Carole Owens: Preserving town's collective story


STOCKBRIDGE >> History is a hard sell. We all hated history classes; dreaded memorizing all those dates, the birthdays of dead white guys, the onsets of wars. You didn't want to fail the test, but really, who cared? What we were concerned about was tomorrow not yesterday. The latest was the greatest; the cutting edge was the place to be. Speaking of place

One variable that enhances our sense of place and civic pride is knowledge of local history. And here's irony: we say we hate history yet we say we love a good story. History is just the collection of our very best stories. Maybe history is not so bad. Maybe we should seek it out, but if so, where do we find the story of us?

Communal memory

Buildings are the repositories of our memories. Every one of us has taken a loved one to a building, parked out front, and said, "That is where I went to school; that is the house where I grew up."

Pointing at the building was the jumping off point for telling one story or a life story. In the same way buildings are the points of departure for our collective story.

Tear down the building and there is a permanent rent in our communal memory. Our art, our identity, and our sense of belonging are all rooted in our collective story. So it is simple: let's save our buildings, tell our stories, and enrich our lives.

How nice that finally there maybe a plan for old Stockbridge Town Hall: a private school. Maybe it mitigates some of the stupidity of abandoning our town hall and putting town administration in our school, if now we put a school in our town hall. maybe it magnifies it. Either way, it would be nice to hear again the sound of children's laughter on Main Street. It would save an old building and breathe life into the old place.

Yet some just don't see it. There is too much cost; too many problems. For example: the land in front of the church is owned by the town. So the church is landlocked and no can attend Sunday service without a municipal by-your-leave while the ground under old town hall is owned by the Congregational Church.

So who owns the building: is it not clear or clearly not the town? Does Stockbridge sink money into something it doesn't own?

The solution is so obvious it hardly needs saying: a land swap that opens the church to street and gives the town the land under its building. Besides, the convoluted ownership is not a problem;it is the starting point of the Stockbridge story.

In the beginning, Stockbridge was a theocracy. There was no separation between church and state. A Congregational minister and a meeting house were required before the village could be incorporated. The meeting house was the place for both religious services and town meetings. On the village green in the first years, there was one building to serve government and religion and a school.

Every function now met or proposed has been conducted on that ground since Stockbridge was founded in 1739. Almost 300 years of continuity and still some are opposed. They ask: "where will you get the money to restore?"

The Community Preservation Act created funds to save our buildings because they too believe it saves our heritage. CPA also offers — free — a consultant who will visit and offer ideas and plans for constructive reuse. They know what other communities have done, how they paid for it, and will share full particulars.

Don't want a school? OK. In 1839 as the concept of division of church and state took hold, a separate town hall was built. When in 1902 the 1839 building was considered inadequate, our more frugal ancestors did not tear it down. It was turned sideways, and moved to the back of the lot. The former front door became the side door with the 1902 addition in front.

What do we save?

So you have an older smaller building within the current structure. Maybe a more cost effective plan would be to tear off the 1902 addition, save the 1839 building, and around it reconstruct the old village green thus recreating the historic beating heart of the village.

Whatever the eventual use, the initial discussion, the first decision of the town, should be: what do you want to save? What do you want to destroy? Why?

Money will follow use. Government grants, private foundations, and individuals give when they believe in what an organization does. If they do it in an historic building, it also qualifies for CPC funds.

A Berkshire writer and historian, Carole Owens is a regular Eagle contributor.


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