Eclectic Autodidact: Saving town's architectural legacy, spirit


North Adams calls itself the Steeple City and that name carries over to the baseball team and numerous businesses. Of the various steeples that give the town its sobriquet, the most noticeable, that is to say the one you can see from Route 2, is the spire of Saint Francis. The now empty church has drawn attention of late as a local group has been circulating a petition to prevent the building from being demolished to make way for a CVS where the mysteries of the faith can be replaced with the mysteries of why it takes an hour to fill a prescription that only needs to be slipped in a bag and stapled.

It would be easy to demonize CVS in this situation, to point out that they recently bought and closed a local independent pharmacy, to say their initials stand for Circling Vulture Store or perhaps Craves Venerable Structures, to equate them with the forces of greedy corporate America, which are ceaselessly attempting to destroy small towns and independent businesses, but Š I forget where I was going with that.

I understand CVS’ position here. I mean, what company wouldn’t leap at the chance to knock down a 150-year-old landmark in order to put up a branch in a location with no parking in sight of two competitors and their own existing location? It seems like a no-brainer.

North Adams’s greatest resource, until someone figures out how to turn ghosts into an energy source, is its architecture. The legacy of the 19th-century industrialists, many of whom might not even have been robber barons, left us with a town full of mills, churches and turreted houses. Even though the economic engine that once drove this town fell out a while back, we still have the structure that was left behind. That structure was built with style and sturdiness such that it can be filled with a new and vibrant city. The same can’t be said of the type of building likely to take Saint Francis’s place.

When the CVS inevitably decides they’re done with that space because there’s a nicer church down the road they can knock down, we aren’t going to be able to turn a desiccated pharmacy into artists’ lofts. Perhaps we could turn the prescription counter into a stage and a Grammy-winning band will be interested in holding a music festival there. Mass MoCA was able to open in North Adams because this level of architectural infrastructure existed. They repurposed the building, but in order for that to happen, there had to be buildings worth repurposing.

Go for a walk in central North Adams. Yes, you can use Google Street View, I know it’s cold out. Half the buildings you’ll see are grand structures befitting an urban downtown, sporting such architectural flourishes as windows and second floors. The other half somehow manage to bring the aesthetics of a strip mall to a town center. This second set are what replaces the first when a corporation finds them to be in the way or poorly thought out urban renewal tears them down.

While someday we may come to enjoy the poured concrete style that one can see in MCLA or even the faux-classical environs of the Berkshire Mall, there will never come a day in human history when our species will look back and say, "You know, I don’t think we gave enough credit to the idea to make stores look like prefab housing."

Then again, maybe I’m shortsightedly clinging to the past by sporting the continuous existence of a landmark over a business relocating two-tenths of a mile. Would it really be that bad to tear down a building that predates the Grant administration so we could make it slightly less convenient to go to the drug store? So what if it’s the most visible church in a town known for its steeples? We could name the baseball team the Pharmacy-cats.


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