THE BATTLE OF FORT HILL
They rebuilt their Roxbury home from ruin, so now why won’t the city let them sell?
Even among the magnificent mansions that stagger along the Highland Park skyline in Roxbury, the six-bedroom attraction at 88 Lambert Ave is distinguished. Occupying two-thirds of an acre in the shadow of the Nathan Hale Elementary School, in addition to the 1,800 square-foot home the sprawling grounds boast garden paths around a pond, a chicken coop, and multiple one-story shacks that could fit a combined 30 cars, or roughly half that many carriages when the crude brick boxes were built in the 1910s.
These days, the couple that has owned and maintained 88 Lambert for 15 years, Robert Patton-Spruill and Patti Moreno, don’t do the kind of upkeep that they used to take a lot of pride in. Patton-Spruill, an Emerson professor and director of multiple movies including the Roxbury street drama Squeeze, says he hoped to sell to a developer with an option to then buy an apartment in the main house, which he and Moreno stitched up from abandoned. Before the dotted lines were signed, though, Patton-Spruill’s deal was blocked by neighbors, who spurred the Boston Landmarks Commission to study the grounds and determine if a historic designation is warranted. All of which accelerated a complex and multifaceted skirmish over a property that, when it was listed for $2.9 million last November, the Bay State Banner reported had “the highest-ever asking price for a single-family home in Roxbury.”
“My plan was to [keep the main house and the carriage house], get rid of these garages, and put in six units — just six units,” Patton-Spruill says. Since his buyer wanted to build within permitted constraints and therefore didn’t need approval from abutters, the only way to stop the sale was to enlist the Landmarks Commission. The owner adds: “It’s totally as of right, no variances, but all it takes is 10 people to create a petition that can potentially screw it up.”
As Patton-Spruill contends that people are deliberately sabotaging one of the most cherished tracts in Roxbury during a considerable building boom, his neighbors claim they’re looking out for the integrity of the estate, which has housed some notable Bostonians since it was built around 1834. People in the area have varying intentions — some say they exclusively want to preserve history, while others are open about wanting to throw a wrench in as many new building projects as curmudgeonly possible. Regardless of their motivations, they’re all engaged in a prolonged scrum that connects several hundred years of history and exemplifies how, when it comes to urban development and gentrification, there aren’t always just two sides. Or three sides. Or even four or five.
“My first interest was when it showed up in the Banner,” says one local of a few years who pushed for the landmark study. “That was when folks got engaged, because we kind of knew what the fate of this house could potentially be. [Fort Hill] has been a hotbed for development for three or four years now … What we have the biggest fear for is rogue developers.”
Another person who lives nearby and opposes plans proposed by Patton-Spruill says that organized neighbors attempted to work with the owners but were dismayed when they chose to sell to a developer of whom many disapprove.
“There were many attempts to get [Patton-Spruill] to listen to competing bids, and he said it was his house, and he had done enough for the neighborhood … He backed everyone into a corner. The owner forced the neighborhood’s hand.”
In the months since losing control of his home — until the study’s finished, for which there is no set or even estimated date, he can’t fix, demolish, or alter a thing — the Emerson professor has allowed the grass to grow uneven. Patton-Spruill hasn’t filled his pond in months either; over the summer, Boston police detained one of the suspects in the slaying of Mission Hill hardware store owner Andres Cruz in the Cedar Street area, with the chase spilling onto 88 Lambert.
“The kid ran right through here.” Patton-Spruill and his wife, video producer and HGTV gardening guru Moreno, share some of the less savory stories from memory lane. “They had to search this place for the weapon, so we had to drain the whole pond.”
There have been many such brushes with violence in Fort Hill, especially when the couple first moved to 88 Lambert. But they say the gangs they fought off back in the day weren’t able to inflict as much damage to their well-being in a decade as their new neighbors have done in less than a year.
Patton-Spruill and Moreno, who partner professionally on video production, have also used their residence to record dozens of online and TV garden and home segments — from clips on building an elaborate wall out of native stones or growing fruits and vegetables to digging out the pond that was drained by detectives. Walking the grounds, they point to flower beds and exterior improvements they’ve made.
