New benefactor helps extend Crane legacy in Dalton

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DALTON — People who walk this town's Main Street were cheered to see a tangle of growth trimmed recently, easing passage on a sidewalk that skirts an historic property connected to the Crane family.

It was a taste of things to come.

The former home of John and Judy Kittredge at 444 Main St. will become part of the Dalton Community Recreation Association, known by most simply as the CRA. Because it sits between existing public buildings, the Kittredge home will become a new middle of what proponents envision as a community "campus" extending from a gazebo and fountain east past the library and Town Hall to South Carson Avenue.

While the past generosity of the Crane family is responsible for much of that footprint, today's effort to link public properties is the work of David Mixer, a Dalton native, Wahconah Regional High School graduate, entrepreneur and philanthropist.

Mixer's 2-year-old Pittsfield-based Mill Town Capital bought the former Kittredge home early this year for $450,000. It plans to invest $400,000 in improvements, then turn it over for use by the nonprofit CRA.

"He's feeling very generous toward Dalton because this is where he grew up," Caroline Holland, a managing director at Mill Town Capital, told the Select Board this past week.

Through Holland, Mixer declined to be interviewed about the project, which won support from members of the Select Board and is expected to secure a special permit Oct. 30 from the Zoning Board of Appeals.

To the east, the new property will connect along a woodsy path with the Dalton Youth Center, which sits beside Town Hall. To the west, across Mill Street, the property will be linked the CRA's headquarters at 400 Main St. That building was a gift of W. Murray Crane.

The late John Kittredge, a member of the Crane family, used to walk over to exercise at the CRA. By next year, the properties will be formally linked, through new landscaping and other visual cues, to the CRA.

"It will be a full, continuous campus," Hollard told the Select Board. She briefed the panel on the project as a courtesy, at the request of zoning officials.

Lately, Alison Peters, the CRA's executive director, has often been taking her late friend John Kittredge's old route back and forth between the properties. While excited by the project, she admits to some jitters, due to its scale and hurry-up timeline.

New programs will kick off inside the Kittredge home in January.

At the Select Board, officials asked Holland for assurances the new property's needs would not saddle the CRA financially, after the building is turned over to the group.

"It will be sustainable before it is transferred to the CRA," Holland said, "so it doesn't become an accidental anchor to the CRA. We'll work with the CRA closely to make sure they're comfortable."

Mill Town Capital has promised to provide logistics support on arranging for use of the Kittredge home, Peters said.

"We wouldn't be able to handle this with existing staff," she said.

In addition to hosting the CRA's own programs, such as yoga or meditation sessions, rooms in the house will be made available at certain times to outside human-service agencies. The house may also be rented for private events, such as weddings.

"They're not going to let this pull us down. That makes it easier — and less scary for us," Peters said of Mill Town Capital's backing.

Initial idea

Holland said Mixer got the idea of donating the property after taking a walk last year from the CRA and seeing the for-sale sign at the home next door. He'd been helping advise the CRA on its strategic plan.

That plan calls for the CRA to prosper by taking three steps: Expand programming on its own, work with social-services partners and make space available to outside programs.

After closing on the purchase in January, Mill Town Capital undertook an effort to gauge best uses for the site. Holland said her team consulted with more than two dozen leaders in central Berkshire County on ways to extend access to social services. The question, she said, was this: "What could there be more of?"

"We very much want the use to reflect need," Holland said of the property.

Peters took The Eagle through the home, showing off grand living spaces and its wood-paneled library. A new dumpster outside signals work underway inside, where crews will be refinishing floors, removing old wallpaper and making other improvements, including steps to make the mansion accessible to the handicapped.

"This house has got `bones,'" said Sam Rachiele, of Rachiele Builders of Pittsfield, as he removed carpet padding from a grand central staircase. "I love the detail."

"It was built like a tank," Holland said.

Because the second floor will not be handicapped accessible, it will mainly be used as CRA office space, freeing up administrative quarters in the headquarters for programming.

"Everything is so tight," Peters said. "We're actually a little bursting at the seams here."

Around town, residents and CRA members expressed support for the project, provided it does not financially burden the group's operations. One woman walking the sidewalk past the Kittredge house said that thanks to the recent landscaping, she doesn't have to step into the street to get by.

A resident of School Street, which borders the Kittredge property to the south, said she and other neighbors were invited to a recent open house to learn about plans for the building. Her verdict: glad to see it used.

Dave Wandrei, of Savoy, who'd just finished a workout in the CRA's fitness room, applauded the project.

"I think it could be good, if they can make it work," Wandrei said.

Work ahead

Along with interior improvements, more landscaping lies ahead for the 2-acre lot, Holland said in an interview, though Mill Town hopes to preserve the private feeling of the home's grounds. Field stone will be used to dress up the new handicap-accessible path to the wide front door, she said.

When asked how area residents can advance the project, Holland said they can help by patronizing CRA programs, including new ones at the house.

"This project is designed to serve and benefit the people of Dalton, the Hilltowns, and the broader Central Berkshire community," she said. "We want our programs to resonate with their needs and interests."

She said Mill Town also invites suggestions from the public as it seeks to fashion "a useful and valuable asset for everyone."

"This is meant to be a living, evolving space," Holland said.

When she briefed the Select Board, Holland fielded questions about parking — explaining that the grounds will offer spots for 18 vehicles.

"I hope you have a problem with parking," board member Marc Strout said in jest. "That would be a great thing."

Board member Robert Bishop said he attended Wahconah with Mixer. His classmate went on to Union College and the Harvard Business School, then a career in telecommunications and investments.

"It's great to see him come back to town and do something so needed," Bishop said.

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.


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