PITTSFIELD — Sally Harris had no previous experience in historical preservation and was a seasonal resident of the Berkshires when she took on the daunting task of preserving the former St. James Church in Great Barrington after a wall collapsed in 2008.
The congregation wasn't sure what to do with a building that dated to 1857, and demolishing the property was under consideration.
But, what Harris did have was faith — and a belief that this historic property was worth saving and the persistence to see it through.
Today, Harris is president of St. James Place, a nonprofit that turned the former church property into a cultural center and event space that, since its opening in January 2017, has provided space for 58 organizations to conduct various activities. They range from musical organizations to land trusts; from Festival Latino of the Berkshires to the Lenox Garden Club. The property also serves as a wedding venue.
We spoke with Harris — she now is a full-time Great Barrington resident — about why she decided to save the former St. James Church property and why she likes to take on big projects.
Q: Why were you and your husband [Fred Harris, the nonprofit's treasurer] so interested in saving St. James in the first place?
A: I was a member of the congregation. I hate to say how many ... 36 years at the time. I was going there [in 2008] when a large portion of the rear [chancel] wall collapsed and the stones came out and fell on the rector's car and totaled it. I was living in New York at the time, but I came to Great Barrington every weekend, so, when I joined a church, I joined one in Massachusetts.
One day I went to church on Sunday and it was closed. They moved the service to Crissey Farm [on Stockbridge Road]. ... It took the congregation awhile to decide what to do. I think they had enough insurance money to repair the problem, but with an old building, you don't know what is going to go next, you know?
I was just really concerned that the building should be saved. It was something that I felt very strongly about.
Q: Why did you believe in that so deeply?
A: I grew up in Dallas, Texas, and we don't have a lot of historic homes and historic main streets, and St. James is prominent on the main street of Great Barrington.
When you drive in [on Route 7] from the south, it's the first major structure that you see. It's across the street from Searles Castle. Somewhere in that decision, there was a consideration to tear the whole thing down, and I didn't think that was right.
Q: So, what did you do?
A: It was one of those things where I just didn't know what to do. ... I prayed, because this is my church. ... I went to the Foundation Center in New York City to take a course on how to write a grant proposal for repairs. That was my idea of something that I could do as a volunteer.
I asked the teacher after class, "I'm in kind of an unusual situation. One of my grant proposals is to save my church [which was built] in 1857." And the teacher said, 'Oh, I know somebody that you should talk to. His name is Bob Jaeger, and he's with Partners for Sacred Places" [a national, nonsectarian nonprofit based in Philadelphia that focuses on building the congregations of historic sacred places to better serve their communities].
He offered to come to Great Barrington and speak to the community about repurposing the building. ... I brought him up to speak to everybody else, but I'm the one that got the message.
Q: What did he tell you?
A: He said if you partner with other organizations and the congregation isn't the only one responsible for the building, then you can share the burden and get other people to use it. ... So, my model was, "Let's create a not-for-profit that will buy the building from the congregation." We'll own the building, the congregation can use it for Sunday services and we will farm it out for other uses.
Q: How did you find out the property might be demolished?
A: When the original wall collapsed, I think the church thought they could get more money. ... They had a group of people who convened to give them advice. I was present for the meeting, and they said it's more valuable if you tear it down, the property is more valuable than the building. And that's when I thought, "Oh, my God, they're going to tear it down and sell the lot."
One of the people who was at the meeting, he was a developer, he said, "Well, I'm not interested in buying it, but if I were, I would buy it, tear it down and make it into a parking lot because Great Barrington needs parking."
Q: He really said that?
A: Yeah, and I thought, "Oh, no." That was a catalyst for me.
Q: Had you ever done historical preservation work before?
A: No. My husband accuses me of, "Shoot, ready, aim." I really kind of jump in and do things.
Q: So, how did you proceed with no experience?
A: We were going to have to raise some money. The architect we used was a very experienced person in historical preservation, so, we became aware very early of historic tax credits. ... Then we applied to the Mass. Cultural Council. They rejected us, but what they said was, what you really need to do is a technical assistance grant so you can demonstrate that this building will be used if it's restored.
So, we did. Actually, Partners of Sacred Places and Bob Jaeger did that study. ... They interviewed arts organizations, and we found that there was really quite a need for that; that arts organizations needed a place to perform.
Q: Did you have any previous business experience before taking on this project?
A: I really didn't have any [Fred Harris, who originally is from Ohio, owns a software company]. My father was a businessman. My grandfather was a very successful Horatio Alger businessman. He went from nothing to being very successful in the insurance business in Texas.
I thought that I would go into theater. I have a degree in theater [from Southern Methodist University in Dallas], and that gives me an affinity for the arts. I studied in London, briefly. I studied with Stella Adler, who used to be in theater at some point. Then I got married and had children, and that became a career.
I produced a movie at one point in time , a feature film — it's called "The End of August." I don't know how you would get it now. ... [Harris is credited as one of the film's four producers, under the name Sally Sharp, according to the online film database IMDb]. It was an adaptation of Kate Chopin's "The Awakening." That was kind of a bold move for me. ... It was another "Let's go do something — shoot, ready aim."
Q: So, why do you make these bold moves?
A: I don't know. I like the challenge. I like learning about it. I had the opportunity to get [St. James Place] started.
Q: What do you see St. James Place becoming in the future?
A: That's the challenge that my husband and I are working on now: How to really create something that can stand on its own because it's quite dependent on the arts organizations that use it.
But, the good news is, we have such interesting varieties of uses, like the [Berkshire] co-op market [in Great Barrington]. They have a manager's meeting here one day a week. I think it's for us to court more uses for this space ... and to get younger people to find more ways to use it.
Q: Are there any more bold moves on your horizon?
A: No, the bold move is to make this — I use the term airborne — I want to make it airborne.
Somebody once said to me, "Was it harder than you expected?" and I said, "The good news is, I didn't have an idea about how hard it was." I had no expectation. I just committed to do whatever it took. That's really what it came down to, and that helped. ... I'm glad I didn't know.