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Historical Commission issues Phase 1 of historic resources survey in Great Barrington

This survey of a portion of Great Barrington's rich catalogue of historic buildings was a significant undertaking for the Historical Commission. It provides the town with the first of a series of reports that provide documentation of sites worthy of preserving and those potentially eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

Great Barrington — The Great Barrington Historical Commission has completed the first phase of a priority project to update the town’s historic resources survey. An historic resource is any building, site, district, object or structure evaluated as historically significant.

The commission has deposited copies of the survey binders — each containing the printed survey forms, photographs, maps and a digital copy on a CD — in the Mason and Ramsdell libraries, the Great Barrington Historical Society and the Town Historical Collection in the Ramsdell Library. All binders are accessible to the public. An additional copy is in the town planner’s office.

Additional access to the survey forms is available through the Massachusetts Cultural Resource Information System, which allows users to search the Massachusetts Historical Commission database for information on historic properties and areas in the Commonwealth.

The first survey, completed in 1985 by local historian James Parrish, is three decades old and needed to be updated to include expanded descriptions of existing sites, overlooked properties, digitization and organization to historic themes.

This survey of a portion of Great Barrington’s rich catalogue of historic buildings was a significant undertaking for the Historical Commission. It provides the town with the first of a series of reports that provide documentation of sites worthy of preserving and those potentially eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. It also includes recommendations for the establishment of new, or expansion of existing, historic districts. It is an invaluable guide to future priorities. The Commission is conducting research to document the next groups of potential sites to be considered for inclusion in subsequent surveys, estimated to be up to three additional projects.

Funded with $30,000 in grants from the Community Preservation Act and the Massachusetts Historical Commission, Larson Fisher Associates in Woodstock, New York, and subcontractor Hartgen Associates in Rensselaer, New York, completed Area Forms for the Brooklyn neighborhood (135 sites) in Great Barrington and Risingdale neighborhood (45 properties) of mill houses, as well as 45 individual sites not included on the 1985 survey, and a base map depicting locations, to fulfill Phase 1.

Goals and purpose of the survey

The overarching project goal of the survey is to provide the primary planning tool for the preservation and sensitive use of Great Barrington’s important architectural and cultural assets in a readily accessible and usable form.

The data from the survey will allow full consideration of historic resources in the Town’s planning and preservation programs, including:

  • Nomination of sites to national and state registers of historic places;
  • Identification of potential historic districts;
  • Preservation and community development planning;
  • Public education through interpretive programs;
  • Massachusetts Historical Commission review of federal projects;
  • Historic preservation tax credits; and
  • Determination of preferably preserved buildings in the execution of a Demolition Delay bylaw.

As fully expressed in the Community Master Plan (2013), the Town of Great Barrington recognizes that its historic resources form an important part of the physical fabric that makes up the community’s character. The plan affirmed that the first step in any effort to protect this heritage is to identify the specific properties and sites that are significant to our history and culture.

Preservation report card for Great Barrington

Over the past decade, Great Barrington has emerged as a coveted address for residences, especially second homeowners and developers. Indeed, Smithsonian Magazine recently selected Great Barrington as the best small town in America. This trendiness has exerted both positive influences and negative pressures on the historic built environment.

There are indicators of a general elevation of sensibility and appreciation for the wise and sensitive use of our historic resources, as expressed with the textbook projects to adaptively reuse Bryant School (1888-89) and St. James Church (1857-58), as well as upcoming and ongoing projects to adaptively re-use the original Searles High School building (1898) as a high-end hotel, restore the Clinton A.M.E. Zion Church (1887) and preserve the Wheeler Farmstead (c. 1733-c.1920). Distressingly, however, there are too many examples of buildings lost to indifference and questionable decisions.

The Community Master Plan fully addressed these challenges and opportunities. Stressing the importance of its historic resources to the town, the plan asserts that successful preservation “will advance a number of this master plan’s Core Initiatives — protecting our community character, enhancing our neighborhoods, and promoting redevelopment in our village centers.”

The plan calls for directing development and growth into the village centers while preserving their character by encouraging the reuse of existing sites, structures and infrastructure. It recognizes that our stock of existing buildings and sites, like the mills and other in-town commercial sites, is an important economic development asset, as well as a potential source for reuse as affordable housing.

