Garfield House may be demolished within weeks; town without historic protection bylaws (Updated)

Above: The historic 1850 home built by Joseph Burnett, and later occupied by descendents of President Garfield, is targeted for demolition. (Photo by Susan Fitzgerald)

The town department and committee heads were notified last week of plans to demolish the Garfield House. According to Town Planner Jennifer Burney, the town lacks the bylaws to protect the property.

Burney wrote that she tried to propose alternate plans, but the developer wasn’t interested.

The sudden development has taken many by surprise. Just 2 ½ years ago, the (then) new owner shared plans to return the estate to its “original glory and splendor”. Now a potential buyer is (with closing date slated for this week) is planning to demolish the home in favor of new construction.

According to the email, the applicant is promising to reuse the stone for constructing new homes on the estate and to renovate the barn and chapel.  But Burney warns there is no guarantee.

The Approval Not Required plan will be in front of the Planning Board tonight, at 8:15 pm in the Town House Hearing Room. According to Burney’s letter, the demolition may proceed within weeks.

Below is the email from Burney, as forwarded by a reader*:

I am writing to inform you that the Planning Board received an ANR (Approval Not Required) Plan this week to create 4 lots out of the Garfield Estate. The Applicant is proposing to demolish the Garfield House. I conducted a site visit there on Wednesday and met with the current owner and the applicant. The Applicant states that he will save the stone of the house to reuse when constructing 3 proposed English style cottages. He also plans on renovating the barn and chapel into a single family structure. The ANR is on the Planning Board agenda for this Monday at 8:15pm.

He did say he was going to reach out to the Historical Commission to take a tour of the house and to offer any of the material in the house for free.

As you are aware the town does not have a demolition bylaw in place which as you know the historic commission could deem the property historically significant and would have given the historic commission 6 months to find an alternative solution such as relocating the structure etc…. The town also does not have a historic district which also would have offered some protection. You will begin to find that as towns become more and more built out that tear downs occur more often than a town that isn’t built out. In my past experience we did have a demolition bylaw in place which protected the town. However we did not have a local historic district as it failed at town meeting due to the fear of it being too restrictive. I believe Southborough has tried to pass both but failed at Town Meeting.

I did discuss with the applicant the idea of working with the town in creative ways such as doing a LIP (friendly 40B) which could turn the house into condos. The applicant has no interest in doing anything that would involve permitting by Special Permit. We discussed the possibility of an overlay which could increase density another way to make the project more feasible. Again no interest. The applicant claims that the house needs too much work to make it feasible and he feels he is doing the most feasible project by utilizing the stone to use in the cottages and also states that he is hiring an arborist to help clean up the yard and not take down any trees.

Again there is no guarantee that he will construct these cottages or restore the barn or chapel as the sale of the property has no contingencies as it is a cash transaction and the town has no way to enforce any conditions.

The only other way to protect this house if the Town feels it needs to protect it is to potentially work with the current owner or the applicant by utilizing CPC funds or if SOLF, SVT or the Trustees of Reservation were interested in the property.

I wanted everyone to be aware of the current status of the Garfield Estate because this will all happened extremely quickly. The ANR is Monday 7/14, I believe the closing on the property is Wed 7/16. The demolition will probably take place in a few weeks.


Jennifer Burney
Town Planner

[Editor’s Note: The version of the letter above was forwarded by a reader. I was unable to get ahold of the Planning Department for the original. So, I can’t verify the text accuracy. But I did receive confirmation from a town official that Burney did send out a notification letter about this issue.]

Updated (7/14/14 11:50 pm): Planning Board Chair Don Morris informed me that the applicant, Robert Moss, reached out to him. He walked Morris through the property to explain his plans. Since the meeting is tonight, Morris believed it was better that people hear those plans directly from Moss’ presentation.

I also fixed a paragraph that incorrectly referred to the applicant as the “new owner” from 2012.

Updated (7/14/14 3:18 pm) The email was sent to department and committee heads – not a letter to residents as I previously characterized.

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9 years ago

Moral of the story: Never count the chickens … maybe it was a ruse all along …

Just Curious
9 years ago
Reply to  Rami

No Rami. The moral of the story is this is what happens when people do not care enough to volunteer for a town committee! There are 3 vacancies on the Historical Commission.

9 years ago

Sure beats a methadone clinic!! Good for the taxes too.

Just Curious
9 years ago
Reply to  Resident


I believe Mr. Hamilton has posted that the additional taxes from a new single family home do not even come close to the additional cost to pay for schooling the additional children who live in those buildings.

I don’t understand the humor in your methadone clinic remark.

Mr. Moss bought the home and has the right to tear it down. Very sad.

Is this the same Mr. Moss who owns the poorly maintained vacant lot on the corner of Main Street and Newton Street?

