Historic Commission Seeks To Preserve North Amherst Home

The Austin Loomis Farmhouse on Leverett Road. Photo: Google Street Vview

Report On The Meeting Of The Amherst Historic Commission, February 27, 2023

By Hilda Greenbaum and Hetty Startup.

This meeting was held over Zoom and was recorded. It can be viewed here.

Robin Fordham, (Chair), Becky Lockwood, Hetty Startup, Madeleine Helmer, Pat Auth (absent). There is one vacancy on the commission.

Staff: Nate Malloy, Planning Department and Staff Liaison

What do you do when you retire, have worked hard all your life, and hope to live and farm on land that had this function historically? In the case of one applicant for a demolition permit in North Amherst things didn’t go the way they imagined when they bought the property five years ago.

This week the Historical Commission granted a demolition delay to the Austin Loomis farmhouse on Leverett Road. The owner, Kevin O’Brien, now lives there and attends the Stockbridge School at UMass, but finds that, even though the structure is in good condition, its inadequacies make it difficult for him to “age in place” there.

Forgive us for spending more space delineating this issue as the intention is to help better educate buyers, sellers, and realtors so that “buyer’s remorse” is not a factor. For this owner, the two bedrooms are upstairs while the one bath is downstairs. While the charming staircase and stairs were functional in the mid-1800s, they are not up to current codes and, thinking ahead, not for elderly folks heading up to bed. It is also a difficult house to heat in winter. More remodeling seems cost prohibitive and would involve taking down some of the old house and building a larger house using the same footprint. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a lot nearby to which the house could be moved.

Deed and map research reveals that Deacon Austin Loomis farmed this land with his sons starting in 1850 and then with his new wife, Mary A. Lyman Loomis, (nee Russell) from 1865. He served at the congregational church in North Amherst. More recently, a Vietnam veteran Gordon Fletcher-Howell bought the property in 1989 and created five lots on the property. It was then purchased by one of Yankee Candle founder Michael Kittredge’s subsidiaries, Pocomo Road Nominee Trust. At that time, Kittredge owned much of the land from Leverett Road to his estate in Leverett. O’Brien purchased the property in 2017 for $760,000. It is currently assessed at $623,900.

1833 Map of North Amherst showing the Loomis property.

Commission members did a site visit and found no rot or decay. They deemed the building structurally sound. The owner claims that the interior has been re-modeled so many times that nothing of the original interior remains except for floor boards. But the ceilings appear original. And overall, the spaces feel cared for – like someone’s home over many generations.

The Loomis House sits on a beautiful lot near Eastman Brook that includes an historic barn, a large greenhouse designed to look like a fancy Victorian one (think Botanic Gardens), and several acres of land. The house is close to the street and, though relatively small in scale, very visible. With some new builds on this end of Leverett Road closest to Cushman village in the last few years, it is clear that the Austin Loomis House on its original site gives a very good impression of what life was like in 19th century rural Amherst.

The home is also unusual for Amherst in its demonstrative use of Greek Revival stylistic features. It is not a high style example but Greek Revival in a grander sense characterizes many of the Amherst College buildings. Additionally, many early 19th century homes in New England were built with the gable end to the front (a little bit like an ancient Greek temple), but this house has specific Greek Revival features mostly on the façade to the street, with molded and painted pilasters (pretend/attached piers and/or columns) on each side wall and a modestly recessed and handsome doorframe. So the building has integrity in relation to the road. The rear addition does not appear to be of recent construction.

Commission member Becky Lockwood asked about the condition of the plumbing and electrical systems. The response was that the electrical system has been upgraded. Madeleine Helmer asked if the exterior can be saved. Habitat Post and Beam estimated that rehabilitation of the old house is the same cost ($200,000 approximately) as building new and that keeping the old house with a new addition is the equivalent cost of two new houses. The owner wishes he had known five years ago when he bought the five house lots that the house was “historically significant.” He intends to use the beautiful land and outbuildings for farming and has no plans for development.

The Commission voted unanimously that the house be “preferably preserved.” This means that demolition of the house must be delayed for one year. Its architectural features are “very strong” and we need to find a way to preserve this house. Commission members suggested that he talk to other builders and architects for lower bids with the suggestion that town-approved CPA funds might be available to help him with preservation expenses as CPA also covers costs for accessibility issues.

Map of Amherst, 1833, general view. Photo: https://curiosity.lib.harvard.edu/scanned-maps/catalog/44-990094802730203941

Hetty Statup is a member of the Amherst Historical Commission. The views expressed here are hers alone and do not reflect those of the Commission..

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1 thought on “Historic Commission Seeks To Preserve North Amherst Home

  1. Hetty Startup provided the background historical and archaeological information in this text. I am grateful for her help and valuable time spent in filling in the blanks.

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