The Plan’s full-throated support of preservation is fueled by both a recognition of how important this tool is to the community as well as the need to arrest the stream of losses that has occurred over the past decade. There are the ongoing stresses of unsympathetic development in the central business district and surrounding neighborhoods. Tear downs are exemplified by the razing of the “Log Cabin Tea Garden,” an early 20th-century prime (and sole) example of rustic architecture in town, and its replacement by a large residence.

Highfield, a striking Italianate residence from the mid-19th century that contributed to the graceful South Main streetscape, was razed to make way for a condominium development. The Methodist Parsonage (1893), suffering some structural instabilities, was razed to make way for a modern commercial structure. Ely’s and Betro’s markets, two early 20th-century mom-and-pop grocery stores, fixtures to their neighborhoods and reminiscent of Depression-era Great Barrington, were lost due to razing (Ely’s) and comprehensive alteration (Betro’s). Their demise erased this social and architectural archetype from our catalogue of buildings. The original Great Barrington Friendly’s restaurant, an icon of local 1950’s and ‘60s roadside architecture and social history, was razed to provide space for a parking lot for Cumberland Farms.

The Great Barrington Manufacturing Co., a classic early 20th-century industrial building, crumbling after abandonment and a fire, was razed. The site is undergoing brownfield remediation for redevelopment. The only tangible evidence of this landmark is the saved partial historic ruin of the original smokestack and artifacts rescued by the Historical Commission.

The Housatonic Grammar School (1907-08), judged by the Massachusetts Historical Commission as eligible for nomination to the National Register, owned by the town, is threatened by anemic interest in its adaptive use. The Weir Park trolley shelter (c.1915) at Belcher Square is in severely deteriorated condition; the Historical Commission commissioned a local architect to prepare a conditions assessment and recommendations for its preservation and is applying for a CPA grant to fund the project. Holohan’s General Store (recently the Reid’s Cleaners building), a handsome early 20th-century storefront, is threatened by toxic waste violations that challenge its development for reuse. This building was recommended for nomination to the National Register in the survey.

Indeed, the survey documents several structures that have already been razed, including the Harper Garage building at 34 Bridge St. (1918) and the Searles Estate Powerhouse complex (1886 and later). The latter, which housed the apparatus for William Stanley’s historic illumination of Main Street (1898), was demolished for the Powerhouse Square development. The developer has saved the bricks in hopes of reconstructing the building at a later date.

The wide range of resources that were documented in the survey, specifically 19th-century village residences and factory-related housing, as well as properties associated with the town’s summer residents, the African-American presence and mid-20th-century commercial and residential development along major arteries, has led to a better understanding of the diversity of Great Barrington’s history and its development over time.

Survey resources and methodology

The survey followed the standard methodology set forth in the “Historic Properties Survey Manual” issued by the Massachusetts Historical Commission. The process included field inspections with on-site notational and photographic recording, archival research, making associations with architectural and historical contexts, and assessment of significance. Archival research collected information on buildings and their owners employing historic atlases, city directories, the census, vital records and genealogical sources searchable on Ancestry.com.

Relevant information in local archives and historical source materials was researched in local repositories and on the internet using Google Books and other documentary search engines. Biographical information was sought out on architects and builders where they were known. The index for plans submitted to the state Department of Safety reposited in the state archives were checked for information on commercial and public buildings erected or altered in the early 20th century.

Project team

A local project team of historians — Gary Leveille and Bernie Drew, architect Don Howe, Historical Commission Chairman Paul Ivory and town planner Chris Rembold — provided guidance and oversight throughout the project. The Commission was especially fortunate to have Gary and Bernie, two highly respected local historians, on this review team. Their deep knowledge of Great Barrington history allowed the team to make sound reviews of draft inventory forms and informed recommendations for edits. They not only unselfishly proofread and fact-checked the drafts, but shared material from their own research and resources. Commission member Malcolm Fick organized the digital and printed formats for the report and prepared the index, and the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission printed the large-format report maps.

