Multi-faceted community, performance center emerges at St. James Place
Great Barrington — The cherry trees on the corner of Main Street and Taconic Avenue have bloomed, flanking the entrance to Saint James Place, as this intersection was renamed, in a nod to the year’s-long historic preservation and restoration project unfolding here. The building’s four-cornered tower, part of the original 1857 construction, rises against a grey sky heavy with moisture that clings to the rotund and greening hills in the distance. It is an unusually raw and muddy afternoon for early spring, yet passersby can’t help but notice the convergence of old and new upon this messy construction site being brought to life through the efforts of Great Barrington residents Sally and Fred Harris.
Due to my wildly inappropriate choice of footwear, we enter through the least obscured entrance on the south side of the former Parish Hall, added in 1911, before being whisked away to the main sanctuary. It is a symbolic place to begin the tour as, according to Fred Harris, “this is where it all started.” He is, of course, speaking about the now infamous collapse of a rear portion of the wall at the former St. James Episcopal Church that caused the building inspector to close the edifice and condemn it in 2010.
Now, standing beneath the newly installed pointed-arch ascension window which just returned from Minnesota, I am able to lay eyes on the literal genesis of this impressive project. Over the intermittent din of a circular table saw punctuated by staccato bursts from a hydraulic nail gun, I strain to hear Sally Harris’ explanation of what happened: in 2008 a rear portion of the exterior blue dolomite limestone wall collapsed.
“And by collapse I mean bulged out so far that the stones gave way,” explains Harris, clad in a pair of Wellington rain boots that evidence the thoroughness and practicality from which she and her husband have approached this project.
It is widely known that the church and adjoining parish hall were slated for demolition in 2010; what remains unknown, by many in the community, is what SJP will look like when it reopens in the fall of 2016. In a town whose iconic Main Street is currently bookended by church restoration projects, the possibility for confusion abounds. Saint James Place, adjacent to the Great Barrington Town Hall and a scant block from the Mahaiwe Theater, stands to transform this southernmost section of downtown into a mini arts district. The Harrises’ sophisticated vision for SJP, the secular non-profit organization they established in 2010, is quite visibly coming to fruition; they set out to purchase, rescue and re-purpose the church buildings at 352 Main Street, and the third phase of that plan is well underway.
As 34-year parishioners of the former St. James Episcopal Church, Sally and Fred Harris saved this historic landmark from the proverbial wrecking ball, and the fruits of their labors are on the brink of being unveiled. SJP will meet the needs of the many small to mid-sized arts-based organizations in the area by filling a gap for good quality smaller performance spaces. The building’s design, with three distinct performance spaces on the main level and separate entrances to each, will allow for three events to run simultaneously. The main Sanctuary, renowned for its superior acoustics, will have 304 seats; The Great Hall will seat 134 while The East Room will accommodate 88.
The upper level will feature 3,200 square feet of office space for rental to nonprofit organizations and the People’s Pantry will return, at no rental charge, to the lower level where it boasts not only dedicated space but also its own entrance enhanced by new curb cuts to facilitate drop-off of passengers and food items. Rounding out the plethora of state-of-the-art amenities in this fully accessible building is a commercial-grade kitchen which will make the aforementioned secular spaces suitable for myriad uses, from post-concert receptions to weddings. The particular model being espoused in this project is unique; rental income from non-profit tenants and users, along with revenue from private event rentals, will provide the majority of operating support for SJP. The Harrises have spearheaded a campaign to raise $9 million; to date, they are two-thirds of the way there. Once reached, they will have met their goal of returning SJP to public use as a multi-use cultural and educational center without being saddled by debt.
Change is coming. Outside SJP, a significant example of Gothic Revival architecture, stands a 200-year-old beloved maple tree, perhaps the oldest in town; its archaic trunk and roots are loosely enclosed by bright orange snow fencing. Reportedly, it has been lovingly watered by the bucketful since the project’s inception. This newly unfolding canopy, casting a shadow upon a third cherry tree that was recently added during the town’s spring landscaping, speaks as a symbolic union of time periods being blended on this prominent corner, at the southernmost entrance to town. Historic preservation is playing a pivotal role in defining the character of Great Barrington while marking it as an identifiable place within the region. We all stand to benefit from this ambitious partnering to give nonprofits more visibility in the area.