“I kept chickens here until two years ago,” Patton-Spruill says. “I’m a farmer at heart.”
A lot of people in the area are well-aware of the contributions this family has made. Even a couple of neighbors who moved in over the past few years acknowledge that 88 Lambert was cared for while so much of Roxbury was neglected. “I think he’s somebody who cares deeply,” one resident tells DigBoston. “I’m not in his shoes, but I get a strong sense of neighborhood pride.”
Such sentiments aside, under the current circumstances, Patton-Spruill’s pride, as well as his personal profit, seems to be the last thing anybody cares about in Fort Hill.
“There’s so much development happening right now,” a neighbor tells the Dig. “Institutions and individuals and families want to see the wishes of the community members honored.”
Like others in the neighborhood, Patton-Spruill grew up intrigued by the grand mysterious structure he went on to own, and with a number of the mansions in this quiet neck of Roxbury (he says that “older black folks” still call this nook “Highland Park,” while real estate brokers have pivoted toward “Fort Hill”). Born in 1969, Patton-Spruill describes the landscape on these twisting paths in Boston’s geographic center during his youth as a mountain of ash with the glowing Hub skyline behind it. Despite its close proximity to rapid public transportation — today the Roxbury Crossing stop of the modern Orange Line, back then the Dudley station on the elevated Washington Street subway — the blocks were pocked with desperation.
“Every building was boarded up,” Patton-Spruill says. “It looked like Fort Apache.”
Robert’s father, James Spruill, was a theater actor and Boston University professor who, among other creative stripes, had been Sidney Poitier’s understudy for A Raisin in the Sun on Broadway. With drama in his blood, after studying at the Park School in Brookline and later at BU, the aspiring director briefly moved to Hollywood to cut his teeth in 1997. Fate and business brought him back to Boston in ’98, after Patton-Spruill sold his first feature film, the Boston-based Squeeze which he produced, wrote, and directed, to Miramax for a cool million dollars.
In the years that followed, as Patton-Spruill placed more films and opened a shop with Moreno to handle commercial work, the couple invested several million dollars in abandoned Roxbury properties — a two-family on Cedar Street, a boarded-up building with six apartments and commercial space on Roxbury Street, and a graffiti-scarred mess on Dudley Street. With their daughter born in ’97, he and Moreno settled in Highland Park, where Patton-Spruill was raised and his mother, Lynda Patton-Spruill, grew up before that. The buildings they bought were disasters, but with Moreno planting trees and shrubbery and Patton-Spruill directing the interior rehabilitations, they added bright new apartments to a neighborhood that others deserted. Even as gang members on Cedar Street carried literal firearms and threatened them, the couple stuck to their figurative guns.
“I didn’t back down,” says Patton-Spruill, who has led and been a part of several community watch groups and Roxbury public review committees. “I doubled down.”
And then he tripled down.
When 88 Lambert Ave, the longtime home of seminal documentarian Henry Hampton, went up for sale in 2002, Patton-Spruill and Moreno sold their other rebuilds and moved into the Highland Park manor that once seemed elusive.
As Jon Else, an award-winning cinematographer who collaborated with Hampton on iconic civil rights documentaries, wrote in his 2017 book, True South: Henry Hampton and “Eyes on the Prize”, Hampton began to “produce powerful films relevant to the African American experience” while living on Lambert. Writes Else: The “scrappy little company [Blackside, Inc.] would eventually train hundreds of minority filmmakers, produce sixty major projects, and become the largest minority-owned documentary film company in America” and at one point “the largest independent documentary film company owned by anyone of any color.”
Though Hampton worked out of the South End and the old WBZ-TV studios on Soldiers Field Road, for Patton-Spruill, a successful African-American filmmaker who admired Hampton, the opportunity to move into 88 Lambert seemed a sweet destiny. The fact that he would follow in such illustrious footsteps served to strengthen an affection for the manse that started before he was even tall enough to see over the wall at the edge of the yard.