Areas

The survey includes documentation of four “Areas”: geographically defined concentrations or clusters of individual historic resources:

Edward and Harriet Shaw House (c. 1895), 37 Grove St., Brooklyn Area. Photo courtesy Larson Fisher Associates

Brooklyn (1860-1925): encompasses the area on the east side of the Housatonic, including Bridge, Pine, Grove, Warren, Crosby, Quarry, Humphrey, Higgins, Park and East streets. Brooklyn is a late 19th-/early 20th-century suburban neighborhood that achieves its distinctive character through both its period of development and topography. It emerged in the 1870s through the promotional efforts of land developers Mark Humphrey and George R. Ives. Humphrey had a farm on Stockbridge Road and Ives ran a hotel downtown. They owned land on what is now East and Pine streets. Humphrey privately built a bridge over the Housatonic River to open the east side of the river to development. Ives called the area “Brooklyn,” as many guests at his Berkshire house at the corner of Main and Bridge streets were from Brooklyn, New York, and he hoped to persuade some of them to buy land and build homes here. The survey includes 135 sites in the Brooklyn neighborhood.

Centennial Mill Boarding House (c. 1875), 294 Park St. North, Risingdale area. Photo courtesy Larson Fisher Associates

Risingdale (1860-present): Risingdale has a rich history due mostly to the making of paper. It is today a suburban neighborhood consisting of single- and multi-family wood-frame vernacular dwellings. Initial development in the area was related to the establishment of a mill site between Park Street and the Housatonic River; subsequent failure of this venture stalled future growth of the neighborhood for 20 years, until the proprietor of the Rising Paper Company (the new owner of the site) bought up most of the nearby parcels in 1899 and opened the mill the following year. The Risingdale section includes 45 sites.

Great Barrington Airport, earliest hangar (c. 1929-1931), Great Barrington Airport area. Photo courtesy Larson Fisher Associates

Great Barrington Airport (1929-1931): The Walter J. Koladza Airport is a rare example of a private airport, which retains its earliest buildings and which has been in continuous use since the early period of aviation history. The complex achieved its current form during the 1960s; it thus represents the evolution of a small private airport in the Berkshires during the first 40 years of popular aviation. The inclusion of a dwelling in the complex, which was probably constructed for the Koladza family in the 1940s, strengthens the association of this site with Walter J. Koladza, who owned the property during much of its history, from 1944 to 2004, and who is chiefly responsible for its layout. The property has important associations with entertainment and recreation in Berkshire County, being an early site of the teaching of recreational flying in the region. Its structures are important as examples of early to mid-20th century commercial architecture built for aviation.

Brookside Manor (1966-67), Typical four-family unit, Brookside Manor area. Photo courtesy Larson Fisher Associates

Brookside Manor (1966-67): Brookside Manor senior housing is an early example of the Town of Great Barrington’s forays into public housing. The design of the complex reflects contemporary trends in public housing, the legacy of the Garden City movement in its “Garden Suburb” plan, and popular suburban ideals (in the evocation of “ranch” style houses) of the period. The complex is intact to its period of initial construction with only minor, reversible alterations, and continues to convey the original concepts that informed its design. It is a significant work of regionally important architect Prentice Bradley, who had an office in Pittsfield.

Forty-five individual properties surveyed

In addition, the survey team completed survey forms for 45 individual sites. These include a range of dates, styles and historic contexts. Some of the salient properties include:

Grace Nail and James Weldon Johnson cottage/studio, “Five Acres” (late 19th C. barn
converted to a house, c. 1926), 101 Alford Road. Photo courtesy Larson Fisher Associates

Grace Nail and James Weldon Johnson Cottage/Studio, “Five Acres” (late 19th century and c. 1926), 101 Alford Road: This small dwelling, converted for use as a seasonal home from an earlier outbuilding on the site for prominent African-American James Weldon Johnson and wife Grace Nail Johnson, is an intact representative example of Colonial Revival aesthetics applied to the design of a picturesque remodeling of a barn into a seasonal cottage.

Johnson’s national importance was not limited to his civil rights activism and his role as the first African-American head of the NAACP with his appointment to the executive secretary office in 1920. Johnson’s involvement in the Harlem Renaissance as writer and poet is also of significance, and is reflected in his writing studio, which remains on site. Johnson’s place in the community is significant with respect to the community’s ethnic heritage context as well.

Manuel F. and Emily Washington Mason House (c. 1895), 22 Pine St., Brooklyn neighborhood. Photo courtesy Larson Fisher Associates

Jason and Almira Cooley House (1880), 174 East St., and Manuel F. and Emily Washington Mason House (c.1895), 22 Pine St.: The importance of the Cooley house and the Mason house is that both Cooley and Mason were early settlers in the Brooklyn section of town; they represent a rising middle class of blacks in Great Barrington, and they were community leaders in establishing the Clinton A.M.E. Zion Church.

