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HomeLife In the BerkshiresCONNECTIONS: Century-old criteria...

CONNECTIONS: Century-old criteria for creating an engaging Main Street

The town of Stockbridge and its village improvement society buried electric wires, chose simple street lights, maintained historic structures, and assured that the width of the street allowed for not just roadbed but also walkways and trees to be planted at the edge of the pavement.

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 twenty-first century.

The Great Barrington Main Street reconstruction project has been sparking debate for years — and even now as the work is in progress, the practicalities as well as the aesthetics are discussed. It is interesting, therefore, to consider suggestions made by the premier landscape architectural firm in the United States.

The suggestions were made one hundred years ago; still, Olmsted Brothers was the best. Frederick Law Olmsted won his first commission in 1858. From that date Olmsted designed public parks, streetscapes, and private gardens all over the country. His work is documented, studied, and replicated to this day. His many projects were punctuated by the truly exceptional such as Central Park in New York City and the grounds of the Vanderbilt estate, Biltmore, in Ashville, North Carolina. In Berkshire County Olmsted designed the gardens at Elm Court, Wheatleigh, and the original gardens at Naumkeag.

In 1914, the Laurel Hill Association, the oldest village improvement society in the United States, partnered with the town of Stockbridge, and hired Olmsted Brothers to “view the town with a careful and practiced eye” and then report its suggestions for “a comprehensive and effective plan of improvement.”

Overall, the Olmsted Brothers found Stockbridge “in a happy situation with rare charm.” For more than 50 years, the Laurel Hill Association worked to improve the public spaces in Stockbridge, prodding businesses and individuals to improve their “door yards.” The town and its village improvement society buried electric wires, chose simple street lights, maintained historic structures, and assured that the width of the street allowed for not just roadbed but also walkways and trees to be planted at the edge of the pavement. Those trees, the Stockbridge Elms, overarched Main Street.

Evidently it all paid off because in their revaluation, the Olmsted Brothers said, “Stockbridge was fortunate because it took pride in its town and planned wisely.”

In offering suggestions, the landscape architects were clear from the outset: “The purpose of village improvement is to coordinate the activities and endeavors of individual inhabitants for civil betterment.”

the Jonathan Edwards monument on Main Street in Stockbridge. One of Olmsted's guidelines advised the preservation of historic elements in the town,.
The Jonathan Edwards monument on Main Street in Stockbridge. One of Olmsted’s guidelines recommended the preservation of historic structures in the town.

They were frankly suspicious of individuals and their endeavors. Individual improvements could actually damage the town “unless citizens take an interest and calculate the probable impact of individual plans.” If done correctly, however, the Olmsted Brothers believed that village improvement profits the town and it citizens. It is an investment with a return in tax valuation, land values, increased commerce, and civil contentment.

So, what did they suggest, and is it still useful today?

  • Stimulate the community to combine its efforts to create a comprehensive plan for the common good
  • Motivate the individual to a sense of obligation to maintain, in good condition, his part of the larger whole
  • Discourage unwise or selfish action on the part of one individual that may undo the overall good effect
  • Know that public opinion and a concerted effort, not laws, drive improvement
  • Coordinate the comprehensive plan through a single agency to avoid waste of energy, conflicting plans, and a “tower of Babel.”
  • Examine the present condition of the town, in all its parts, and determine where to begin work now and where to work in the future
  • Remember far-sighted planning provides continuity and will reduce to a minimum tearing down work done in the past.

The Olmsted Brothers then suggested the four priorities for an overall plan. Their advice was:

  • Maintain historic structures
  • Have a continuity of plantings
  • Be aware of how high and wide trees will grow in future
  • Open views and create sightlines to distant mountains or lakes.

Their report concluded: “The fact that Stockbridge is so attractive has made the town well-known, and there has resulted a demand for land for country places which has caused a great increase in land values.”

One hundred years later the Elms are gone; killed by Dutch elm disease, and people think Norman Rockwell made Stockbridge famous. Few consider the ways in which Stockbridge attracted and inspired Rockwell. Yet the Olmsted report still seems relevant; still seems to contain suggestions worth considering.

So perhaps the past can light our steps, and offer hints to make every improvement in each of our Berkshire towns and villages show a return on investment and cause pleasure for citizens and visitors.

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