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Historic District Commission members debate W.E.B. Du Bois Project at contentious public hearing

After much debate and contention regarding plans presented to the Great Barrington Historic District Commission by the W.E.B Du Bois Sculpture Project to repair and alter the currently condemned steps in front of the Mason Public Library, the commission decided to extend the public hearing to next month's meeting on Sept. 21.

Great Barrington — The Historic District Commission held a public hearing for plans for the W.E.B. Du Bois Sculpture Park at the Mason Library on Thursday, August 17. The two-hour public hearing became contentious at times with members of the commission sparring with members of the W.E.B Du Bois Sculpture Project.

Eventually, the public hearing was extended to the commission’s next monthly meeting on Thursday, September 21 at 5:30 p.m.

According to the project’s website, a life-size bronze of Du Bois will be part of a new plaza in front of the library. The library was originally constructed in 1913, and was rededicated in 2007 after extensive renovations and an addition were made. As part of the plaza project, repairs will be made to the front steps, along with the installation of banisters and lighting in front of the library to facilitate the space serving as a gathering place for the community. 
New benches will be installed out of marble that comes from the Sheffield quarry that provided stone for the Washington Monument.

According to a document presented by Grigori Fateyev, principal and owner of Art Forms Architecture of Hillsdale, N.Y., the objectives of the project also include the restoration of the prominence of the historical detailing of the stairs. “[The stairs] are currently partially buried in soil, losing their ‘spill-out’ quality characteristic of Georgian Revival,” Fateyev wrote. “[As part of the project,] new handrails [will be installed] that conform to the performance requirements of the state’s building code. The seating area, constructed with architectural cast stone material to match existing marble, will improve the existing space by adding much-needed gathering space on the Main Street. The seat will serve as a framing device for a bronze sculpture of seated W.E.B. Du Bois by sculptor Richard Blake.”

Fateyev added that low-profile and concealed light fixtures will replace the existing lighting bollards.

A drawing included as part of the plans submitted to the Historic District Commission by the W.E.B. Du Bois Sculpture Project. Photos by Shaw Israel Izikson.
A drawing included as part of the plans submitted to the Historic District Commission by the W.E.B. Du Bois Sculpture Project. Photos by Shaw Israel Izikson.
A drawing included as part of the plans submitted to the Historic District Commission by the W.E.B. Du Bois Sculpture Project. Photos by Shaw Israel Izikson.

Members of the project are looking for a Certificate of Appropriateness from the commission in order to present its plan to the Selectboard for final approval.

As listed on the town’s website:

“Under the by-laws for the Great Barrington Historic District Commission, no building or structure within an historic district shall be constructed or altered in any way that affects exterior architectural features unless the commission first issues a certificate of appropriateness, a certificate of non-applicability or a certificate of hardship with respect to such construction or alteration.”

Two days before the hearing, on Tuesday, August 15, project member and developer Bobby Houston sent an email out to local media predicting that the hearing would be contentious. “We are in front of HDC for the second time, seeking their approvals for the project,” Houston wrote. “They have not made it easy, nitpicking and foot-dragging, which is a shame.”

About a year ago, members of the sculpture committee made a preliminary presentation to the commission, and back in June, the commission reviewed preliminary drawings relating to the project in preparation for the public hearing.

“We have lots of goodwill, and this [plan] is probably going to make you happy,” Houston said at the beginning of the Aug. 17 public hearing. “You’re going to see this as a very appropriate historic project that looks contextual, modest, and a big improvement on its current condition.”

W.E.B. Du Bois Sculpture Project developer Bobby Houston with project architect Grigori Fateyev. Photo by Shaw Israel Izikson.

From the very beginning of the hearing, members of the commission had issues with plans that were presented, including the proposed installation of a center rail on the front steps of the library that would provide an element of lighting.

“The center rail is important for safety,” Houston said. “It gets us to ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] requirements. And [it will include] a lit element that lights the stairs.”

