Redemption and Reuse on Atherton Street

Round HouseThe Round House. All photos by Adrianne Mathiowetz.

Aonly four square miles in size, Somerville boasts architectural treasures to rival a city exponentially larger. Some of these buildings are in busy squares, such as the Somerville Theatre in Davis, so they’ve become familiar and iconic. But with Somerville’s varying topography and maze of one-way streets, some of these buildings can be far off the well-traveled paths, adding to the thrill of seeing them for the first time.

As one of Somerville’s oldest residential subdivisions, Spring Hill is full of beautiful historical buildings. Atherton Street, a quiet, one-way (of course) street halfway up Spring Hill, boasts two of the most magnificent surprises: the Round House and the Carr School.

Many Somerville residents only stumble upon the Round House by getting lost in the tangle of local streets. It’s a breathtaking reward for a wrong turn, though, having come a long way since its time on the state’s most endangered historic resources list in 1997.

Set on a corner lot at the intersection of Atherton and Beech Streets, the three-story home is truly round. The corner lot setting allows for generous views of all sides of the house, which has been painstakingly restored over the last decade. Built with a wood frame, the third story is set back, mimicking the top of a layer cake, with a crenellated rim. The tip echoes the parapet of a castle, but it’s not likely this crenellation was used to fortify the house or shoot weapons; these are mostly decorative in American architecture.

The house was built in 1896 by Enoch Robinson, a locksmith and designer who made high-end hardware known for using ornate glass knobs. The Round House is the only one of its kind in the city—and thought to be the only house Robinson built—and is rare in its distinctive roundness, as octagonal homes were much more common.

Robinson wasn’t a developer—he built the home for his family. It is thought that he built it according to the principles laid out in the book “A Home for All, or A New, Cheap, Convenient, and Superior Mode of Building” by Orson Squire Fowler. Fowler argues that round houses allow for the best distribution of light, air, and heat throughout a home. (While this style never became mainstream, Fowler was definitely onto something. Today, prefab round houses are popular in areas prone to hurricanes, as they are more likely to withstand strong wind.)

Robinson’s round house included a circular library and a glass dome in the roof and a generous showing of his custom hardware, most notably his ornate glass doorknobs. Although it’s unknown if any of the doorknobs survive in the Round House, some are still used today in the Omni Parker House Hotel in Boston and in the U.S. Treasury Building in Washington, D.C.

In 1965, the house was in danger of being demolished after the death of its then-owner, according to his grandson, Michael Rossetti. The Robinson family had long since moved away. A neighbor, Alice Maneatis, lived on Harvard Street and had always loved the house, according to J. Brandon Wilson, executive director of the Somerville Historic Preservation Commission. Maneatis managed to purchase it, but didn’t have the support or organization necessary to take on such a large restoration project. The house fell into further disrepair and lay vacant. It soon became a hangout for the neighborhood kids, who definitely weren’t there to admire the custom hardware. The Round House ended up on Massachusetts’s most endangered buildings list, and neighbors and preservationists feared the worst.

Wilson got to know Maneatis and the plight of the Round House in the early 1980s when she was working on the disposition of the Martin W. Carr School, located just across Atherton Street from the Round House. 

Carr School

The Carr School. Photos by Adrianne Mathiowetz.

Built in 1898, the Carr School is a stunning example of Colonial and Renaissance Revival architecture, which was popular at that time, just after the U.S. centennial. It was designed by Aaron Gould, a prominent local architect. This school is the only known surviving building of his design. It was named after Martin W. Carr, a local businessman and politician who owned a factory outside Davis Square that produced metal items and jewelry.

The Carr School was one of five schools that the city closed in 1980 because of declines in student enrollment. Then-mayor Gene Brune decided not to privately sell off the buildings. He asked Wilson, then the newly hired director of the City Planning department, to put together kits to attract developers in a competitive bidding process to reuse or redevelop the school sites.

Working with the surrounding neighborhood, the city chose a developer for each site. In the case of the Carr School, the neighbors and the city preferred that the building be preserved and reused as housing. Such adaptive reuse projects were just becoming popular, and it was a brand new concept for Somerville. It wasn’t as easy a sell to the community, as neighbors weren’t used to the process or pleased with so many schools being closed, but Brandon says Brune handled it well.

“This was a turning point in city in terms of how we looked at development,” Brandon explains.  But in what might be a surprise to those only familiar with the present Somerville development market, this wasn’t an easy task. “Financing was hard to come by, bankers then were still looking at Somerville as Slummerville,” Brandon adds.

Further complicating the project was the desire to keep the school feel in the new homes, preserving old chalkboards and incorporating them into apartment designs. “It was a funky type of reuse,” says Brandon. Despite the beauty of the building and quality of the proposed condos, banks were still wary of financing condominium projects that would sell for more than $100,000. With the project in jeopardy of falling apart, it was time to think creatively.

In order to make the project more feasible financially, city staff worked with the developers to list the Carr School on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984. National Register designation made the project eligible for a 20 percent investment tax credit, which had been established in 1976 to encourage the reuse of historic buildings. Before then, the tax code had favored new construction, making preserving old buildings much less desirable compared to demolition. This financial boost enabled the project to go forward, this time as rental apartments instead of condominiums in order to keep the terms of the tax credits.

Carr School

The developer took great care to preserve the interior as well as the exterior of the former school during the transformation. Original chalk boards remain inside the condos, as well as the school’s grand wooden staircase.

Meanwhile, across the street, Maneatis was still struggling to maintain the Round House. In 1986, she connected with a teacher from Boston’s North Bennet Street School, which focuses on intensive training in a fine craft or trade, including preservation carpentry. The school used the house for a case study in one of its classes, with students coming out to the site to repair the house.

“The students made a real difference,” Wilson says. Maneatis only paid for materials, and the house became less of a neighborhood nuisance and began to live up to its potential once more.

The students of North Bennet street kept the house together for a few years, but Maneatis’s health began to decline and her relationship with the school fell apart. By 1997, when the Carr School was converted from rental apartments to condominiums, the Round House was formally listed as an endangered property.

After 15 years as the director of planning, Wilson became the director of the Historic Preservation Commission. She holds the position to this day, having become a preservationist thanks to her early work on the Carr School and her relationship with the Round House.

The Round House’s roof began to leak. Concerned about the interior of the home, Wilson introduced Maneatis to George Saropoulos. Saropoulos, a general contractor with experience in restoring historic houses, also owned a home nearby. Maneatis and Saropoulos bonded over their love of the Round House and their shared Greek heritage.

Saropoulos bought the the house in 2006, much to the relief of pretty much everyone who knew the Round House. Wilson was excited to have Saropoulos restoring the house, as she’d awarded him in the past for his restoration work on other historic homes in the city.

Maneatis passed away in 2008, missing the chance to see the splendid renovation of the Round House that Saropoulos is close to completing. While interior details are unknown as Saropoulos is using the Round House as his family home, the restoration has brought the building back to its former glory. The restoration was completed with such skill and care that Saropoulos is once again nominated for a preservation award for the restoration.

This story appears in the Arts & Architecture issue of Scout Somerville, which is available for free at more than 220 drop spots throughout Somerville (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription.

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