Plaque honors efforts to restore Westinghouse legacy in Lenox
LENOX — Nearly 10 years ago, a village beautification and improvement project lit up the downtown with 49 historically authentic reconstructions of Westinghouse street lamps, artifacts of the town's Gilded Age era.
As a tribute to a corps of volunteers who spearheaded the $1.6 million effort, the Historical Commission unveiled a plaque Wednesday honoring the local residents who paved the way for the installations on Main, Church, Housatonic, Walker and Franklin streets, dedicated in 2010 as part of an overall $3 million project.
"The installation of the Westinghouse lights would not have taken place without the hard work, determination and contributions of the individuals imprinted on this plaque," said Olga Weiss, chairwoman of the Historical Commission. "The point is that citizens, with hard work and persistence, can make a difference and that without volunteers, the town would be hard pressed to accomplish its many goals."
In 2007, local residents Suzanne Pelton, Pam Kueber and Andrea Winter originated the drive to replace the original lights with historical replicas. George Westinghouse Jr., the electrical industry pioneer, had donated 149 lamps to Lenox in 1913, but most had been damaged or worn out and could not be refurbished. The town removed them in the mid-1980s, as part of a cost-cutting measure, and only seven originals survived.
The volunteers raised $25,000 in seed moneys for the project and then gained a $100,000 grant from the Community Preservation Committee. The lamp reconstruction was folded into the downtown village improvement project that included redesign of sidewalks in the central business district.
Among the team of volunteers, Weiss singled out former Town Manager Gregory Federspiel, former Selectwoman Linda Messana, Mark Smith, who has served on the Planning Board, and downtown resident James Biancolo.
Also named on the plaque are the late Bob and Marcia Brown, Kueber and David Fisher, Jonathan Molk, Pelton, Janet Pumphrey and Al Harper, Ned Roche, Charles Schultze, Andrea and Daniel Winter, Richard and Rebeccah Wise and Canyon Ranch.
George Westinghouse looms large in Lenox history as a prominent summer resident and cottager, and worldwide as an inventor in lighting, electricity, locomotive brakes and telephone switching systems, among other innovations. He provided the electricity at the "white city" display for Chicago's 1893 World's Fair.
Westinghouse was the employer of William Stanley, who demonstrated the first alternating current lighting system in Great Barrington in 1886. Westinghouse used the system in his cottage, Erskine Park, which became the nation's first private residence lit exclusively by alternating current, according to Lenox historical records.
He also built his own power station on the shores of Laurel Lake and sold energy to the original Lenox Electric Co. to illuminate downtown streets.
In 2003, the Westinghouse lamps were designated by the nonprofit advocacy group Preservation Massachusetts as one of the state's 10 most endangered historic resources. The organization considered the lamps "a valuable and rare resource from the Gilded Age and retention of the original Westinghouse design is crucial for Lenox to maintain its connection with its past grandeur," a 2009 Historical Commission newsletter stated.
The designation allowed the town to seek a foundry to build replicas of the historic lights.
The first group of lamps was rekindled in February 2010, amid a swirling snowfall. At that event, Harper declared that "this is going to really bring together the business community."
Federspiel, the town manager at the time, noted that planners had to contend not only with a "rat's nest" of old pipes and wires, but also had to accommodate businesses along Church Street that could have been impacted by construction efforts.
"I'm sure George Westinghouse is smiling," Robert Brown said after the event. "This is the only physical evidence that Westinghouse even lived here."
Clarence Fanto can be reached at email@example.com, on Twitter @BE_cfanto or at 413-637-2551.
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