Archive for category Berkshires

Behind the Green Curtain

On the scaffold, behind the curtain, preparing to remove the stained glass panels.  Photo, the author.

On the scaffold, behind the curtain, preparing to remove the stained glass panels. Photo, the author.

There are stories behind the green curtain that people walk and drive by each day.  It’s not just the five stories of scaffolding that the curtain shields for the ongoing preservation work of the old Berkshire Athenaeum on Park Square in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.  It also shields stories related to the complexity of preserving this building, stories about its benefactor and architect, and stories narrating the evolution of the city.

Above the front entrance to this Victorian Gothic monument is an inscription that reads “This tribute to science, art and literature is the gift of Thomas Allen to his native town.”  Thomas Allen, a railway baron before there were such men, moved out of Pittsfield and did go west, to Missouri, where he set himself up in the railroad business, and then ran for state office to help get the legislation needed for land acquisitions.  He predated Andrew Carnegie by decades in donating the money for a new library for the town in 1874.

Allen selected the design of William Appleton Potter, a young architect from New York who specialized in Victorian Gothic buildings: grand, ornamental Gilded Age structures, permanent grey and brown stone monuments, with pointed arches, skylights, gables and stained glass windows. Potter had designed the library at Princeton University, and the two men shared a Union College connection.  Perhaps, though, it was through Potter’s brother-in-law who was the sculptor of the Civil War soldiers’ memorial on Park Square that Thomas Allen became acquainted with Potter’s work.  Allen had been a donor for that statue as well.

At the dedication to the library, Thomas Allen revealed his hopes for the new building: help save the nation.  He could have been thinking of the Civil War, as the soldiers’ memorial erected just a few years earlier was in plain sight across the park.  He also had in mind the new immigrants in the town’s mills and factories and their children who would learn the ways of their adopted homeland through the library.  As impressive and unique as it was, the building suffered from both structural and space inadequacies almost from its beginnings.  Twenty years after its opening, the library’s leaders were complaining about water leaking and insufficient space for books.  A new addition and a new museum left more room for books, but many in the library and the city spent the next half century clamoring for a new library.

The building survived, serving a population growing with the success of its chief employer, General Electric, and outlasting calls for its demolition.  With urban renewal of the 1960s claiming whole blocks of buildings just one block away, the Athenaeum escaped unscathed.  By the time the funding became available for a new library, the country and the town had turned the corner in its appreciation for historic buildings.  A new library was built a block away, but this building was re-adapted for a courthouse and registry of deeds.

As one of 8 historic structures, the Park Square historic district received approval for placement on the National Registry of Historic Places in 1975.  As such, it has helped sustain a downtown that has suffered loss of business and consumers since then.  Pittsfield’s efforts to revitalize its downtown over the last two decades have relied on the presence of its historic buildings that offer an attractive and authentic vitality to the city.

Its structural problems remain, however.  One engineer assessed the situation in the 1970s simply: William Potter was trying to do too much, too many roofs, too many places for water to seep behind the stones and through the skylight. As the water would freeze and thaw, it would open up more space for water to seep, increasing the bulging.  Major structural repairs, including steel ties across the front and side elevations, were required for its stabilization in the 1970s.  Again in 2001, the rotting skylight was restored, the roof was replaced and new internal drains on the roofs were installed.

Still, by 2011, the bulging on the front had increased dramatically, as much as five to six inches in places.   In September 2013, the state embarked on a major stabilization effort, with plans to remove most of the masonry and stained glass on the front façade.  A complicated system of anchors will hold the re-laid stones in place to a reinforced back-up wall.  A simple enough sentence, but documenting and removing each stone, storing them off-site, installing new steel supports, repairing the brick back-up wall, re-laying the stones and inserting anchors and grout to hold them in place, is anything but simple.  The movement in the wall took its toll on the stain-glass windows, so a similar process of documentation, removals and repairs is underway as well.  All work is specialized to ensure the historical integrity of the building, matching colors and textures as closely as possible to the original design.

This effort will save the stories of the old Athenaeum for future generations, so they will be see in the building, stories of their immigrant, working class ancestors who made this one of the busiest libraries in the state, stories of a golden age of prosperity when wealthy elites felt a civic debt to their communities and stories of a misguided urban renewal scheme that demolished entire blocks of the city, but somehow managed to overlook this building, with the help of another generation of civic-minded individuals.

