Historic Commission gives green light to Great Barrington hotel project at Searles SchoolMore Info
Great Barrington – By a unanimous vote at its June 1 meeting, the Historic Commission has declared the Searles school property on Bridge Street to be of cultural, architectural and historical significance, thus granting hoteliers Chrystal and Vijay Mahida the necessary designation to proceed with the transformation of the derelict school campus into a $15 million, 95-room upscale boutique hotel, complete with a state-of-the-art conference center intended to host business retreats.
The commission has been researching the historical importance of the Searles School property since the proposed redevelopment of the property was presented in February.
With the Historic Commission’s classification, the proposed reuse of the Searles parcel can be considered exempt from the town bylaw that restricts the development of hotels with more than 45 rooms. Chrystal Mahida, the owner of the applicant, 79 Bridge Street Realty LLC, can now apply to the Selectboard for a special permit to proceed.
The Mahidas estimate that, when completed, the hotel would generate $450,000 annually for the town in combined property, meal and lodging taxes.
Vijay Mahida is the owner of the Fairfield Inn & Suites on Stockbridge Road and the Days Inn on South Main Street in Great Barrington, as well as other hotel properties in Lenox and in Pittsfield, where a Hilton Hotel now under construction will open in July. The owner of 79 Bridge Street is Chrystal Mahida.
The Mahidas’ lawyer, Kate McCormick, informed the commission that the application for a special permit would come before the Selectboard in mid-July. Detailed renderings of the proposed hotel were not yet worked out, she said, but would be finished by the end of June
The Searles building is currently owned by Iredale Mineral Cosmetics, the principal investor in Riverschool, the 2009 plan to convert the adjacent Bryant Elementary School and the Searles Middle School into a retail, business and residential development. The Bryant School has been redeveloped into the Iredale world quarters, but the Searles component has remained undeveloped.
Originally, the Riverschool partnership included Iredale, the Community Development Corporation of South Berkshire (CDC), and New Jersey-based Canus Corp. Last year, Canus forfeited its interest in Riverschool by failing to pay its portion of the sale price to the town and leaving Iredale on the hook for $640,000, which it paid the town in April. CDC has also bowed out.
“On May 14,” McCormick told the Historic Commission, “a purchase and sale contract between 79 Bridge Street and Iredale was finalized.” She added that the 95-room hotel complex would be within the footprint of the existing structures.
According to a statement from Dave Carpenter, manager for 79 Bridge Street, “Jane Iredale has retained preliminary plan approval for the Mahida project.”
The Historic Commission has acted cautiously, since, as Chairman Paul Ivory noted, this application was the first, the “test case” of the 2014 hotel bylaw.
“We need to get this right,” he said.
That bylaw reads: “The Special Permit Granting Authority may authorize a deviation from the room limits about [45 rooms] when hotels and motels are proposed as a component of a project that redevelops or reuses historic structures. Such structures are those listed on the State or National Register of Historic Places, a designated property in a Local Historic District, or determined in writing by the Great Barrington Historical Commission as historically, culturally, or architecturally significant to the town.”
The decision by the Selectboard on whether to grant a special permit may hinge on the definition of what constitutes “redevelopment” and “reuse.” Significant alterations and reconfiguration of the property may be envisioned in this case, in order to make it financially feasible.
“We deliberately wrote the new bylaw to be vague,” Town Planner Christopher Rembold noted, when the proposed redevelopment of Searles first came before the Historic Commission on February 9. “You could imagine that demolition is anathema to historic preservation. On the other hand, you could get a new structure that pays homage to history. It all depends on what the Selectboard is willing to do.”
“This proposal faces challenges,” observed Ivory, and to make his point, he issued recommendations that would accompany the commission’s designation of the Searle’s site as historically significant.
“We realize you face challenges in adaptively re-using this building but hope they can be overcome and that the entire building can be preserved and recognized nationwide as a distinctive 5-star hotel, housed in a century and a quarter classic Georgian Revival landmark, and become a prime destination for Great Barrington,” Ivory wrote.
His specific suggestions include maintaining the overall shape of the building; keeping the “front-facing gabled roof with its raking cornice on the central block”; retaining the tall windows; preserving exterior materials such as native blue dolomite, water struck brick, terra cotta embellishments; and preserving the façade of the gym built in 1937 – “an impressive piece of civic architecture strongly evocative of the art deco designs during this period … probably the only building with this sort of design in Great Barrington.”
Further, Ivory recommended that should any new additions be constructed, that “new work should be differentiated from the old and be compatible with the massing, size, scale and architectural features of the original building. An addition should not appear to be part of the original building.”
He added that “as stewards of this historic property” the adaptive reuse should follow the Secretary of the Interior’s stands for “rehabilitation of an historic building.” To accomplish this, he urged the Mahidas to employ a preservation architect.
The next morning, Vijay and Chrystal Mahida, accompanied by property manager David Carpenter, toured the derelict Searles School with an Edge reporter, pointing out the damage that a decade of neglect had wrought upon the structure, not to mention the unworkable interior architecture.
Historic Commission member David Rutstein had noted that the school had been designed by Harry Vaughan, architect for Searles Castle: “It was the first and only school he designed. The rooms were too big. It was wrong from the start, and in 1938 it had to be renovated.”
After leaving the moldy, dank remains of what had once been the basement cafeteria, and returning upstairs to survey the debris in a classroom, Vijay Mahida observed: “This building stayed vacant for 10 years. The hotel will be the way to go. It will be beneficial to the merchants downtown, to the restaurants, and to the cultural activities. It will support the activities planned for St. James Place.”
Mahida is convinced there is a market for the kind of hotel he is contemplating.
“This will draw a weekday crowd, with our conference center,” he said. “This will bring a new crowd to town. If I didn’t believe this project would be feasible, I wouldn’t be putting my family money behind it.”
Carpenter noted that it was 50 years ago this summer, on June 23, that the Berkshire Inn, located where the CVS and Days Inn are now, at the corner of Main Street and St. James Place, burned down.
“A centrally located hotel is a historic feature of downtowns,” Carpenter commented. “Stockbridge has the Red Lion Inn, Lenox the Curtis Hotel. And now, Great Barrington will have one again.”
“We’re part of the community,” Chrystal Mahida said. “This is an investment by local people. And we’ll be creating a shared environment for our customers and for the town, a virtual downtown resort, where our visitors will find destinations for entertainment, culture, shopping and dining within walking distance. And 10 minutes away is Butternut, and another 10 is Catamount.”
And she added: “We will be building something tasteful on this site, that will be good for the town and this region for the next decade, and provide tax revenues. This is a win-win situation.”