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CAMBRIDGE EYESORES: The Remains of 56 Churchill Avenue

CAMBRIDGE EYESORES: The Remains of 56 Churchill Avenue

By Karen Klinger

For 148 years, a sturdy former workers cottage built from stone quarried nearby and surrounded by an orchard of pear trees stood at 56 Churchill Ave. in North Cambridge.

And then, developer Albert J. Benedetti came along.

Today, most of what remains of the Victorian-era structure is a single wall with a metal awning where the front of the house used to be, propped up with wooden beams. It's been that way for nearly two years, since the Cambridge Historical Commission issued a stay of construction order against Benedetti for illegally demolishing the building.

The developer bought the property from the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston in 2005, and in January 2006, obtained a building permit to renovate the house by replacing the roof and second floor. But two months later, neighbors were stunned to discover that instead of being renovated, the house was almost completely gone.

In a nifty piece of reporting, writer Daniel Taber described in The Alewife newspaper what happened next, when Benedetti appeared before the historical commission in April of 2006. Appearing to channel Captain Renault in the film "Casablanca," the developer indicated that he was shocked, SHOCKED to discover that the house was gone.

He blamed it all on a misunderstanding with the Pinto construction company, which he had hired to do the renovation work. "You are saying that Mr. Pinto made decisions without you?" Taber quoted the historical commission's executive director Charles Sullivan inquiring of Benedetti.

The developer said that was indeed the case, but neighbors took issue with his account, including Mary Casey of Matignon Road, who said she saw Benedetti himself take a sledgehammer to the house behind the protective shield of a tarp. Another neighbor said it was only after tarps blew off the remaining front wall that residents realized there was nothing left behind it.

In the end, commission members found that Benedetti had violated a city law requiring the historical commission to determine whether a building should have a "preferably preserved" designation before it can be demolished. They voted unanimously to issue a two-year stop work order that has prevented the developer from doing anything more with the property.

Today, the remains of 56 Churchill Ave., next door to Matignon High School, are surrounded by a metal fence sporting a "For Sale" sign. The stop work order is due to expire in April, so a new owner presumably could eliminate the lingering eyesore by building something on the site, to the relief of long-suffering neighbors.

But any purchaser might first want to make sure that the most recent occupants of the property--of the furry, four-legged kind with skinny tails--have left the premises. Last year, the city council directed City Manager Robert Healy to investigate complaints that "many rats" had been seen scurrying around the property and in the driveway of the adjacent Daniel F. Burns Apartments.