All that behind this green curtain.

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The day the last mill closed

An engraving of the mill complex from an 1876 history of the city

An engraving of the mill complex from an 1876 history of the city

The announcement did not make it on to the front page of the newspaper, but it should have.  The final woolen mill in Pittsfield was closing.  It was the longest continuous running woolen mill operation in a city which had once boasted 11 textile mills, leading a county which produced more wool than any other in the country.

It was October 26, 1963, when it was known as Wyandotte Mill.  Over 100 workers walked and drove across the small bridges over the uppermost reaches of the Housatonic River that had once powered its predecessor, Pontoosuc Woolen Mill.  It was not quite 140 years since that mill had been built, on the site of Keeler’s saw mill.

The story of Pontoosuc Woolen Mill tells the story of the county.   It was the brainchild of Henry Shaw, the representative for the county in the U.S. Congress who hailed from Lanesborough.   In politics that sounds more like our current Congress, Shaw had helped Henry Clay pass the Tariff of 1824, which placed large taxes on imported wool from England, thereby opening up a market for domestic wool.  Shaw moved quickly on such an opportunity and brought together a group of investors to finance the purchase of the property and the construction of the original mill building, which is still standing today.

Pontoosuc was not the first mill in the county, but the site it was built on housed a workshop of Arthur Scholfield, a recent immigrant from England who snuck out of his home country with models of and experience in the new machinery of spinning wool.  The English were desperate to prevent the loss of this know-how and hold on to their manufacturing advantage, but had already lost cotton processing technology through another emigrant, Samuel Slater, who helped build the first mills in the country in Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

Scholfield, who left England in 1793, moved north along the Housatonic, through Connecticut, and ended up in Pittsfield in 1800.  Here, he built the first machine to card wool, a process of cleaning and preparing the cut wool.  Since his machinery could complete the process several times faster than hand carding, he initially had a small operation to sell the cleaned wool to private individuals, spinning and weaving out of their homes.  Scholfield then left woolen manufacturing and set up a small operation to build the machines to process wool, selling his equipment around the region.   His special tooth-cutting machine was installed in the attic of Keeler’s saw mill at the southern tip of Pontoosuc Lake.

Scholfield’s inventions and the new protective tariff combined with the introduction of a new brand of sheep from Spain – merino – and the beginnings of an immigrant work force to bring all the variables together for the flourishing of industry which saw Pittsfield start the transition from an agricultural society to a center of manufacturing.   Pontoosuc Woolen Mill initially employed 100 workers, a little less than half of whom were women and children.   By mid-century, the mill had built a store, homes, townhouses and boarding houses for a growing workforce which would reach 500 employees by the 20th century.

The list of owners and managers over the course of the 19th century reads like a Who’s Who of Pittsfield.  Besides Shaw, whose son took the pen name of Josh Billings and avoided the wool business for humor, names like Clapp and Kellogg, Campbell,  Frances  and Plunkett still grace the city’s streets, parks and schools.  These individuals helped move the city forward on a path of progress which included setting up the first fire company (owing to the risk of fire in the mills,) and the first trolley (which ran from the city center to, you guessed it, Pontoosuc Lake.)   Pittsfield’s first telephone call was place at Pontoosuc Woolen Mill, to a bank on North Street.

The mill filled the huge demand for kilt-like balmoral skirts and carriage blankets.  When cotton became scarce during the Civil War, the demand for woolen textiles increased, creating enough demand for yet another woolen mill which opened in Pittsfield in 1863. Following the war, cotton production returned and the first mills in the city began to close.  Pontoosuc Woolen Mill was able to keep open into the 20th century with lucrative government contracts, including the manufacture of military blankets during the first world war.  A Maine firm bought the mill in 1928, just after its centennial, changing the name to Wyandotte Mill.

The Depression hit the wool industry hard with the closing of 4 rival mills in the 1930s.  Gradually, new competition from England, caused production to start shifting south to reduce costs of labor.  By the time of the second war, 100% cotton and wool textiles were replaced by synthetic fibers, further reducing demand.   By the 1950s, just three mills in Pittsfield were still open.    Wyandotte managed to stay afloat through production of woolen cloth which was distributed around the world as raw material for other factories to produce the finished products of clothing and blankets.

