Local Food for the Community: A Q&A on the Fowler Clark Epstein Farm

By Lizzy Barringer posted 04-21-2021 14:25


Fowler Clark Epstein Farm is a 2020 recipient of the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation National Preservation Awards, the highest national recognition bestowed upon a preservation project by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Award recipients represent the best of the best in historic preservation, adaptive reuse, and the re-imagining of historic buildings for the future.

In 2015, Historic Boston Inc. (HBI) purchased the designated Boston landmark and federal period farmstead, Fowler Clark Epstein Farm in the Mattapan neighborhood of Boston, after it was the subject of litigation between the Epstein estate and the City of Boston over “demolition by neglect." In an effort to develop a natural re-use for the site that satisfied both historic building preservation and contemporary needs for agricultural uses, a symbiotic partnership among four nonprofit organizations evolved that brought the best of each’s expertise to the development and construction of this unique enterprise.

HBI, the Urban Farming Institute, the Trust for Public Land, and North Bennet Street School worked together to carry out the transformation of this distressed 18th-century farmstead into a 21st-century urban farm that offers community educational courses, productive farmland, office space, a greenhouse, and a residence for two full-time farmers. Patricia Spence of the Urban Farming Institute of Boston emphasized the importance of the project, noting, “Mattapan has the dubious distinction of being one of the most under-resourced and disinvested neighborhoods in Boston…the repurposing of the Fowler Clark Epstein Farm turned a property that was overgrown and deteriorating into a visual, social, and economic benefit for the neighborhood.”

The project is testimony to the power of collaboration and displays a unique intersection between preservation and food access, while also proving the preservation field’s value to important community initiatives, such as reducing unemployment and building new green space.

The following Q&A with Kathy Kottaridis, executive director of HBI, is one of three in a series of stories with the 2020 Driehaus Award recipients. Learn more about the full slate of 2020 awardees here.

Why was this site important to preserve? Can you provide some background on the history of the site, including both cultural and architectural history?

The Fowler Clark Epstein Farm is a rare surviving Federal period farmstead from the period in which today’s Boston neighborhood of Mattapan was an agrarian village of the Town of Dorchester. The farm sits on the original home to the Neponsett who were part of the Massachusetts confederation of Native Americans. The name “Mattapan” is said to have meant “a good place to sit."

 The Fowler Clark Epstein Farm was part of a 330-acre land grant to the Fowler Family, dating to 1636. Over time the property has been trimmed to roughly one acre on which a 1786 farmhouse and 1860s carriage barn sit—now within the densely urbanized neighborhood of Mattapan. Owned and occupied by the Epstein family since 1941, it is also a property that expresses the demographic and social evolution of this neighborhood over the course of nearly 400 years.

This site’s survival also illustrates the extraordinary mosaic of people and institutions who collectively make revitalization projects like the Fowler Clark Epstein Farm possible:  Historic Boston Inc.’s (HBI) purchase of the farm in 2015 was made easier by the City of Boston’s willingness two years earlier to place a lien on the neglected property and to take the Epstein Family’s estate to court for demolition by neglect;  the collaboration of four non-profit organizations—HBI, the Urban Farming Institute of Boston, The Trust for Public Land, and North Bennet Street School—made a risky and difficult project more viable; the neighborhood’s engagement, storytelling, and planning feedback made this a site they’ve come to “own” in many ways;  and the extraordinary generosity of donors, contractors, and neighborhood businesses made the project’s financing possible.

 Who is the community that the Fowler Clark Epstein Farm serves, and how does it serve that community?

The renewed Fowler Clark Epstein farm is the headquarters of the Urban Farming Institute of Boston, a nonprofit organization devoted to healthy living, food production and the cultivation of new green collar job opportunities for Boston residents. The barn is used as a training center in which new farmer training and entrepreneurship programs take place, and it doubles as a demonstration kitchen for teaching UFI’s partners and the public how to prepare healthy meals with fresh produce.  A new greenhouse was added to the site in 2020 and helps to lengthen the growing season and service an expanding number of affiliated farms plots around the city and region.

UFI’s mission and services are important to Mattapan, home to one of the largest Haitian immigrant populations in Massachusetts and a neighborhood of nearly 87% people of color. Mattapan is challenged by an unemployment rate that tops 17%—the highest in the city of Boston. Residents of Mattapan also suffer from higher rates of obesity and diabetes. UFI’s weekly farm stand provides the public with opportunities to purchase produce grown at the farm. The site is used for community activities (elder chair yoga one of the most popular!), and UFI makes a point of organizing opportunities to provide food to those who struggle to meet daily needs.  And during the summer and fall of 2020, UFI adapted to the strictures of COVID-era regulations, moving its popular farm stand to pre-order with pick up and deliveries, and using the buildings to collect and bundle up hundreds of meals for delivery to individuals and families in need over the holidays and winter months.

