s interest. But, she
added, “I think it’s a great idea.” Stockwood said the museum is now
in discussion with the parks department about acquiring a sample.
Archiving samples still leaves the vast majority of salvaged material.
Dyson said the city still hopes to bury it on the site as a
“The goal is to keep [salvaged materials] on the property in the
foundation so if
reconstruction was going to happen the material will still be on
site,” she said. BLC commissioners have expressed mixed opinions about
In the short term, salvaged material is being stored in a locked
container on the site, which was also guarded during a recent Gazette
Reprinted with permission from the January 19, 2007 Jamaica Plain Gazette. Copyright © Gazette Publications, Inc.