I’ve been following the controversy about the Crane warehouse building with both a sense of hope for better preservation decisions and a sense of disappointment that we have, apparently, so far to go. Why is it that so many of our trained professionals: engineers, developers and even architects (the very people who build buildings) have a tin ear when it comes to hearing about the importance of saving and re-using historic structures?
The warehouse in question sits perched on the outskirts of an unlovely stretch of big box development. As a long-time resident I’ve driven by this remnant of the industrial age on countless trips up and down Route 9. I’ve often wondered what would happen to it. One can see that the river, now so subdued, was the catalyst for development along this corridor all the way back to Crane’s headquarters and beyond.
History books tell us that on his first trip to this region, 22-year-old Zenas Crane laid down to sleep one night in 1799 halfway between Pittsfield and Dalton at a small inn. Perhaps it was near this spot. He had traveled on horseback from the Worcester area to scout out locations for "economic development" just as the property owners in the current controversy are doing.
It’s interesting and somewhat ironic that the town fathers of Pittsfield fully supported Crane’s quest, and petitioned their representatives in the General Court that year to use their "best endeavors" to attract a paper mill. Alas, they lost out to Dalton, where spring water of sparkling clarity, an essential ingredient for the production of paper, was abundant.
When I first heard of the proposed plan to re-use the warehouse, I was glad that another handsome, rugged brick building would find a new use. But, the applicant’s subsequent plans to plop additional modern floors on top of the existing structure had a chilling effect. These franken-buildings sometimes work out -- but more often don’t. Imagine if you can how an additional modern floor would look cantilevered over the restoration going on at the original Berkshire Athenaeum (another lovely building with important heritage). I bet you can’t.
It now appears that the developers of the property have shrugged their shoulders and decided that since their plans are unworkable, demolition is in order. Can they not change the plan? I’m still hopeful that the professionals involved in this issue will take a deep breath and give the building another look, if not a reprieve.
ROBERT M. KELLY
The information about Zenas Crane’s first visit to this area is taken from Judith McGaw’s "Most Wonderful Machine," Princeton University Press, 1987, a study of the Berkshire paper industry.