Alan Chartock | I, Publius: Saving St. James shows couple's devotion to community

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GREAT BARRINGTON >> Saint James Place may never be the same.

That's because two extraordinary people decided to put their all into saving Saint James Episcopal Church on Main Street in Great Barrington.

The church had been a mainstay of Great Barrington for 150 years. Unfortunately, it presented a real danger, looking like it might literally collapse at any moment.

To have lost the church and its parish house would have been a calamity for the town. Enter Sally and Fred Harris, saying, "We are restoring them so that they can go on for another 150 years."

You'd have to ask Sally and Fred why they were willing to put their wealth, bodies and souls into this amazing, once in a lifetime project. Not only did they do it but they did it in a style employing historic preservation standards.

The beautiful church will live on as a theater and an incubator of artistic projects. It will actually be three different sized spaces for different types of performances and community events, with the largest seating some 304 people.

"Partners for Sacred Places" did the feasibility study and gave the project a large thumbs up.

The Harrises say that 85 percent of the money required to operate the venue "will be derived from various earned income sources with a minor reliance on fundraising."

In other words, after a three-year ramp up, admissions and rentals will support much of the work of Saint James Place. The whole project is looking stronger and stronger.

The last time I looked, the Harrises already had reached approximately 73 percent of their capital goal. This is extraordinarily good news. However there is still work to be done and a lot of money yet to be raised.

That's where our community comes in. So many people joined in supporting the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center renovation that it is tempting to think those who have the most and who have been so generous will not support this second project. I suspect that many of our top donors will see why this project is so important.

If you haven't seen what the Harrises have done with the space, you owe it to yourself to arrange to take a look. I remember attending concerts at the church before the renovation and there were big problems with line of sight. Now the designers have made that problem go away as the rear seats have been raised so the seats slope down towards the front

I love what has happened to the Mahaiwe just down the street. It has done a great deal to turn Great Barrington into a tourist destination and tourism remains the economic engine of the town.

We all benefit from these two wonderful projects. Anyone who comes for an event is likely to walk through town and visit the nearby shops.

I have been arguing for years that store owners should arrange to keep their businesses open to take advantage of the folks who come to the town. Of course, we all know that one of the big problems will be parking, especially when both venues are offering programs at the same time.

The Mahaiwe is a fairly big theater. The Saint James Place project will welcome about half of what the Mahaiwe can hold, so it can supplement what its neighbor does.

In fact, there will certainly be times when the organizations will be able to cooperate with one another. Saint James Place, for example, may be available for rehearsal space for Mahaiwe performances.

In any case, there is something almost religious in the fact that a wife and husband came into town and did a really wonderful thing. We should all be grateful.

Alan Chartock, a Great Barrington resident, is president and CEO of WAMC Northeast Public Radio and a professor emeritus of communications at SUNY-Albany. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.


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