After an enormous nine-alarm fire in March 2019, the family that owned and operated the New England Casket Company on Bennington Street for generations made the painful decision not to rebuild.
“It was a very tough decision,” said Louis Tobia Jr., whose Italian grandfather founded the casket company 75 years ago. “Before the fire we carved out a really good niche in the casket industry. We were small enough to customize high-end caskets.”
Before the fire destroyed the company’s manufacturing plant just past Orient Heights MBTA station the Tobia Family’s major clients were Jewish Orthodox families as well as many celebrities and won numerous awards in the industry for its innovation and casket designs.
The company catered to high profile clients and designed caskets for Muhammed Ali, John McCain, Heath Ledger, Walter Cronkite, Joan Rivers and Tip O’Neill to name a few.
“We had every intention after the fire to reopen,” said Tobia. “Sadly, we weren’t going to be able to rebuild the building and reopen where we were at business wise and financially.”
Tobia said the family looked in Lawrence, Amesbury, and even upstate New York to rebuild the business from the ground up.
“But we came to the conclusion we couldn’t do without the employees from East Boston, Revere and Somerville,” said Tobia. “Some of these workers had been with us for 40 years.”
So Tobia and his family paid each worker $40,000 in severance pay and honored their pensions.
Now, two years after the fire Tobia and his family want to construct a 221 unit development on the acre-plus site of their former casket company.
“We interviewed 25 to 30 companies and they brought proposals for everything from a hotel to a warehouse to a self storage facility,” said Tobia. “We decided in the end that Redgate’s plan for a housing development with some retail space was the best option for us and the community.”
According to the project’s Boston Planning and Development Agency filing the Tobia Family will team up with Redgate, a downtown developer, to build a residential complex in two seperate buildings at 1141 Bennington St.
According to the Letter of Intent, the Tobia family and Redgate are looking to construct 221 units in the two buildings that will both be six-stories each on the 1.6-acre lot.
One feature that Tobia hopes will spark community support is the family’s plans to keep a lot of open space around the development and connect access to the Belle Isle Marsh behind the property.
“There’s quite a bit of open space in the proposal,” said Tobia. “We are trying to give access to the marsh for residents–access that has been closed off for decades. Walking access to the marsh for both viewing and recreational purposes was very much in our mind when coming up with this proposal.”
While the plans are still in their infancy, Tobia and his family have already begun meeting with residents and stakeholders, have begun the process of forming an Impact Advisory Group and plans to host more ‘coffee table’ talks to see what is important to residents as the proposal moves forward.