Remembering John Rowse, BBR's Visionary Founder

After Boston Building Resources founder John Rowse passed away in March, many members have shared their memories of how John’s gifts of advice, inspiration, and know-how have made their lives better.

Linda Lesyna spoke at John’s memorial service in June.

Linda Lesyna spoke at John’s memorial service in June.

Linda Lesyna, BBR’s retail manager, shared some of her remembrances at a celebration of John’s life on June 1, 2018. In 1985, John hired Linda to work at the Boston Building Materials Co-op, then located in Egleston Square. “One of my earliest memories of John was how incredibly organized he was: he had a file folder for every imaginable topic,” Linda said. “He taught me the importance of attention to detail, a skill for which I have been forever grateful.”

In the early 1980s, it wasn’t easy to find men who treated women in the trades with respect and equality. John understood the power of seeing and working with people who may not look like the traditional Boston construction worker. “John was willing to explain and teach anyone, regardless of skills, confidence, or background,” Linda recalled. “To my own surprise, that included the many shy men who had never picked up a tool and so welcomed a place to learn without shame.”

Steve Flax and Fernando Castro both remembered working with John when he was at Urban Edge in the 1970s. Steve, an architect who was out of work at that time, volunteered to help John fix up old houses in Jamaica Plain. “There were vacant houses, foreclosed houses, houses that were damaged by fires and not repaired,” he remembered. John and others at Urban Edge “had the clever idea that, with a bit of money and some hard work—it was called sweat equity—the houses could be made habitable.”

When Fernando worked with John in 1976, he remembered “those animated eyes popping behind those 1970s aviator glasses.” Fernando was assigned an abandoned house for which he drafted as-built plans and proceeded to act as an architect for a potential home rehab. “The architecture I was learning in school had nothing to do with the life of buildings at Urban Edge. In school, budget did not seem to matter much, neither did door or window schedules, specifications, or framing plans.” Working with John gave him a taste of reality while also planting the seeds that would grow into a life of community building in California years later.

John, Lyn Garlord, Christine Rack, and Deborah Bernard work to remove a bearing wall.

John, Lyn Garlord, Christine Rack, and Deborah Bernard work to remove a bearing wall.

BBR member Deborah Bernard bought a house in the 1980s that was so run down it had no heating system. As part of her efforts to restore it, John showed her how to take out a bearing wall to open up the space. “He also gave us advice about insulation and helped us make interior storm windows,” Deborah said.

“Let’s work together to solve these problems,” a phrase from one of the Co-op’s early brochures, captured the spirit of many of John’s innovations. Retrofitting a 55-gallon juice barrel into a rain barrel would collect rainwater that would otherwise be wasted. Storm windows and cellulose insulation—both of which homeowners could install themselves—would save energy and money. “Complex ideas and solutions were John’s bailiwick,” said Linda.

When John realized that the Co-op’s prices for materials were still too high for many, and that there were so many products ending up in landfills, he and Dan Nakamoto came up with the idea of accepting donations of building materials and offering them at reduced costs to low-income households or nonprofits. Following up on this notion—hatched over beers at Doyle’s—Dan and John started the Reuse Center (initially called the Building Block), storing donated materials in shipping containers. “Thousands of moderate income homeowners and tenants have benefited from the Reuse Center. John’s legacy will live on through the thousands of individuals whose lives have been made richer by his work,” said Dan.

Dan recalled the first time he met John: on Plympton Street in the South End in the late 1970s. “I trusted him immediately,” Dan wrote. John’s initial assessment of Dan’s home on Chestnut Avenue in JP “was right on, and John’s recommendation for future capital repairs and improvement were followed.”

Linda remembered that John could spend forty minutes standing at the Co-op sales counter talking with a customer about the smallest detail or product that might cost less than a dollar, but was vital to the completion of a task. “He always gave his undivided attention and was the consummate teacher, in his quiet and subtle way.”

John was a visionary, teacher, and innovator who never stopped dreaming and imagining.  He thrived on building community through new endeavors that combined his love of physically building things with solving common problems that people shared affecting their beloved homes and neighborhoods.

As Linda summarized, “John always started from his heart and couldn’t help but end by using his hands.”