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Readville church sues to overturn deed restriction keeping it from building apartments next door on land once used for a BPL branch

Phillips Brooks Memorial Reading Room in the 1930s.

Inside the old library in the 1930s, by W. Jordan, from the BPL's Boston Pictorial Archive.

A Readville church is asking a judge to let it ignore a restriction in the 1897 deed that limits the use of a side building to "a free and public reading room and library" so that it can put up a six-unit apartment building in its place.

In its suit, filed in state Land Court, the Blue Hill Community Church cites a state law that allows for such deed restrictions to be overridden if they would cause "irreparable harm" - which the church says would happen since it can't afford repairs on the old 10 Hamilton St. building, next to and around the corner from its chapel at 215 Neponset Valley Parkway.

The suit was actually filed in the name of the Blue Hill Evangelical Society, which was formed in the 1880s, then voted to dissolve in 1991 after selling both properties to the church. And the suit is not against neighbors who have said they oppose the razing of the former library building but against Ellen Stetson and her heirs.

Stetson was a Bostonian with a summer home on Sprague Street in Hyde Park - then an independent town in Norfolk County - when she sold the 8,300-square-foot Hamilton Street lot behind the society's chapel to the society for construction of a library - for the consideration of $1 in 1897.

The society spent $4,000 for construction of the library - and named it after Trinity Church leader Phillips Brooks, who gave one of his last sermons before his death in 1893 in its chapel.

When the reading room opened, it had several hundred books and "a complete set of Harper's Monthly," according to a 1981 Massachusetts Historical Commission report, which found that while the building itself was not at all unique architecturally, it has historical significance for Hyde Park - and once featured a large brick fireplace topped by a portrait of Brooks painted by Stetson.

For six decades, the Phillips Brooks Memorial Reading Room served as Stetson intended - first as a branch of the Hyde Park Library, then, after the town was annexed to Boston in 1912, as a branch of the Boston Public Library.

BPL closed the branch in 1956, five years after its librarians helped organize Christmas festivities that included a play titled "Santa Claus Brings Christmas (to Those who Live in Books)" written by both permanent staffers and Miss Berit Lambertsen, a volunteer student librarian from Norway, who had earlier led a Great Books discussion about the Song of the Volsungs.

In 2022, the Hyde Park Bulletin reported, the church filed plans to replace the former library with an apartment building. Residents and the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association objected to demolition of the historic building and its replacement with apartments. To date, neither the Zoning Board of Appeal nor the Landmarks Commission has considered the proposal.

In its suit, the church argues the deed restriction:

Would impede reasonable use of the land for purposes for which it is most suitable and would contribute to the deterioration of 10 Hamilton. ... The petitioner, Blue Hill, is currently restrained in its ability to alienate [sel] its property and unless the rights and responsibilities of the Petitioner, Blue Hill, and the Responded, Estate of Ellen F. Stetson, her Heirs, Devises and Legal Representatives, are determined, the Respondent will continue to enforce the restriction and the Petitioner Blue Hill will thereby suffer irreparable harm.

In the deed in which it accepted the building in 1991, the church acknowledged the property was "subject to all prior restrictions" in the 1897 deed conveying the property from Stetson to the evangelical society, including that the property was to be used for "a free and public reading room and library" and to "to suffer said premises to be used for no purposes whatever" other than as a library.

Photo posted under this Creative Commons license.

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Comments

If they don't (which seems likely), a statement to that effect from the BPL should be sufficient to quash the deed restriction, no?

And since the library closed in 1956, haven't the property owners already been violating the deed restriction for the last 68 years?

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Voting closed 41

The city should really let them proceed with a variance process to develop the land. Maybe mayor Wu could go hold a press conference there declaring housing will be built there ?

They could even relocate the building if someone wants it.

This is such a waste of everyone's time. No wonder most people under the age of 40 can't afford to live in Boston!

Build, baby build !

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Voting closed 26

The restriction states that that the space be used as "a free and public reading room and library". That does not automatically give jurisdiction to the Boston Public Library system. Just sayin'.

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Voting closed 20

...by no stretch of the imagination is an apartment building "a free and public reading room and library".

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Voting closed 24

That might be a creative solution to the issue, and provide a useful amenity to Readville residents.

There are a few examples of private non-profit libraries, not affiliated with town libraries, such as in Belmont and Natick.

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Voting closed 27

That's thinking outside the box @Ron Newman! That should work to fulfill that covenant.

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Voting closed 16

There's nothing in the language about "unless you just don't feel like complying". They bought the property with the full understanding of what the restriction meant, and no doubt at a much lower price than if the restriction weren't present. Don't like it, don't buy it.

And I don't understand what harm the church is claiming will occur if they can't put up an apartment building.

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Voting closed 23