9 years ago
Reply to  Just Curious

I don’t think it’s possible to say that taxes from a single family home don’t pay for schooling. Taxes are based on the value of the home, so it all depends on what is being built. If someone builds a lot of cheap housing, this might be the case, but since it’s a decent sized plot of land, I would imagine the four houses being built there will be fairly valuable, especially if they are the kind of houses where it’s worth salvaging stone from the existing house.

9 years ago
Reply to  Just Curious

At one point I heard a company was considering purchasing this building because of the number of beds placed in the home funded by the state assistance program.

The building is an eye sore and the property is a mess.

I hope we see three homes nicely appointed on the lot, not like that Wyndmere Dr. overcrowded lot off main st.

Or why not a 40B, with some nice wide roads and a sidewalk, just have to cut a few more trees and dam the river. Maybe relocate a Turkey nest or two.. ha ha ha.

Don’t forget about the flood plain elevations Mr. Moss. FEMA would love to have more insurance for everyone… Its the democratic way

Best of Luck.

Dave Gould
9 years ago

I can’t believe the town will allow this to happen to a site with a great amount of history-
Doesn’t the town have funds to outbid this new buyer and maybe turn this in to a home for the Historical Museum? Also, see if Fay would be intereted since it is close to their property.With the continuation of allowing demolitions and constructng new homes-the history of Southboro is gone.Dave Gould 10 Pearl Street Resident since 1960.

Al Hamilton
9 years ago
Reply to  Dave Gould


The town probably does have the funds. The Community Preservation Act (a 1% surcharge on our taxes) could be used. However, use of these funds requires approval by Town Meeting. Holding a Town Meeting on short notice is difficult. I believe that the fastest it could be done is 14 days (I could be wrong) but as a practical matter, even with a sense of purpose I don’t think it could be done in less than 30. Speed of action is not a characteristic of our form of government.

But even if we did somehow acquire the building what would we have? An old building that was in need of top to bottom renovation. This might be done for 6 figures but given public contracting requirements 7 figures is not out of the question (If you don’t believe me think about the $1.7 million we have wasted on the arts center so far).

We have pressing needs in terms of meeting our unfunded obligations to our employees. Meeting this need alone will soak up any spare cash the town might have.

9 years ago

This is really very sad and very disappointing that a structure that is integral to Southborough’s rich history is to be torn down for the sake of development. It is also a shame that this was only made public on such short notice. While the town seems powerless to limit the actions, I have independently reached out to the Massachusetts Historical Commission to determine if they could have any jurisdiction over the transaction and development plans. As the closing is scheduled for tomorrow, it seems there is little to be done…

Jerry C.
9 years ago

When the property was for sale a few years ago, I took some time to go through the property and I was surprised at much work this property would need for a renovation.

I would guess the plumbing and electrical were from the 1930’s or before. A lot of the woodwork and walls needed significant work. Kitchens, bathrooms, etc were in need of complete renovation. The layout of the house was also a bit strange. I would say, that from the inside, it was one of the worst conditioned homes I’d ever seen.

It’s a beautiful home from the outside, however. It’s also important to keep in mind that this home was for sale for a very long time with very little interest or activity. Anyone that wanted to save it could have bought it several years ago at a very reasonable price, but the cost of renovation would be extraordinary.

9 years ago
Reply to  Jerry C.

Such a great and valid point. The town crier approach when “Historical” parcels like this change hands are laughable. Years ago a similar angst was made about a family we knew that was knocking down a 1920s era home. One wrong step down a broken flight of stairs would have ended any debate.

9 years ago

Personally, I have never particularly cared for the look of the house. I find it rather gloomy. Four new cottage style homes might be a marked improvement for the lot. Frankly I am more concerned about the majestic trees on the property. The house and other buildings haven’t been maintained for many years, and while normally I am not in favor of tearing down old homes, in my mind this one is not a keeper. While the previous owners may have been related to President Garfield, the President is more associated with Ohio than Massachusetts.

james garfield
9 years ago

Jerry C. , The kitchen and bathrooms may not be to your taste but all were functional. The toilets flushed and the water ran through the pipes and the kitchen was large and welcoming. What you saw was an empty and uncared for house that no one was living in. Yes there is need of plaster work and new paint and it is probably worse now that it has been left vacant for 5 years. It is a solid wonderful house and I can’t believe that tearing it down and building new houses is cheaper than renovating it and possibly turning it into condos. When my family sold the house we were under the impression that the new owner cared about the house and the grounds. I am truly sorry that we were wrong.

Abe Garfield

Anne Garfield
9 years ago

Sad news indeed. The woodwork in the dining room, the parquet floors, the re-cessed shutters in almost all the windows,the banister,of the front staircase, bookcases built into the walls , such beautiful details are non existent in most houses built today.
After all the building permit hoops that were gone through to try and restore the house to it’s former glory , it is amazing to me how quickly(2 weeks?) it was decided to have it demolished.
Anne Garfield

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