The on-site farm manager’s wife, Nataka Crayton, says it best: “From the ground up, many have made this possible, and many more hands will make this grow and blossom. This place today goes from a historic farm to being a 21st-century modern farm.” 

A group of people standing in front of a ribbon cutting at an urban farm.
Exterior view of the Fowler Clark Epstein Farm. | Credit: Peter Vanderwarker

What was the most challenging part of this project?

There’s always risk in projects where the economics don’t make sense and, for all that the Fowler Clark Epstein Farm presented a compelling case for preservation, HBI purchased it in 2015 without a clear plan, knowing that it would require a lot of fundraising and hard work. 

Funding deficits aside, once we entered into an understanding with the Urban Farming Institute, the Trust for Public Land, and North Bennet Street School, many challenges emerged during project planning. First, this 18th-century site also had a 20th-century history as the home of an architectural salvage professional who, over time, incorporated architectural elements from other historic buildings into this one, and built new landscape features with some of these elements. The Massachusetts Historical Commission and the National Park Service required rigorous inventories and research on each of these elements before approving changes to buildings or landscape, so that the project would present the full span of its 230-year history.

Planning a farm with public/commercial uses in it required several expensive adaptations to 21st-century code requirements, including steel structure inserted into both historic buildings, new comprehensive water systems throughout the landscape, and plans for water management and energy conservation. These presented us with good learning opportunities, but each brought with it unanticipated expenses that constantly altered the project budget. 

The multi-disciplinary nature of this project’s team led to inherently complicated debates between preservation interests and those of our partners in open space and farming, about which preservation treatments were really necessary, and how to manage the interface between topics like farm bed design and archeology. The debates were always interesting and choices never simple. 

After HBI obtained ownership of the site, how did tackling the issue of food access become the focus of the site, and how did the various project partners become involved to achieve this goal?

For historic preservation projects, having a financially sustainable end-use for a property’s rehabilitation is most important, and that was not immediately obvious when HBI acquired the property. We figured a worst case: the farm’s house and barn could become housing units and perhaps we could build some new housing on the of the surrounding land. It was HBI’s board of directors that pushed back and asked that we try to find other options since the relationship of the buildings to the surrounding parcel still exhibited rural qualities that were unique and could be lost by allowing for new construction on site. But in that debate, one member of the board wondered, “Who’s going to mow all that lawn?,” a question that prompted us to talk with several organizations in Boston’s very active farming and community garden network, and it’s there that we eventually met the Urban Farming Institute. UFI’s Executive Director, Pat Spence, had grown up nearby and remembered this property in its better days. She saw its potential to serve UFI’s programs, but she also knew immediately that its location could really reach communities of color in neighborhoods with the greatest need for UFI’s work—particularly its health and food goals. 

Can you talk a little bit about how tax credits played a role in the redevelopment of the Fowler Clark Epstein Farm?

HBI, as the owner of the property, treated the Fowler Clark Epstein Farm effort like a real estate development project where, for at least five years (the tax credit compliance period) the Urban Farming Institute would lease the completed farm and thereafter would purchase it for a nominal sum. We invested some of our own cash, obtained conventional debt from a bank that was secured by the rent to be paid by UFI, and utilized both State and Federal Historic Tax Credits.

As you know, it’s often hard to find federal historic tax credit investors for small projects like this one. So we were fortunate that a local developer and members of his family personally agreed to be the federal investor with terms favorable to the project. We were also lucky to have the Massachusetts State Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credits, courtesy of generous allocations from the Massachusetts Historical Commission. Together, these two sources brought roughly $800,000 of capital to the $3.8 million project. 

A group of people standing in front of a ribbon at Fowler Clark Farm
Community dedication of the Fowler Clark Epstein Farm. | Credit: Craig Bailey

What inspires you about this project?

We knew this project had inherent risks, but the end use, the collaboration and the benefits this project would bring to Mattapan really galvanized our partner relationships, the involvement of the City, and contributions of our contractors and donors.

The four nonprofit partners who came together to complete this project leveraged considerable knowledge and skill through a meticulously planned program.  We saved each other money by leveraging each organization’s strengths.

Our architect, Perkins + Will, discounted its fee by 50% and challenged all the other service providers to do the same—and they did. Our contractor made a contribution back to the project, and neighborhood businesses also made product donations (construction materials, furniture, etc). We estimate that these savings amounted to roughly $400,000.

Dozens of individuals and foundations made very generous grants to the project, helping us to close the project’s $2 million financing gap. And a Boston family with real estate interests became the Federal Historic Tax Credit investor for this relatively small project. 

So, while the farm’s renewal, annual bounty, and community engagement continue to excite all of us who worked on it, it was the project’s collaborations that were most awe-inspiring and meaningful. 

Lizzy Barringer is the associate manager, grants & awards at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.