“Everything was burnt, and there were just the survivors — people like my family,” Patton-Spruill says about coming of age in Highland Park. “On Friday nights in the ’70s, my dad would bring out marshmallows so we could go and see whatever house was burning down … As a young kid I would walk past boarded-up buildings — it looked like a graphic novel about the end of the world. And I would always say, ‘Why isn’t anybody doing anything?’
“And when I sold the first movie, I was like, ‘Oh, I am supposed to.’”
Half past midnight in the early morning of Dec 2, 1934, an East Boston liquor store proprietor named Matthew Darcy was returning to his home on Highland Street when he pulled his car into one of the garages on the property of 88 Lambert Ave. Out of nowhere, three men — one carrying a firearm — appeared and robbed him. According to a Boston Globe account from later that day, “the trio stepped from the shadows and ordered [Darcy] to put up his hands” before taking “more than $75, $85 checks, and valuable papers” and then vanishing.
For more than a century, the garages at 88 Lambert Ave have been a neighborhood hot point. The robbery of Darcy was just one of countless crimes and misdemeanors that occurred in these urban cabanas over nearly a century before Patton-Spruill nailed the problem shut in the aughts.
In the 1910s, the city wrestled back and forth with the then-owner of 88 Lambert, a politically connected socialite named James Nolan, over his proposals to expand covered stalls. He was apparently only granted permission to renovate the facility since he lied on a building permit application, writing that the garages would be exclusively designated for private use. Newspaper reports and old city documents acquired for this article show a torrent of complaints from neighbors spanning decades, including fines for “using a yard for the parking of automobiles without having a permit” as well as reports of “walls and bricks that are in dangerous condition.”
“This was a rich neighborhood,” Patton-Spruill says. “People would buy cars, and they would need a place to store them. A lot of these houses didn’t have garages, and the cars had open coaches. It wasn’t until the ’50s or ’60s, when they abandoned it and moved to the suburbs, that people of color were able to move in.”
More recently, the garages have been eyed by administrators and parents at the neighboring Hale School, where a mural designed by students with professional artists covers a 100-foot-wide wall on the edge of Patton-Spruill’s property.
“When [88 Lambert] came on the market, [people who attend community meetings] were naturally paying attention,” says Jen Rose-Wood, who lives nearby and has two kids at the Hale. “Henry Hampton was an incredible artist and filmmaker, and the [Hale] students should know all about him. Wouldn’t it be great to have access to the property through some kind of community arts center that could come out of an innovative community-school partnership?”
Patton-Spruill appreciates the concept and welcomes a bid, but says he needs to sell as soon as possible and to date has not received an offer from BPS.
Rose-Wood continues: “We think that any developer who buys the property is really benefitting from the Hale School and from any history of the amazing people who have lived in this neighborhood. So it only seems right to us that the person who buys [88 Lambert] should give back.”
KING OF THE HILL
When Patton-Spruill and Moreno bought the house atop the hill in 2002, the couple had only a few months earlier finished a painstaking overhaul of a two-family home on Cedar Street, just a block away. Patton-Spruill says that he recalls his daughter, still in grade school at the time, questioning her dad’s lucidity, since they had only recently completed renovations elsewhere.
The director and his wife initially planned to focus on the main house, which had been left in shambles since its prior resident, Hampton, moved out nearly a decade earlier. The fragile frame was rotted out in several places, its peeling paint revealing severe skeletal fractures. Before they could address those priorities, however, they had no choice but to tend to the brick and mortar shacks, which had been attracting miscreants and causing aggravation for 100 years, and became a headache for the new owners immediately.
For starters, there was an older man named Luther who sat in the lot of 88 Lambert all afternoon, occasionally taking payments from a range of individuals who stored their cars and other items on the premises. Plus several other sketchy characters galore who came and went.
“There was a pimp who had a space and would go in there with girls,” says Patton-Spruill, who describes the state in which his family found the eyesores as a stash spot for area drug pushers. He resolved to weed them out, but he took his past collisions with the gangs on Cedar Street as lessons.
