John Dickson: Town Hall is model for saving convent

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PITTSFIELD — It doesn't have to be.

The potential loss of St. Joseph's convent to demolition would mean the building would take its place on a sad list of lost treasures, a wall of shame of sorts, seared into the collective memory of Pittsfield residents.

That list often starts with Union Station, the grand terminal visible from North Street looking down West Street that was torn down in 1968. Others on this infamous list include the Wendell Hotel, that stood on the corner of North and West Street from 1898 to 1965; the Peace Party House razed in 1957, where residents of Pittsfield celebrated the treaty ending the Revolutionary War; and the latest addition from just last year, the Plunkett School, built in 1909 as a junior high, and which now is a landscape of bricks and rubble at the corner of Fenn and First streets.

Much has been saved

It might be instructive to consider as well those buildings that have been preserved, restored and adapted. That list is also long and includes a notable portion just in the past few years. It would be our wall of fame.

For example, there is more than a little irony that efforts undertaken to restore the Howard Building occurred at the same time that its neighbor across the street, the Plunkett School, was torn down. The Hotel on North opened last spring, after re-purposing two adjoining buildings for a historic hotel in the heart of Pittsfield's downtown. The restoration of the old Kresge Building won awards from the Massachusetts Historical Commission and now houses the Beacon Cinema that has spurred economic revitalization of the downtown. And, the state stepped in to stabilize the Probate Court and Registry of Deeds on Park Square, that used to house the Berkshire Athenaeum.

It's not just commercial structures that occupy places on this list, but those whose inhabitants give the city pride of place. This past year, the Samuel Harrison house on Third Street officially opened after an extensive reconstruction that saved the sorely deteriorating house that this African-American minister and Civil War chaplain for the all-Black Massachusetts 54th Regiment built in 1850.

Near the top of our wall of fame would be the preservation of the Colonial Theatre that re-opened in 2006, 54 years after its last performance, and 104 years after its first performance. Reaching back to the 1960s and' 70s, our list would include the round barn at Hancock Shaker Village that was falling down before extensive repairs in the 1960s and Herman Melville's Arrowhead, both of which are National Historic Landmarks.

My personal favorite offers lessons on what it takes to save a building. Look across Park Square on a winter evening, and the stately façade of the old town hall appears. It's not just the floodlights that allow it to stand out from the taller bank building and churches on the north side of the square. It's the simple lines of the federal style; it's our link to the past.

Built in 1832, both the land and brick structure were donations to the town from Lemuel Pomeroy, who was a neighbor on Park Square and one of the first industrialists in the town. The building he donated housed the administrative functions for the municipality for over 130 years, witness to the town's expansion in both population and importance to the county.

As the city administrative functions grew, it became constrained by both space and deterioration. As early as 1957, the city held a referendum to consider the building of a new city hall.

One of the proposals was to construct the new building on the site of the Athenaeum across Park Square, tearing down that building. A taxpayer group formed, rejecting the high cost of a new city hall. Ten years later, the old town hall was partially condemned, and ran the risk of joining the urban renewal demolitions of the group of buildings (including the train station) west of North Street.

Eventually, a deal was hammered out with the federal government to exchange its post office for a plot of city land on Fenn Street. So, the building that used to be Pittsfield's post office was readapted for the new city hall and was dedicated in March 1968.

The question of what to do with the old town hall remained. On the heels of the loss of Union Station, Mayor Remo del Gallo, the Historical Commission and concerned citizens shifted their attention to the preservation of this building sitting on a prime location on Park Square.

Mayor Del Gallo set up a Town Hall Architectural Commission made up of private citizens to come up with a proposed plan for the old structure. This ad-hoc committee approached Berkshire County Savings Bank which bought the building and paid for its restoration, turning it into its main office building.

You can draw a straight line from the loss of the train station to saving the old town hall, that was re-dedicated on Sept. 27, 1970. It was a collective effort, with broad community support, the kind that political leaders read and act on. It took the resources and imagination of a bank to see this building as the best advertisement, one that would endure longer than any billboard and serve as a reminder of that bank's deep roots in the community.

Today, restorations are taking place at various sites in the city: the Clapp House on Wendell Avenue, the old Crane warehouse on Dalton Avenue and Onota Block on North Street.

More can be saved

However, there are many other buildings that risk demolition, though, and require attention. St. Mary's Church on Tyler Street, the William Russell Allen House on East Street, empty churches, schools and mill buildings. The Historical Commission has enlisted the support of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission to build a casebook of properties that are at risk.

An oft-repeated saying by those concerned about saving old buildings is that "Historic preservation is not about buildings, it's about people." Passing by St. Joseph's Convent, the three-story structure stands straight and tall, proudly proclaiming our history. It's about the people who lived in this building, serving the community as teachers and mentors, making untold contributions to generations of students and residents for over a hundred years.

But, it's also about a community that comes together to find solutions and give the city the kind of quality of life that drew us and our families here for many years.

John Dickson is a local historian and frequent Eagle contributor.


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