Organized labor had come to Wyandotte shortly after its purchase of the mill.  By the 1930s Wyandotte Pittsfield workers joined a month-long textile strike in 1934 in 20 states.   It was at the end of the Depression in 1939 that the Textile Workers Union of America organized Wyandotte.   Additional labor actions took place following the Depression and the war when Wyandotte workers at all three of their mills struck in 1951 over the failure to make a pay raise retroactive.  A few years later, when Wyandotte re-negotiated their contract, it included a far-reaching provision for equal pay for equal work by women.   A general strike took place at Wyandotte in 1954, but the weakness of unions in mid-century America can be seen in the rehiring of only 50 of the 475 workers previously employed.  In 1962, workers through the TWUA had signed a new contract with a wage increase.  That same year, a new management team came to Pittsfield.   Both the new contract and new leadership may have been part of a last ditch attempt to keep the mill open, but they failed; by October the mill had produced its last wool.

Today, the complex is home to a number of small businesses; neighboring buildings that once were stores, homes and boarding houses survive but are townhouses, a restaurant, single family homes and a homeless shelter.  The canal through which ran a current of water strong enough to power the looms and machines has been diverted and covered over.  Elevated walkways have been torn down, windows boarded to prevent vandals from breaking glass.  What remains, though, is a brick monument, tall, solid and imposing and certain to outlive the prefabricated materials of modern box stores and warehouses and factories.   It’s right there, hidden in plain sight and joined by 11 other mills across the city.

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I and My Lawnmower

Reliable friend. Photo: JDickson

Reliable friend.
Photo: JDickson

One of the highlights of walking through Herman Melville’s home at Arrowhead in Pittsfield, Massachusetts is the central fireplace in the dining area.  Its grand size and fine stone work dominate the room and evoke a time when all the heating and cooking came from that one source.  What is most unusual here though is the writing above and across the fireplace.  It quotes from Melville’s whimsical story “I and My Chimney” which first appeared in Putnam’s Monthly in 1856, six years after Melville moved to Arrowhead from New York City.

The story is of a husband’s determination to save the destruction of the chimney in his home from his equally determined wife to have a central hallway, instead of a space-wasting chimney.  Melville speaks of this chimney as a person, even a friend, and a close one at that:  “I and my chimney, two grey-headed old smokers reside in the country.”  The two of them are “old settlers,” putting the chimney on the same human level as the narrator.  Melville explains the unusual construction placing the “I” before “my chimney” in the title as the only time that he actually takes precedence over the chimney.

In grand humor and 19th century majestic style, Melville describes the female head of household’s attempts to rid herself of the chimney, hiring architects and enlisting her daughters to convince her male counterpart of the multiple reasons to rid herself of this domineering structure.  “I will never surrender,” says the protagonist, reassuring his pipe and his chimney that he will prevail.

I have my own chimney problem, and it is my 22-year old push lawnmower.  Purchased for barely more than $100, my walking companion has served me well in three different residences, suffering through ten years of neglect while in storage.  Upon his release, though, he started right up and, as long as he can avoid rain in the fuel tank, he has never let me down.

This faded red gas push mower has outlasted a brief flirtation with an electric/battery model with its commitment to a green environment as an enticement.  Barely five years into this newer arrangement, the battery model could not keep up with either high grass or more lawn.  With barely an apology, the old push mower took me back and has remained faithful since.

We are alone in our weekly endeavors.  My wife and pretty much any outside observer think me mad, for walking around these almost 2 acres with such an outdated, hard to operate companion.   The hot sun, the uneven terrain, the long grass, the obstacles of rocks and roots and trees conspire to leave me exhausted each time.  My wife claims it will be the end of me.  I call it exercise which will make me stronger and live longer.

Melville was on to something, that genius of human nature and descriptive detail.  From even before his time, he knew that every marriage needs a chimney or a lawnmower, to test its foundation and durability.

I only wonder what his quill pen would do to my lawnmower.

