NORTH ADAMS — The first hint of what was possible for the old Sprague Electric complex appeared on the front page of the North Adams Transcript on Feb. 12, 1987. It was a simple black-and-white drawing from the perspective of the farthest end of the courtyard of Building 6 looking back at the clock tower. It showed a neat, clean space, with a few people milling around, with well-manicured trees growing near the buildings. Not many details about what would happen there. 

The article broke the news that Williams College, Sprague Electric and the city were working on an art museum — vaguely imagined as a “European village” — for the Marshall Street site that had up to then been the region’s largest employer. No one knew if it would work. 

But it was the first public notice that the city and the entire region would be going on an improbable adventure — a looping, winding one full of failures and setbacks that would always hew closely to the original, absurd vision of creating one of the largest contemporary art museums on earth. 

The Transcript article confirmed what had been rumored for months. It was co-written by Daniel Pearl, then a young reporter for the paper whose career would take him to the Wall Street Journal and who tragically died reporting in Pakistan in 2002. The article was careful to limit expectations. It made clear, for example, that Williams could offer personnel and expertise, but no real money.

“The idea is very preliminary, officials cautioned,” the article reads. “No engineering work has begun and questions of how the development might be financed and whether it is feasible at all remain unanswered.”

Thomas Krens

The story of how the idea came about would emerge over the next few months. According to one of the key pieces of the Mass MoCA mythology, it began with an idea Thomas Krens, then director of the Williams College Museum of Art, had while driving on the autobahn outside Cologne, Germany in November 1985. He was on his way to a show of contemporary works at a factory outside the city. Many works were of such a large scale they required the kind of space traditional museums just didn’t have. He remembered that back home, North Adams’ greatest asset left was a lot of space.

Krens brought the idea of using one of the city’s smaller unused industrial spaces, like the Windsor Mill, to North Adams Mayor John Barrett III, who was still in the beginning of his decades in office. The city was still in crisis, dealing with the consequences of Sprague Electric’s decision in 1984 to pull up stakes and move headquarters closer to Boston. The company had defined the city since World War II, when it neatly replaced Arnold Print Works, which had failed during the Depression. At its height in the 1960s, Sprague employed about 4,000 people in a city of 16,000.

By the time news broke in February, the plan was taking shape, and a key part of it was securing from the state $35 million of the projected $73 million to get the project underway. Even with such numbers, it was understood the museum was an afterthought compared to another major state-backed development plan that was rapidly taking shape at the same time. A few weeks later that spring, Gov. Michael Dukakis came to Adams to announce a developer for a $260 million, four-season resort complex at Greylock Glen, which would include ski trails, a golf course, a hotel and conference center, and more than a thousand condos. That plan was speeding along, though as it turned out, into a ditch.

The museum was early on pitched as a complement to that doomed plan and offered hope that a post-industrial future was possible. Not only was it unlikely any other manufacturing would come to the Marshall Street site, there also wasn’t even money to properly tear down the campus — which is as large as the city’s downtown — to start over. 

But as the case had to be made, more and more the plan came into focus. The first vision of what could possibly actually happen in a space like Building 6 came in April 1987, when Krens announced he’d reached an agreement for a long-term loan of artwork from the collection of Giuseppe Panza di Biumo, a wealthy industrialist from near Milan who had been buying up American art since the 1950s. By the mid-1980s he had gathered major works by artists like Robert Rauschenberg, James Turrell, Donald Judd, and Richard Serra. Panza had very specific ideas about how his artworks had to be shown — within plenty of space and with room for visitors to concentrate on individual artists and pieces — and over the course of meetings and visits to North County, Krens had impressed him that he could offer up to 180,000 square feet in his potential museum. 

‘Miracle in these hills’

“There is every reason to believe that a miracle is well on the way in these hills,” the Transcript wrote in an April editorial. “And that from a tired, worn-out milltown North Adams before a new century dawns will blossom into an arts center with more class than anyone ever dreamed.”

The Panza Collection, along with moral support from Williams College, were arguments that the notion wasn’t completely absurd. But efforts to secure the first $35 million dragged through the year, becoming bogged down by efforts of Boston legislators to secure ongoing funding for the Hynes Convention Center in the city. When the bill died in January 1988, Dukakis, an early supporter of the plan, reintroduced it on his own. It passed, despite being briefly held up by representatives from Worcester, who were angry their own hopes of renovating their train station were passed over for a long-shot art project in the middle of nowhere.

Of course, that’s just the beginning of the story. Soon after, Krens left to direct the Guggenheim Museum in New York. A few years later, the bulk of the Panza Collection would go there too. A new Republican administration and a financial crisis in 1991 would pull the plug on the funding, forcing the museum — now being run by Krens’ protégé, Joseph C. Thompson — to rethink everything on the fly. 

The details of the vision would take shape in unexpected ways. The early plans didn’t include that Building 7 would become the comprehensive Sol LeWitt exhibition, nor that a major rock band like Wilco would choose to partner for a music festival every other year. 

At the original announcement in May 1987, an economic assessment prepared by Krens and Thompson estimated they could open in October 1991, and anticipated attendance at around 100,000. The total economic impact for the region they pegged at $21,116,346. 

The first ribbon wasn’t cut until May 1999. Recent attendance has reached 165,000. In a recent measure, the museum’s economic impact, Thompson said last week, is about $22 million.