“You can’t do that shit overnight,” Patton-Spruill says. “It doesn’t work that way. You don’t want any backlash.”
Still, there was a backlash. Even with a teaching gig at MassArt and another feature film, Turntable, in production, Patton-Spruill now had another full-time job in keeping those who wished to do him and his family harm as far away from their castle in progress as possible.
“It was crazy,” he says. On one occasion, the director says that someone threw a Molotov cocktail at the main house; another time, several burglars entered while he was away and lifted their entire kitchen right down to the stove, cabinet doors, and refrigerator.
“These motherfuckers came in here in the middle of the night, right under my daughter’s window, stripped a car, and lit the car on fire,” Patton-Spruill says. “When the sparks and shit were flying at the house, I was just like, ‘You know what, I’m done with this garage shit.’”
As for the main house…
“It was flooded, plaster was everywhere,” Patton-Spruill says, scrunching his face in mock disgust at the memories. “Henry hadn’t lived in there for decades. Everything was falling apart … He had died, and his estate was looking to get rid of it.”
Soon after the pimps were eradicated and things like plumbing, floorboards, and electric were restored in their living and bedrooms, the family turned some proactive attention to the garages, which by 2003 were disheveled but rid of the dealers and renters. Patton-Spruill and Moreno spent several hundred thousand dollars moving their company, FilmShack, into the largest garage, which served as their home base for production through five feature films, including the Public Enemy documentary Welcome to the Terrordome and hundreds of commercial projects. Until that work dried up.
“By ’08, all this gear was irrelevant.” Patton-Spruill points to remnants of a once-thriving studio where he and Moreno trained young people from the area in various aspects of filmmaking. He continues: “It became useless to me, because most of the people who work with me can work from home. We use laptops now. The technology changed.”
He feels the same about the main house, all six bedrooms and five bathrooms of it.
“I don’t want to hold on to something I don’t need and can’t afford,” says Patton-Spruill. Among other expenses, he says the roughly $10,000 in annual taxes are burdensome on his professor’s salary and that he has insurmountable expenses from a grandmother in elder care.
“I am on the broke side right now,” he says, “and there is a cloud over my title.”
By 2001, the Boston Globe home section was already giddy about Highland Park revitalization. Gushing about another gem on Lambert that was brought back to life, the broadsheet quoted an investor who transformed a burnt-out bomb into a $429,000 listing: “People who have lived in the neighborhood all their lives stop by to say how happy they are that this house is being restored. This is a very close-knit neighborhood that’s in transition.” A real estate broker added, “few homes are for sale in the neighborhood, and houses that come on the market sell quickly.”
Giving a brief informal tour of the neighborhood, Patton-Spruill stops to scrutinize a nifty row of triple-deckers on the corner of Dorr Street. The razor-sharp facade looks like a structure you might see in swanky parts of Cambridge or San Fran, right down to the older white couple approaching the door holding a cake, an image that the lifelong resident of Highland Park says would have been unlikely two decades ago.
“Only rich people can afford to live here,” he says. “All the new stuff is market rate.”
Patton-Spruill explains that he began discussions about selling to the developer of said pointy “sustainable E-townhomes,” but says the deal did not make sense for him financially, plus he decided that the ultramodern style would look absurd on his lot. After thinking it over, he and Moreno decided to look for a buyer who would work within the codes that Patton-Spruill helped write in the late ’90s with the city and the Highland Park Project Review Committee. Even back then, active neighbors were beginning to get weary of the builders eyeing their community.
Driving around, Patton-Spruill points out some of the newly built structures he finds impressive, or at least relatively inoffensive for an area where two-bedroom apartments in formerly boarded-up buildings now sell for north of $600,000.
“This is all new in the last five years,” he says.
On Cedar Street, Patton-Spruill identifies a relatively subtle recent buildout he says was done tastefully. The project was done by contractor Joe LaRosa, the developer to whom Patton-Spruill and Moreno are trying to sell. As even those who oppose the plans to replace the garages with six units concede, a similar six-unit LaRosa structure at 88 Lambert — in place of the current garages — is well within the current zoning regulations. Nevertheless, many say they are unhappy with LaRosa’s work on Cedar Street, as well as with his history of bulldozing old houses and renting to college students.
