What will happen to the Hearn Building?

MD-Hearn building collapse_3x
CAMBRIDGE — Oct. 28, the historic Hearn Building at 509-511 Race St. in Cambridge suffered a partial collapse. A large portion of the southern brick wall came down, damaging the Tolley Theater property and causing concern that the façade may be next to fall into Race Street.

Thursday morning city and county crews were on site blocking off Race Street to through traffic and erecting a temporary fence to keep pedestrians away from the building. Structural engineers were on site on Thursday to assess the condition of the remainder of the building.

“I’m hoping I see the engineer’s reports today,” said Cambridge Main Street Director Brandon Hesson, on Nov. 2. “The city engineer said it’s not going to fall down tomorrow, but if you don’t do something fast, something bad can happen. But the building can be preserved. Once we knew that, everyone started chasing around trying to locate funds to preserve the building. That’s the hardest thing to do.”

The building, erected in approximately 1914, was originally known as the United Stores Company building. USC changed its name to the Herbert Hearn Hardware Company in 1919, and the building served for many years as one of the hardware stores in town, until the Herbert Hearn Company sold the building in 1975. A number of other businesses located there until at least five years ago, when the building became vacant. The roof suffered a partial collapse in recent years.

The immediate question is whether the damaged building will now be torn down, but it is still too early for the city and county to make that call.

One option of course is complete demolition of the building, but it is an option that is undesirable to Cambridge Main Street, and the city, and potentially to any developer who might be interested in the property. Speaking for Cambridge Main Street, Mr. Hesson said, “I am not going to allow that building to hurt somebody. I will be the first to say yes if we’ve got to do it. But, if we knock the walls and the back of the building down, and we save the façade — like what was done with the 400 block of Race Street — then the building is still technically historic and partially intact, so that a developer still has access to historic tax credits at the state and federal level. If you knock the whole building down, that property becomes a parking lot that produces zero tax revenue. It would have absolutely no value (to the city). And, to knock it down, let’s say it costs $250,000 — and the taxpayers have to pay every nickel of that.”

As an historic building, 509-511 Race St. still has appeal to a developer. It was news earlier this summer that the Hearn Building had caught the attention of Stanley Keyser, of the Keyser Development Corp. of Baltimore, who has expressed interest in renovating the building and creating a location that complements the Cambridge Arts & Entertainment District.

“We have a gentleman in town who is interested in making an impact on our town, and he’s not leaving. There’s a potential development impact on that block, and that is still intact. But what we’re trying to do (renovate the building for a new purpose) is the hardest of all the options. If something falls through we have different positions to retreat to, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t go ahead and try to get the hardest option accomplished.”

As of Monday, there is an agenda item for the Tuesday County Council meeting to explore grant opportunities for the Hearn Building. “That is the finish line right now,” said Mr. Hesson on Monday morning. “There needs to be something to present the county tomorrow — a plan, as in, this is what we want to do. The county has the first say on the property, but in the case of public safety, the city can step in and do site control. We have to wait until Tuesday (to find out what direction is going to be taken with the Hearn Building), but if it’s determined that there’s any imminent public danger, there’s a mechanism in place that would say ‘Boom, we’re acting, and this is what is going to happen.’ No one really has to worry about safety, because there’s a lot of eyes on that problem.”

The partial collapse of the Hearn Building impacted the adjacent Tolley Theater building, damaging an apartment where owner Gene Tolley and his wife Shirley live. A local family stepped in and provided a place for Mr. and Mrs. Tolley to live until repairs can be made.

The issue of what happens next to the Hearn Building will be discussed at the Nov. 3, County Council meeting.

Paul Clipper is the editor of the Dorchester Banner. He can be reached at pclipper@newszap.com.

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