Monday, May 25, 2015

House Facts and Mysteries

By searching online newspaper archives, I learned that the Back Bay townhouse where we own a condo was valued at $20,300 when Wallace Clement Sabine* and his wife, Jane Kelly Sabine** bought it from its first owners, the Heath family. I also found that Dr. Jane Sabine's estate received only $9,500 from the sale of this house after she died in 1950.

Back Bay's cachet went downhill during her years here, as its well-to-do families moved to the suburbs and their former homes were converted to apartments, schools, dormitories, rooming houses, and medical offices. Many Victorian showpieces were torn down or "updated" catastrophically before the Back Bay Architectural Commission came into being (in 1966) and acquired the power to stop all that nonsense. We have preservation rules and guidelines now. The whole neighborhood is landmarked and no one can mess with any of its historic exterior elements.

I believe that our neighborhood's state of preservation is one of the reasons that the Sabines' house is worth about $4 million today.

After this house was sold in 1950, it was used as an apartment building or rooming house with shared baths and "kitchenettes." The new owners, Harry (a teletype operator) and Harriet Thorson, lived in one apartment and rented out the rest. Ads for "furnished rooms" and for the 4th-floor apartment with "terrace" appear frequently in the Boston Herald classifieds during the 1950s

We know that the house had "12 rooms and 3 bathrooms" at the time of that sale, but we can't figure out where they were located, or even how many floors the house had at the time. It started out with three stories (or was it three and a half?). It mysteriously acquired a fourth story at some point (there are no building permits on record). Either Dr. Sabine or the Thorsons must have added it.

The top-story addition looks newer than that, both inside and out. It's covered with ugly sheet-metal and has narrow casement windows that seem more mid-century. When the Sabines bought the house in 1909, it was described as a 3-1/2 story house, and that's confusing, too. The half story may mean the basement, since it's below-grade in the front and fully above ground in the back. Or it has something to do with the top floor. We are struggling over that one. Deed research is on the docket.

I keep saying "we" because I have a partner in my new obsession. She lives in California, but she used to live in my living room when she was an undergrad studying theater at BU in the early 1960s. Several years ago, she was revisiting her old haunts on a trip here and rang our bell, but we weren't home. So she wrote a letter... and we became friends. She loved living here and remembers many details about her old rooming house, which also housed an architectural firm on the parlor and basement levels. She visited Boston again a few years ago and we met and went touring as many of her old apartments as we could charm our way into.

When I emailed her with some Sabine-related questions, she got interested — she's a theater professional and loves old houses and house history. And Professor Sabine was the first person to study and master acoustic engineering in theaters and concert halls, so she loves that connection. While she's waiting for her copy of his biography to arrive, we're trading bits of research and grousing about facts we can't find.

* Harvard physics professor, dean of the Graduate School of Applied Science, inventor, founder of the science of modern architectural acoustics, and aeronautics expert.
** Doctor and surgeon at New England Women and Children's Hospital.

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