Tony Dobrowolski: Measuring progress
How do you measure progress? It's in the eye of the beholder, I guess.
Some may measure growth by the renovation of a formerly vacant structure. Others may see it by the tearing down of one.
This juxtaposition can currently be seen in Pittsfield on the corner of Fenn and First streets. On one corner stands the newly renovated Howard Building, ready for its reincarnation as a retail/residential complex Across the street, stands the pile of rubble that used to be the Plunkett School.
Two historic buildings. One retained, the other demolished. All in the name of progress.
I'm not going to judge which approach was better. These were business decisions, and the owners of those properties were the ones who had to make the final choices. Obviously, the owners of the Howard Building thought the three-story structure had more value if it remained standing, while those who owned the Plunkett School property did not. Sure, tearing down an historic building always hurts, and I'm sure that anyone who attended school at Plunkett was sad to see the old schoolhouse go. But that's progress in its most naked form.
I just hope, though, that those who own historic buildings in the city exhaust all other options before deciding to take them down. Historic buildings add to the fabric of a city, they don't diminish it. I'm not from here, but I can't tell you how many people have told me about how disappointed they still are that Union Station, Pittsfield's historic railroad depot, was demolished in 1968.
Union Station was also a victim of progress, taken down when the automobile began to supersede passenger rail traffic. The building also fell prey to the urban renewal craze that swept municipalities all across the country during the 1960s. Unfortunately, the powers that be back in those days never maintained the massive structure, which allowed it to fall into disrepair, according to The Eagle's archives. Maybe that made it easier to sell people on the idea of knocking it down instead of fixing it up, I don't know (again, I wasn't here).
It's impossible to look into the future, of course, but imagine what an asset Union Station would be now when restoring passenger rail service on the Housatonic Railroad between Pittsfield and Danbury, Conn. is being discussed. Imagine ending a scenic train ride, that may have begun at Grand Central Station in New York City, at another historic train station in Pittsfield. It would be a tremendous plus for an area that's pushing tourism. Imagine the marketing possibilities.
By the way, if Union Station were still standing it would be celebrating its 100th anniversary this summer. The station officially opened Aug. 23, 1914.
It was dedicated with great fanfare. "Its flamboyant red brick facing with white trim was considered the pride of the city," The Eagle reported in 1956. Here's how The Eagle described the station's interior when Union Station opened 100 years ago, "beautiful hardwood decorations, marble, an elaborate lighting arrangement, luxurious seats and splendid equipment."
All gone with the wind.
Pittsfield also has an historic baseball stadium in Wahconah Park. Progress has claimed the park's place as a home for affiliated minor league baseball, and it became a graveyard for two independent league teams,
But the park is still suitable as a home for summer collegiate league baseball that's done the right way. After several years of nutty proposals and zany ideas, it seems as though the city has finally found the perfect fit in the Pittsfield Suns, whose ownership has both the experience and the savvy to succeed in an old ballpark.
I hope the owners of other old historic facilities in the Berkshires are taking note, because once an historic building is gone, it's gone forever.
If it were up to me, I'd rather save the Howard Building than tear down the Plunkett School. But that's progress, I guess.
Tony Dobrowolski is the business editor of The Berkshire Eagle. He can be reached at email@example.com.