Back to the Future in Mattapan

Excerpted from the BAC's Winter 2018 Practice Magazine

Stephen Messinger, M.Arch ’11

Imagine a Boston where people grow fruit and vegetables in their backyards, fresh produce is available from local farms, and children are raised with an intimate connection to the food they eat. Sound idyllic? Two hundred years ago, that was life in the rural villages that would become some of the city's densest urban neighborhoods. Stephen Messinger, M.Arch '11, practicing Architect and BAC alumnus, would like to see that vision realized again. Stephen believes so strongly in this, he is donating his time to help turn an historic property in Mattapan into an urban farm that will serve the local community and support urban farming initiatives throughout the area.

"This is a very exciting project for us." says Messinger. "We have the opportunity to do so much here - restore these historic buildings, grow and distribute fresh produce, teach people how to turn empty lots into micro farms, and bring the community together around something positive. When we're done, this will be a beacon for urban farming and a catalyst for engagement tthroughout Boston."

Messinger is the project architect for a joint initiative of Historic Boston Incorporated, Trust for Public Land, and The Urban Farming Institute at the Fowler Clark Epstein farm in Mattapan. When the project is complete, the historic house and barn will be converted into educational space, offices for the Institute, and housing for the farm manager. The grounds, roughly three quarters of an acre, will include working farm beds and space for produce sales by Boston-area community supported agriculture.

Through his experiences as a student at the BAC and his work at global architectural firm Perkins + Will, Messinger knows what is needed to design and execute a complex project. "It takes a team of specialists to make something like this succeed," says Messinger. "As the project architect my role is to help lead the project by facilitating team members who each use their skills and experience to influence the design." Since Messinger joined the team, he has been fortunate to work with other members of the BAC community, including BAC students Chris Perlik and Carolina Otero, and BAC faculty member Vern Woodworth.

Messinger's first significant experience leading a multidisciplinary project team came while he was still a student at the BAC. He helped bring together fellow BAC and Tufts University students to design a solar house, build it on the Tufts campus, break it down, and rebuild it on the National Mall in Washington, DC. "That project taught me a lot about design collaboration and what it takes to lead a team of talented individuals," he says.

Managing design on the Fowler Clark Epstein project is almost a second job for Messinger, but one he has gladly taken on - urban agriculture is a personal passion, and giving back to the community is part of his ethos and an important reason he joined Perkins + Will. "I wanted to work for a firm that believed in supporting good causes." He says, "Perkins + Will is committed to donating professional time each year to help local nonprofits. They've been very supportive of this project." A number of other Perkins + Will staffers and consultants are donating their time as well.

The team's contribution is much appreciated by all involved in the project. "It's wildly complicated for such small buildings," says Barbara Knecht of The Urban Farming Institute, "structural issues, preservation requirements, accessibility - Stephen has tackled all of these with enthusiasm and endless patience!" Knecht has had mixed experiences working with pro bono services in the past. "We're very appreciative of the extent of Perkins + Will's efforts," adds Knecht, "Stephen and his associates have worked extremely hard to make this project a success."

Working on the Fowler Clark Epstein farm has given Messinger a chance to meet many who live nearby. "Whenever I'm on site," says Messinger, "someone from the neighborhood always eems to stop by, asking what we're doing and recounting stories about the property and its rich history." Messinger has learned a lot about the community and how the project can benefit them through these informal talks. The late Jorge Epstein, the last owner of the farm, ran an architectural salvage company on nearby Blue Hill Avenue. His assistant, Walter Santory, has spent time on the site with Messinger. "It was great to walk the grounds with Walter," recounts Messinger, "he was able to tell us so many stories about Epstein and the interesting historical items he scavenged from demolished buildings around the city." Many of these are still embedded in the property's walls and pavement, including stone slabs salvaged from the original South Station.

Structural restoration is already underway; both the barn and house should be finished this fall. Working on an historic property has been the team's biggest challenge. "There are so many issues related to historic preservation we need to take into account," says Messinger, "compliance for grants, tax credits - it's taken much more time than I expected." After work on the historic structures is completed, a greenhouse will be built, and with construction equipment removed, work on the grounds can begin. The Urban Farming Institute hopes to plant its first crops in the spring of 2018. Messinger says he can hardly wait. "I'm looking forward to bringing my daughter here so she can help plant and harvest the crops."

To learn more this project and how you can help, visit urbanfarminginstitute.org.

This article appeared in the BAC's Winter 2018 Practice magazine. Click here to read the full magazine.

Site plans for the Fowler Clark Epstein Farm complex

Site plans for the Fowler Clark Epstein Farm complex

 

Farmers working at Fowler Clark Epstein Farm

Farmers working at Fowler Clark Epstein Farm