Great Barrington to preserve Searles school's artifacts ahead of hotel preparations

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GREAT BARRINGTON — There's an electronic scoreboard and a basketball hoop. There are light fixtures, doorknobs and a wall clock with the periodic table symbols over the numerals.

There is a section of blackboard with farewell messages from students in 1968, the year this historic Georgian-style school building closed completely.

This is just a partial list of the treasures carefully extracted from the former Searles Middle and High School on Bridge Street, as the developer who owns the building prepares the inside for demolition that will turn the old school into a hotel.

At its Monday meeting, the town Historical Commission's chairman produced an inventory of objects either already removed or that will be removed during the work. Paul Ivory, who has referred to the school as a "tour de force of the Georgian Revival style," said many of the items are being stored in a barn at the Great Barrington Historical Society or Ramsdell Library in Housatonic.

Ivory said that while the commission might eventually exhibit these goodies, right now it is acting to preserve them.

When Chrisoula Mahida bought the 121-year-old building in 2015, her plans to renovate it captured the town, resulting in a design that would satisfy the community's thirst to maintain its historic aesthetic.

Mahida's husband, Vijay Mahida, is also a hotel developer who runs lodging in several towns in Berkshire County, including Great Barrington.

The timing of the demolition and renovation project is unclear. Chrisoula Mahida declined to comment Wednesday.

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Ivory told the commission that she had paid for the removal of items and transport to the Historical Society. Relics also include an intercom base station, a floor tile, window hardware, a gas valve and a door sign that says "Guidance."

For those feeling a tug of nostalgia about the school, built in 1898, historian A. David Rutstein's "A History of Searles High School" delivers. Rutstein, who sits on the Historical Commission, describes years of "severe" overcrowding in the school during an influx of factory workers into the town. Great Barrington's population grew 27 percent from 1885 to 1910.

"To complicate matters, the town was never going to appropriate major money to renovate or to build any more new schools," Rutstein wrote.

Polio, diphtheria and influenza forced some shutdowns in those early years, Rutstein writes. And overcrowding worsened. In 1925 and 1926, voters rejected plans to expand or build a new high school.

The Great Depression caused school budget woes. That was followed by World War II, and oil shortages prompted a switch to coal for heating.

In the 1950s, an annex and additions were built as the need grew for more space and upgrades.

The building is named for Edward Francis Searles, the school's benefactor. Searles collaborated with Boston-based architect Henry Vaughan and commissioned the design. Vaughan is best known for his church architecture in the Gothic Revival vernacular, including Washington National Cathedral in Washington.

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.


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