Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Only a tiny portion of the Long Funeral Home remains at Beech Street and Massachusetts Avenue in Porter Square. (Photo: Marc Levy)

An architectural monstrosity may be gestating in North Cambridge – another one.

The lot at 169 and 169R Rindge Ave. is L-shaped, with a front-facing house that first went up in 1873 deemed significant by the Historical Commission and a concrete block garage at the back that is not. The idea was to tear down both and put up six townhouses on the combined 7,673-square-foot lot. But the house may have to stay, as a connection to the time horses ran around a 50-acre course there, not far from active brickyards and their Irish laborers.

“The house is in good condition and could be incorporated into a redevelopment plan for the rest of the site,” city preservation planner Sarah Burks said Wednesday.

That could mean a home of the Ulysses S. Grant era bumping up against cubist structures from the time of Trump. On their own, the townhouses look fine. It’s based on the work of developer Husam “Sam” Azzam in nearby Porter Square that there’s cause for concern. And only partially because Azzam – a former building inspector for the city – has a record and a reputation for exploiting loopholes and hiding information from neighbors, and much more because he does it to squeeze as much value as possible from a lot.

A rendering of the six townhouses proposed at 169 RIndge Ave., North Cambridge, before an existing house was found to be historically significant.

In Porter Square in the early 2000s, he managed to avoid a variance to tear down the historically significant 130-year-old Long Funeral Home at Beech Street and Massachusetts Avenue by convincing officials he was renovating, not demolishing. That’s why a portion of the funeral home remains, a corner facade of orange brick huddled in a corner, hiding from a haphazard series of projecting cubes in modern white and gray and stark rectangles of glass. The story it tells is of something old and gentle pounced on by a bigger, pale predator, hunched over it forever, teeth sunk deeply in, feeding.

There’s no dialogue between the funeral home portion and the condos piled atop it; the two portions don’t communicate – the brick just huddles there, being eternally molested. The combination is ugly and awkward and always will be, cobbled together incompetently to blight the neighborhood. It’s mitigated only slightly by The Rand condominiums since built to the east, where architects blended repetitions of the brick of the funeral home and the shape of Azzam’s parasite. But there’s no redeeming that corner property, which is perhaps the most insulting in the city.

Porter has never been the prettiest of squares. St. James’s Episcopal Church is being encroached on too, by its own L of condos – one segment keeping its distance across a shrunken courtyard, the other menacing it from the rear. The Porter Square Hotel also feels squeezed onto its lot, with signs composed of typography from our dads’ laser printers circa 1992 and a rooftop solution for hiding mechanicals that’s about as tossed-off as Azzam’s “renovation” across the street.

The concern is that the same reckless, cramped, compromise aesthetic will make its way down Rindge Avenue, where a “significant” building will be given an architecturally unfriendly backdrop by Azzam that presses up against it permanently and resentfully, doing no favors to either structure or to the neighbors or to the neighborhood. This time, let’s find a way to do it right, with victimless structures that breathe and relate.

Under the current plan, there is a one-year demolition hold on the 169 Rindge Ave. house.