PCTV film documents Old Athenaeum's restoration

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Photo Gallery | The Old Athenaeum in Pittsfield

PITTSFIELD — For the majority of the past two years, volumes of people traveling through Park Square couldn't help but notice the Bank Row building draped in green netting and covered in scaffolding.

But few had a true view of what was happening underneath and behind the scenes — until now.

At 7:30 p.m. Saturday, an 84-minute documentary film, "This Place Really Matters," created by local historian John Dickson, will debut on Pittsfield Community Television's "Access Pittsfield" Channel 16 (also 116-3).

At a time when city buildings are at risk of being sold, torn down or falling into blight, the film offers a thoughtful and comprehensive look at the modern process of historic preservation and the safeguarding not only a rare piece of architecture but also a chapter in Pittsfield's own story.

The stone 19th-century building, which formerly housed the Berkshire Athenaeum, now contains Berkshire Probate and Family Court and Berkshire Middle District Registry of Deeds. The $4.3 million, 18-month renovation and rehabilitation project began in 2013.

At the time, Dickson was working on his master's degree in public history at the University of Massachusetts. As a member of the Berkshire Historical Society, he got an email, an open call asking if anyone was interested in documenting the work being done on the 1876 High Victorian Gothic-style structure.

Dickson said he would, and the rest, as they say, is history.

He attended meetings with associates of the project leads, Ford Gillen Architects of Amherst and general contractor Allegrone Construction of Pittsfield, as they developed a plan to stabilize the bowing building, restore stonework and give it the electrical and accessibility upgrades that current building code required.

As steward of the state-owned building, designed by New York architect William A. Potter, the state's Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance was also greatly involved in the process.

"As a layperson watching this — we all drove by it all the time — it might not have looked like much. But what was going on behind the scenes was something I came to respect immensely," Dickson said. "These craftsmen were like surgeons, but they were helping to protect and preserve something that matters deeply to the city's history."

Dickson, who had no experience with film, was trained and guided by PCTV staff, which, through his membership, loaned the historian the cameras and audio equipment and gave him use of editing equipment to document thoughts from local planners, building patrons and also the physical reconstruction process itself.

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"Access Pittsfield" coordinator and production technician Norm Schaffer said this type of production is unique for the public cable station. "It's not very often that we get this kind of long-format work like that," he said.

Dickson's work became the topic of his UMass 145-page thesis project, in addition to the production of the film — all of which now contributes to the existing archives of city history.

"I was fascinated by the work with the stained glass windows and how they were lifting 200-pound stones and putting them back into place," Dickson said.

"They took the whole front [of the building] off and never shut the building down once, and they worked through two of the fiercest winters. It was fascinating and unusual, and I hope I was able to capture that."

When to watch ...

"This Place Really Matters" will be shown on PCTV Channel 16 several times in the coming week:

Saturday, 7:30 p.m.

Monday, 9 p.m.

Thursday, noon

Oct. 17, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 19, 9 p.m.

For more information and to preview the film, visit pittsfieldtv.org and search for the film title.


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