A.M.E. Society members met at various member homes, including the Cooleys’. The Cooleys welcomed ladies of the A.M.E. Zion Sewing Society to their home for a monthly meeting in 1883. “The table was well filled and a very enjoyable time was had,” teenage newspaper reporter and future social justice activist William E. B. Du Bois wrote; (Great Barrington Notes, New York Globe, 14 April 1883). The Cooleys hosted a guest from New York City in August 1884 and invited friends. “As is the case with all Mrs. Cooley’s parties, the affair was enjoyed by all present”; (Great Barrington Notes, New York Globe, 2 Aug. 1884), also by William E. B. Du Bois.

St. Bridget’s Church/All Saints Church (1876), c. 1900 image, 125 Front St., Housatonic. Photo courtesy Polish American Liturgical Center

St. Bridget’s Church/All Saints Church (1876), 125 Front St., is connected with Polish immigrants who settled in Housatonic in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Joseph L. and Mary E. Arienti House (c. 1915), 24 Gilmore Ave. Photo courtesy Larson Fisher Associates

Joseph L. and Mary E. Arienti House and Charles P. and Dorothy Arienti House 24 and 26 Gilmore Ave., Craftsman/Bungalow catalogue single-family residences (c. 1915): These are intact examples of houses whose designs reflect that of dwellings made available nationwide by kit home manufacturers such as Sears, Roebuck & Co., and Aladdin Homes. They are unusually well-preserved, and retain all of the features associated with dwellings of this type, including an intact outbuilding. The houses and their sitings are part of an early 20th-century subdivision of the Gilmore farm, and are associated with community planning and development trends at the turn of the century in Great Barrington.

Violet and Faustino J. Ruschetti Lustron House (1948-49), 8 Gilmore Ave. Photo courtesy Larson Fisher Associates

Violet and Faustino J. Ruschetti Lustron House (1948-49), 8 Gilmore Ave., Great Barrington’s only Lustron house: These prefabricated steel houses were developed in the post-World War II era to satisfy the housing shortage for the U.S. soldiers returning home, costing approximately $9,000.

St. Bridget’s/Corpus Christi/Blessed Teresa Roman Catholic Church (1910-11), 1085 Main St. North, Housatonic. Photo courtesy Larson Fisher Associates

St. Bridget’s/Corpus Christi/Blessed Teresa Roman Catholic Church (1910-1911), 1085 Main St. North, Housatonic.

Edward P. Holohan’s General Store (Reid’s Cleaners Building) (1926-32), 218 Main St. Photo courtesy Larson Fisher Associates

Edward P. Holohan’s General Store (Reid’s Cleaners building) (1926-1932), 218 Main St.: Constructed in the late 1920s, the Holohan General Store building at 218 Main St. is an intact representative example of early 20th-century commercial architecture, and is associated with the continuing commercial development of the town that originated in the core of the hamlet and gradually extended north and south along Main Street. It further reflects community planning and development of Great Barrington’s commercial downtown in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, supported by an influx of summer tourists to the region. It also has the potential to be a contributing resource in an expansion of the Great Barrington Downtown Historic District, the boundaries of which have not been determined, but which would include additions at the south and north ends of Main Street.

Wheeler & Taylor Inc. Building (c. 1930), 333-339 Main St. Photo courtesy Larson Fisher Associates

Wheeler & Taylor, Inc. Building (c. 1930), 333-339 Main St.: It is unusual for a commercial building in that it retains its original principal tenant. The building remains largely intact and is a distinctive example of early 20th-century commercial architecture in Great Barrington’s Main Street context, reflecting the continuing commercial development of the town that originated in the core of the hamlet and gradually extended north and south along Main Street. Although altered by the replacement of its original sash on its secondary elevations, because of its distinguished style, the property appears to be eligible for listing on the National Register both individually and as part of an expanded Great Barrington Downtown Historic District.