“There’s a lot of other ways you can light the stairs, through stair lights or whatnot,” commission member Fred Clark said. “I don’t believe that argument at all.” Clark said that, according to the plans he reviewed, the center railing would be made out of stainless steel, which would not fit into the standards of the historic district.

Fateyev told Clark that the railing would be made out of bronze.

“It says stainless steel right here in this section [of the plans]!” Clark snapped back at Fateyev.

Chairman Donald Howe said that the commission did not receive the submitted plans they were reviewing at the meeting beforehand. “This is entirely new information that I am getting here tonight,” Howe said. “We were given different things [than shown] here now. [The plans we are reviewing] are entirely different. We did not have a good week to review.”

“With all due respect, Don, you personally asked us to make an effort to retain the original historic railings, and that’s exactly what we did after consultation with Michael Lynch,” Houston told Howe. (Lynch is a Troy, N.Y.-based preservation engineer, restoration architect, and architectural historian who is working with the W.E.B. Du Bois Sculpture Project, and also submitted to the commission a letter of support for the project.)

“The railings were not in our original submission,” Houston said. “We were looking at modern railings that were lit. We replaced those ideas with the original historic railings.”

“Let’s get back to this submission first,” Clark said. “This is a public meeting on this issue tonight, and normally we would get drawings a week or so ahead of time so that we can give you the due diligence to review the documents and familiarize ourselves with the project. It’s very difficult for you to come in with a new presentation and for us during the meeting to understand the issues and to review them appropriately.”

At one point during the public hearing, Chairman Howe grabbed plans that were submitted by the project and held them in front of his face at Houston and Fateyev. Howe and member Clark both said that the project did not submit its proposed plans for the Mason Library until right before the Aug. 17 public hearing, and that the commission did not have adequate time to review the plans. Photo by Shaw Israel Izikson.

Eventually, W.E.B. Du Bois Sculpture Project Chairman Julie Michaels spoke at the public hearing to criticize the commission. “I have a strong memory, and if you review your minutes, you will see that the first time we made this presentation [to the commission], I told you, Don Howe, that the steps [in front of the library] are broken,” Michaels said. “You said, ‘No, they are not. I was on the committee that authorized them. There’s nothing wrong with those steps.’ Two weeks later, they were condemned by the town. We took that into consideration [with the proposed plans].”

“That’s not my memory,” Howe said.

“No, that’s what I remember,” Michaels said. “Then, when we were talking about the steps, we were trying to figure out what to do with the banisters.” Michaels said that it was Howe who previously suggested putting a banister down the middle of the staircase. “You said that to us, and we said that’s a terrible idea,” Michaels said. “But now we’re having this discussion.”

“I’m going to stop you,” Howe said. “I never would have said one down the middle.”

“With all due respect, we are here to honor W.E.B. Du Bois,” Michaels said. “We want to put a statue of him in front of a library. Everybody seems to agree to this and nobody objects to it.”

“There has been a discussion in the public domain,” Clark said.

“I’ve had numerous people voice an opinion [objecting],” Howe said.

“That is not the responsibility of this committee, I hope,” Michaels said.

W.E.B. Du Bois Chair Julie Michaels looks back to the audience in frustration after talking to the members of the Historic District Commission. Photo by Shaw Israel Izikson.

Eventually, after various comments made by members about the potential repairs to the steps of the library, along with the planned lighting around the W.E.B. Du Bois sculpture itself, the commission approved a motion to continue the hearing to September 21.

Toward the end of the hearing, members of the board requested that members of the sculpture project submit a rendering of the lighting plan for the sculpture park. “I don’t need you to change all these drawings,” Howe said. “I think everybody would feel [more] comfortable [with the plans with] a rendering of the lighting plan. My biggest issue is the lighting fixtures and that the lighting will comply with recent bylaw changes [concerning outdoor lighting] with the Planning Board.”

In an email to The Berkshire Edge after the public hearing, Houston expressed his disappointment with the commission. “Several other boards have given notes and support, in harmony,” Houston said. “For the HDC to spend an hour grilling us on the repair of the front steps, which are currently condemned, it just feels like there is something inherently adversarial in their process.”

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