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This Old Barn, Really Old

I don’t know which was more impressive, the two timber-frame barns being preserved and re-assembled or the massive airplane hangar of a workshop enclosing them.  Of course, the two barns take precedence, since one of them may be the nation’s oldest barn, dating as far back as the 1690s.  Still, I couldn’t stop looking at the features of the workshop: the two sides of window/doors which could slide open to remove structures as big as a barn or the rack of mechanical pulleys and cranes on guides running the length of the workshop.

That structure was owned by a contractor who specializes in restoration, a middle-aged man wearing a polo shirt and khakis named David Lanoue.  He recently opened up his workshop in Great Barrington Massachusetts to the public, who came to see the work in progress on the old barns and hear from those involved in the work.

At that moment, the contracting crew of 15 interspersed in the crowd, but recognizable in their matching polo shirts, had assembled the roof of the newer barn.  By newer I mean late 1700s.  The end side of the older barn stood next to the roof.  Laid out horizontally on workhorses were other large, tapered beams belonging to the older barn, so people could see the extent of the restoration process.

An architect who specializes in timber frames spoke to the philosophy guiding the restoration.  Looking like a farmer, wearing a Quaker-like hat, Jack Sobon emerged from the audience with little of the pretensions that he could claim from his having authored several books on timber frame construction and spent most of his life immersed in the subject.  His manner was professorial, but he was teaching not only to the many carpenters and contractors in the workshop, but to those of us less familiar.

Sobon, a consultant to Lanoue’s project, indicated that cost and time dictate the philosophy.  Pointing to the various pieces of lumber stacked in rows around the room, he indicated that, under normal circumstances, restorers would have discarded much of the old wood.  Instead, since Lanoue knew he was working on what could be the oldest barn in the country, he has adopted an approach to save as much of the old wood as possible, regardless of cost.  So, rotted wood has been caringly replaced with white oak pieces, carefully cut to match the sections taken from the old beams.

Can you see two barns?  Photo: JDickson

Can you see two barns?
Photo: JDickson

There was another philosophy that Sobon kept referring to, as he discussed the detective work undertaken on the original builders.  Time and again, decisions made by New England builders in the 17th and 18th century were based on what was easy and what cost the least.  Some old barns were built with no foundation, with corner beams dug right into the ground.  Why?  It was quicker and easier than digging and laying a stone foundation.  He explained the assembling of the sides and the corner joints, creatively designed so the original measuring and laying out of the pieces could be done, lying flat on the ground.

What became clear as both Lanoue and Sobon talked was their fluency in a different language.  Terms like bends, bays, sills and joists fell easily from their lips but landed hard on the novice’s ears.  Not only was the vocabulary new, but so was the ability to see words in all three of their dimensions, particularly evident when Sobon was talking about the corner joints, even with the model he brought to explain it.   Here I learned I had wasted my life doing history and international relations.

What will Lanoue do with these barns?  He spoke of interest from private collectors, but I sure hope the Smithsonian is interested.  They have the room in either the Building Museum or the American History Museum in Washington to house such a treasure.  What a treat it was, in this quiet corner of western Massachusetts to see work of such importance to the whole nation.

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Sim City in Reverse: The House at 276 South Street

Tear down?Photo: JDickson

Tear down?
Photo: JDickson

The house, while not falling down, is in disrepair.  The aluminum siding is bending off and has lost its luster.  The chips in the concrete steps need a sweeping, and the iron pipe railing is rusting.  The low roof lines on the one-story additions now look awkward, like a trailer added to the original Gilded Age-almost mansion. The renovations which were new and innovative and clean in the 1970s show their age.  This house just got its demolition orders, approved by the local historical commission as not having historic significance.

They are most likely right, since no one famous lived here, or nothing transformational happened here, or it does not represent broader significant building styles.  It does, though, reflect the history of the city, catching the rise, riding the good times, and then sharing the hard times.  Reading the house and its inhabitants tells of industries coming and mostly going away.  It tells of adapting to new circumstances, even in its demolition.

Think of it as one small graphic icon, on a SimCity computer game, a historic one, which shows how events and trends in one part of the city, or even the nation impact a single house.  The game allows its players to build a city, giving them a pot of money to make adjustments and watch a city grow.  Add a road, or an industry, or a new electric plant, and watch the city respond.  Watch a single property respond.