Whalen and Kastner Garage (1922-23), 343 Main St. Photo courtesy Larson Fisher Associates

Whalen and Kastner Garage: Constructed in 1922-23, 343 Main St., is a representative example of early 20th-century automobile-related commercial architecture and is a distinctive example of early 20th-century commercial architecture in Great Barrington’s Main Street context, reflecting the continuing commercial development of the town that originated in the core of the hamlet and gradually extended north and south along Main Street. It has the potential to be a contributing resource in an expanded Great Barrington Downtown Historic District, the boundaries of which have not been determined, but which would encompass additional properties at the north and south ends of Main Street.

Gorham Tavern (c. 1815), 90 Main St. Photo courtesy Larson Fisher Associates

Gorham Tavern (c. 1815), 90 Main St.: Initially constructed in c. 1815 as the Gorham Tavern, the south-facing secondary entrance to this dwelling may be a relic of its original use. It is significant for its early use as a tavern, and its association with Lewis Legrand Gorham. Subsequently, it was purchased by the Berkshire Woolen Company, and was used for millworkers’ housing. With its Colonial Revival alterations, this building is today a representative example of early 20th-century multifamily domestic architecture and has the potential to be a contributing resource in an expansion of the Great Barrington Downtown Historic District, the boundaries of which have not been determined, but which would include additional properties at both the north and south ends of Main Street.

Sweet/Barnum-Modolo House (c. 1890), 8 Pope St. Photo courtesy Larson Fisher Associates

Sweet/Barnum-Modolo House (c. 1890), 8 Pope St.: The Sweet house was initially constructed in c. 1890 for Maria L. and Morris S. Sweet and their family. It was subsequently occupied by members of the Pomeroy and Sanford families and their servants into the second quarter of the 20th century. A two-story wood-frame dwelling located on a suburban lot, it typifies dwellings constructed for upper middle class families in the last quarter of the 19th century. Its exterior, which combines numerous forms and an array of decorative details, reflects the romantic ideal applied to villa design popular at the time.

The Sweet house is presently in a state of disrepair, and appears to be unoccupied. Despite this, it remains almost entirely intact to its initial period of construction and represents a distinctive example of late 19th-century domestic architecture in the town of Great Barrington. Together with its associated carriage barn and mature landscape setting, it is individually eligible for listing on the National Register under Criterion C (embodies the distinctive characteristics of a type, period, or method of construction).

John W. Brewer Coal Shed/Great Barrington Coal Company Shed (1876-84), 34 Rosseter St. Photo courtesy Larson Fisher Associates

John W. Brewer Coal Shed/Great Barrington Coal Company Shed (1876-1884), 34 Rosseter St.: Initially constructed between 1876 and 1884, the Brewer coal shed is a representative example of late 19th-century railroad-associated commercial architecture and is a distinctive example of commercial architecture in Great Barrington’s Main Street context, reflecting the continuing commercial development of the town that originated in the core of the hamlet and gradually extended north and south along Main Street and nearby side streets. It has the potential to be a contributing resource in an expanded Great Barrington Downtown Historic District, the boundaries of which have not been determined, but which would encompass additional properties at the north and south ends of Main Street and along adjacent streets including Rosseter Street.

Col. William Brown Carriage House/Locustwood Carriage House (1888-90); c. 1923), 35 Silver St. The building as converted into three apartments, from a 1920s postcard. Photo
courtesy Gary Leveille 2011:67

Col. William Brown Carriage House/ Locustwood Carriage House (1888-1890; c. 1923), 35 Silver St.: As preserved today, 35 Silver St. reflects the domestic use of the Shingle style and the popularity of the Colonial Revival into the second quarter of the 20th century. Even in its altered form, it is an important example of the early work of late 19th-century architect A. Page Brown, and for its association with the Entertainment and Recreation context, in particular to summer tourism in the Berkshires. It is also significant for its relationship to Col. William Lee Brown, prominent newspaperman and politician. 35 Silver St. represents an unusual alteration of a former carriage barn into a multi-family dwelling, which remains intact to that period and is eligible under Criteria A (associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history) and C (embody the distinctive characteristics of a type, period, or method of construction).

The survey recommended nine properties for an expanded Great Barrington Downtown Historic District.

The team cited 30 surveyed properties that appear individually eligible for the National Register and 21 surveyed properties that appear eligible for the National Register as components of potential historic districts.

The Historical Commission’s next steps are to undertake Phase 2 of the survey project. The Commission is conducting research to prepare a recommended list of sites to be documented.

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