“He’s not beholden to anything we say, that’s pretty clear,” says Rodney Singleton, who moved into the neighborhood the same year Patton-Spruill bought 88 Lambert. “We have to continually call out this kind of development for what it is.”
At a macro level, Singleton blames Marty Walsh. “I think the mayor bears some responsibility,” he says. “[Walsh] wants 53,000 [new] units of housing, and our question is, ‘At what cost?’”
Like the Hale School parents who want to use 88 Lambert for a student art facility, Singleton hopes Patton-Spruill will sell to a community-minded developer for an amount that is substantially less than the $2 million-plus that real estate interests are willing to pay. Others see a grave injustice in that. Jamarhl Crawford, a Roxbury activist, thinks Patton-Spruill has been unfairly impeded.
“This situation is disturbing,” Crawford says. “It’s when good intentions can go bad. Who is not for the preservation of historic culture? But in this case, it seems that it goes against a person and a family, and can cause severe harm and damage. It’s a shame that a true multigeneration Roxbury family with this kind of legacy can get the shaft from a community they helped build up.”
‘ACTIVISM GONE WRONG’
On the Native American soil that merchant Captain William Lambert put a claim on in the 18th century, the main house at 88 Lambert was originally built by architect Richard Bond (it is not definitively known when the accompanying carriage house was built, though Patton-Spruill says that it first appears in images of the land from the 1890s). Bond apparently designed the home for the Lambert family, but wound up buying and residing in his own creation from 1836 until his passing 27 years later. Well-regarded in early 19th-century Boston, the architect was one-half of the team of [Isaiah] Rogers & Bond, which designed First Parish Church in Cambridge, as well as Lewis Wharf.
One neighbor who helped petition the Landmarks Commission says 88 Lambert “encapsulates everything about Roxbury.” In other words, the grounds that Patton-Spruill wants to sell are unique because their ownership legacy reflects all of the groups that have settled in Roxbury for almost two centuries — from European settlers, to Brahmins, to African-Americans. Furthermore, Hampton may have done some documentary work there, and physical civil rights landmarks are rare and highly prized.
Patton-Spruill counters: “It’s activism gone wrong.” He questions why the forces fighting him in Fort Hill haven’t made a landmark case out of another house on Lambert with the same exact skeleton, or in regards to another 19th-century home, owned by one of the neighbors fighting his sale, which has sat empty for decades.
He continues: “I even brought up [the neighbor’s abandoned home] at a community meeting, and someone actually said out loud, ‘Well, at least it’s still there … Everyone is an activist and a preservation guru now. They got the neighborhood together.”
Following community meetings about the potential historic significance of 88 Lambert, including tributes to the original architect Bond as well as one to Hampton on the 30th anniversary of Eyes on the Prize, the Boston Landmarks Commission started the design review process, which could go on for months or longer. On Aug 22, commissioners also temporarily rejected a proposal to demolish the garages, effectively killing any chances Patton-Spruill has of selling any part of his property soon.
“We were supposed to be out of here on June 23,” Patton-Spruill says. He wants to spend more time in New Hampshire, where he and Moreno have a second-career operation distilling spirits. “We can’t afford it anymore … It’s an awesome house, no one’s denying it. But no one wants to tear down the house.”
He looks at the shacks, two of which have now been totally abandoned for decades.
“These garages were not made by a famous architect. A couple of filmmakers have left their junk in it, Chuck D [of Public Enemy] hung out, had a fish sandwich. That’s it. Shouldn’t that space be used as a house, with a yard, and a garden, and parking? It’s kind of ridiculous for the neighbors to say, ‘Nope, those are historical garages.’”
Patton-Spruill continues: “Now it’s all about [Henry] Hampton. Since 2005, more and more of my neighbors are white, and now everyone is talking about black history.”