Built in 1894, at the top of the plateau heading into the current historic central district, the house at 276 South Street joined a rapidly growing city.  Pittsfield had just achieved municipal status three years prior, and it was about to go through a twenty-five year period as the second fastest growing municipality in Massachusetts.  SimCity houses and factories popping up all over, as the city expanded in all four directions.  Population grew from 17,252 to 39,607.  Houses increased from 2,735 to 6,022.

SimCity would have shown by mid-century the Berkshire Medical Institute, a training facility just across South Street in operation since 1823.  Surrounded by undeveloped lands, the irony of this medical anchor to the south end of town becomes evident only when 276 South Street converts to medical offices in 1956.  But, we get ahead of ourselves since, the Medical Institute changed to a high school by 1876, and then, reverted to residences by the time 276 was built.

The house was built in a Gilded Age style, without the Victorian trappings which reflect other mansions of the truly wealthy as summer homes of New Yorkers and Boston Brahmins who were building elsewhere in the Berkshires in the same era.  Its three stories above ground, hip roof joining gable fronts on three sides, and a pillared carriage porch at the front door smell of wealth, but not quite as grand as Edith Wharton’s Mount, just a few miles down the road.

The first owner was also an out-of-towner, a Robert G. Johnston affiliated with the Saratoga Star Spring Company in New York.  The house lay on the main thoroughfare entering Pittsfield from points south, and an electric trolley rolled by the house.  That may have been what drew its next owner in 1904, Samuel G. Colt, an engineer employed at various places over the ten years he owned the house, presumably jumping on the trolley to make his way as far as Cheshire where he was employed briefly.  Or, since he was the grandson of one of the town’s paper mill owners, whose family owned property on the other side of South Street, he may have had the resources to purchase an automobile by then.

SimCity would show the impact of a trolley and car as houses pushed out further and further from the city center.  It would also show for the first time, just before Colt moved to 276 South, the arrival of General Electric in Pittsfield, which purchased Stanley Electric, gradually becoming over the next century the preeminent industry, employer and polluter in the region.

The next owner, Cornelius Wright bought the house in 1912, and, when he died, his widow Lydia lived there until she died in 1948.  By then, the trolley had disappeared, with the last rails dug up for scrap metal during World War II.  For the next 7 years, the building belonged to three different owners, but was listed in city directories as a rooming house, called The Chateau.  Buses had replaced the trolleys, making it convenient for boarders to get to work. Or, perhaps these boarders were in the city for too short a time, as there were no names listed in city directories.  That suggests that these boarders were here on summer holidays, the first wave of automobile vacationers taking in the activities at the Colonial Theater just blocks away, or at Tanglewood, which had opened in 1940.  Even winter boarders may have come for a weekend of skiing at Bosquet, which opened in 1932.

Then, on our SimCity game, we’d see the graphic house icon house change colors, converted to a medical office building, with offices for five doctors in 1956.  This could have reflected the growing demand for doctors, fueled the baby boom of the 50s and 60s and the growth of industry, led by General Electric.  Population had grown to over 50,000, and GE employed as many as 13,000.   This growth and ethnic demographics of a city with a large Italian and Irish descendent population also led to the building of St. Theresa’s Catholic Church, next door.

By the 70s, the main house no longer sufficed.  For three years after 1979, renovations were undertaken to add doctors’ offices on the inside of the main building, including changes to the spaces inside and a one-story addition built on to the side and rear of the main building to house the medical offices.  Lawn was taken over as a parking lot to accommodate the patients who came to the 14 different offices housed in the facility.

One of these doctors eventually came to own the building, and he sold the property in 2011 to Berkshire Place, a retirement/nursing home in operation since 1888, just a few years before 276 was built, just a few hundred yards closer to the city center.  Berkshire Place also bought St. Theresa’s next door, which had closed its doors in 2008, along with six other parishes in the county.  An expanded nursing home facility brings witness to a declining church attendance nationally and an aging local population, catering as well perhaps to people who vacationed here and came back for quality-of-life retirement.  That would be me.

So, does this property rise to the level of historic significance?  Probably not, still.  Certainly not any more so than most houses, which, like the rings of a tree, help us read broader trends and changes.  Time to log off SimCity, and start a new game.