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HomeLife In the BerkshiresCONNECTIONS: Alternating fortunes...

CONNECTIONS: Alternating fortunes as Great Barrington electrifies

In 1798, Timothy Dwight, president of Yale College, described Great Barrington and its buildings as “decayed…barely decent…ruinous.” He blamed it on the residents who were not properly religious.

About Connections: Love it or hate it, history is a map. Those who hate history think it irrelevant; many who love history think it escapism. In truth, history is the clearest road map to how we got here: America in the 21st century.

Buildings are the repositories of our memories and, through them, we tell our stories. The stories are not always flattering. In 1798, Timothy Dwight, president of Yale College, described Great Barrington and its buildings as “decayed…barely decent…ruinous.” He blamed it on the residents who were not properly religious.

Almost 70 years later (in 1866) the description of Great Barrington was much better. Thankfully, the author, identified only as “B,” was favorably impressed and picked out Wainwright Hall on Main Street as one house among many worthy of mention. Eighty years after that (in 1945), Russell Lynes published “The Tastemakers: The Shaping of American Popular Taste” and selected Wainwright Hall for inclusion. That was a giant step forward.

The original brick home built in 1766.

Between the year the house was built and the year Lynes selected it as an example of fine American domestic architecture, there were some changes to Wainwright Hall. It was originally brick. Built in 1766 by Captain Peter Ingersoll, a brick house was a mark of a successful man. During the Revolutionary War, Ingersoll led a company in the siege of Boston. His father, Moses Ingersoll, was one of the earliest settlers in that part of Sheffield that later became Great Barrington.

In 1790 the house was purchased by David Wainwright. Wainwright was a selectman in the newly formed Great Barrington and a representative to the General Court in Boston. His daughter Electa married Ebenezer Pope. Eventually Electa and Ebenezer lived at Wainwright Hall and had three sons.

Franklin, Ralph and Henry Pope were all born in Great Barrington. While the first three owners – Ingersoll, Wainwright and Pope – were respected men of Great Barrington, the three Pope sons were exceptional. Franklin was the first to own the house.

Westinghouse Electric Company, Pittsburgh, 1885: three men met. They were George Westinghouse, Franklin Pope and William Stanley. Stanley was trying to convince the other two of the merits of alternating current. He knew it was an uphill battle. Thomas Alva Edison was the man of the hour, respected if not revered, and Edison believed in direct current. J. P. Morgan placed his financial might behind Edison. Franklin Pope was a well-regarded electrical engineer who partnered with Edison for a year to develop the ticker tape. Pope then pursued a law degree and was a practicing patent attorney. In those dual roles, he was invaluable to Westinghouse. Pope opposed alternating current. He swayed Westinghouse. Stanley packed up his family and the pieces of his experimental transformer and moved to Great Barrington.

Pope, the Great Barrington native and current owner of Wainwright Hall, followed Stanley. In 1885 Stanley purchased an old factory in which to do his work near Cottage Street. On West Avenue, he purchased a place for his family. In 1890 Pope remodeled Wainwright Hall and added the porch, creating the home Lynes would admire.

In tandem Stanley demonstrated the efficacy of alternating current by lighting Great Barrington’s Main Street, and Pope lit Hopkins mansion.

On March 10, 1886, newspapers reported that there was a “brilliant spectacle during the evening hours as the Hopkins premises was brilliantly illuminated.”

The Pope family with the three brothers standing in the rear.

March 17, 1886: the newspaper reported that Stanley lit the “interior and exterior of R. I. Taylor’s store.”

All at once they saw the light; that is, the limits of direct current and the advantages of alternating current became clear. Ironically, Westinghouse would later sue Stanley in the patent wars to gain control of alternating current.

Pope developed an electrical system that was very important to the safety of rail travel. Trains running in opposite directions on a single track were warned by Pope’s system and collisions were avoided. All three brothers distinguished themselves in the fields of telegraph, telephone and applications of electricity. All three, in sequence, owned the big house on Main Street. Ironically, in 1895, Franklin was electrocuted in the basement of the house and died.

The Stanley place on West Avenue is gone, but an impressive home was built on the site with a story of its own. The Pope house still stands. Both locations are on a special house tour Saturday, Oct. 7, sponsored by the Thursday Morning Club to benefit the College Scholarship Fund. See details at the Berkshire Edge calendar.

From house to house, the tour tells a broad sweep of Great Barrington history from the early experiments with electricity to the most modern example of LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) construction; and from one of the oldest houses in Great Barrington to a modern log home that defies the term “log cabin” with an in-home theater, game room, gym, sauna and candy room. Join us for the tour – see the architecture and hear the stories.

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