Saturday, July 20, 2024

The famed William Dean Howells lived in this 41 Sacramento St. house, which was bought by a Prentiss Street resident with plans for restoration.

Repairs at a badly deteriorated house once lived in and written about by the great, if largely forgotten, William Dean Howells have been delayed by the Historical Commission for lack of details.

The plans for improvement at the 41 Sacramento St. home, which were described at a Thursday meeting by new owner John Morway, were greeted warmly by members and staff of the commission, which must approve work that could affect the historical accuracy of a landmark building’s exterior. But that wasn’t enough.

The plans are “exemplary and extraordinary,” executive director Charles M. Sullivan said. “This is a house we’d all but written off.”

But, Sullivan said, asking for detailed plans on paper, “I’m concerned it’s all words so far.”

Howells was an editor of The Atlantic and Harpers, author of more than 100 novels including “The Rise of Silas Lapham” and critic, friend and advocate of such authors as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry James, James Russell Lowell, Henry David Thoreau, Mark Twain and Walt Whitman. He lived from 1837 to 1920 and lived in Cambridge 1866 to 1882.

The Sacramento Street home was the setting a series of sketches Howells wrote and published in 1872, now readable as “Cambridge Neighbors.”

Howells’ history — including his moves within Cambridge and why he left — and much more about the house is given in Karen Klinger’s blog on the Cambridge Community Television site, including:

In the 20th Century, the single family house was divided into two units and then fell into a prolonged period of neglect and disrepair stretching into this century as the ownership came into question, followed by a dispute in the state land court and finally, a sale sealed in September to a nearby Agassiz resident.

William Dean Howells

Morway, a Prentiss Street resident who bought the home for $800,000, plans to remove a section jutting out at the home’s rear and its front vestibule, as well as installing new windows and restoring the building’s exterior.

The commission voted unanimously to call the application incomplete and ask Morway to return with more information. The owner was obviously disappointed — he’d hoped to get work done before winter weather made construction impossible — and only slightly cheered by the news he could head to the Board of Zoning Appeals for a construction variance even before the commission gave its okay to a certificate of appropriateness on the changes.

The board meets Nov. 18, while the commission meets again Dec. 2.

“We applaud it like mad,” commission chairman William B. King told Morway of his proposal for the Howells house, but there should be more complete drawings to review “rather than grant an iffy certificate of appropriateness.”