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How Not to Save Old Main (Part One)

Was it just apathy that left this prime piece of historic architecture to face the wreckers?

Comments (2)
Thursday, October 25, 2007
Panorama by Mark Roessler
A common room in the second floor, northern wing of the Northampton State Hospital.

The Northampton State Hospital is no more.

The oldest buildings on the campus were on the National Register of Historic Places, and in 1995 Northampton's Mayor Mary Ford agreed in writing with the state and the Massachusetts Historical Commission that every effort would be made to save the buildings. When a search for a developer was conducted, the request for proposals specified that the winning bid needed to be from a developer with the experience and resources to preserve these buildings.

But all last winter, a crane swinging a wrecking ball lurched over the Northampton horizon. Millions of our tax dollars were at work demolishing our Valley's history.

Despite this grave and needless loss (the space remains vacant; there's no viable plan to replace the building), the local press has been upbeat, parroting city hall's certainty that the building's demise was inevitable, and that destroying the old buildings will allow construction on an alternate village center on the hill to begin. It will feature, we've been promised, small businesses, light industry, low-income housing, and lots of preserved open space: the implication being that none of the above would have been possible without the building's demolition.

As a resident of Northampton, however, I know firsthand that small businesses, low-income housing, light industry and open space can exist in harmony with historic preservation. Further, as any renter or property owner in the Valley can also attest, space inside well preserved, historic buildings often goes at a premium over newly built space. Proximity to historic neighborhoods is also valuable, and new construction can become more valuable if it's built to blend with older edifices.

Instead of clearing the way for success, destroying Hospital Hill's most precious asset, the crown jewel of Northampton architecture, significantly diminishes the value of the site and any new construction.

In reporting the backstory behind the demolition this spring, both the Daily Hampshire Gazette and Bill Dwight on WHMP mentioned Save Old Main, a volunteer group that championed the historic building's reuse. Both suggested (Dwight said he knew it "for a fact") that it was this group's failed efforts to find a developer to save the building that resulted in its demise.

As a former member of Save Old Main, I'd suggest that whoever is the source of this misinformation is trying to deflect attention from what really happened and find a scapegoat incapable of defending itself.

*

Years before I became a member of Save Old Main, I discovered the Northampton State Hospital while walking my dog.

Circumnavigating the meandering walls of the oldest and most impressive of the buildings became our routine. Without having a clue what was intended for the building, I started photographing it, wanting to capture its poetically decrepit state. When I heard from friends that demolition was imminent, I began to photograph the exterior of the building more systematically, taking panoramic images in the hope that I could somehow preserve a complete record of this place that moved me so much.

One gray, snowy afternoon in November, 1999, Anna Schuleit set up giant speakers in the windows all over the building and blasted Bach's Magnificat, having miraculously convinced the developer who held the keys to Old Main. My dog and I had met a lot of fellow walkers on our trips around the building, but I'd never seen anything like the convergence that appeared that day on the hill, and it was the first time I questioned the inevitability of the building's demise. Many of my neighbors clearly cared as much as I did.

Shortly afterwards, I contacted Anna to thank her for her work and offer her copies of my complete panoramic tour of the building's exterior. I was also hoping she might share with me the secret to getting permission to get inside. If the place was coming down, I felt I had to at least try to photograph inside.

Talking to her about the agencies she had to waltz with to get access, I began to understand the building wasn't going to be demolished because of structural issues; it was bureaucracy that was going to swing the wrecking ball. It wasn't because the place was unsafe and unsound (she and her team had free access to go wherever they wanted in the building), but because those whose job it was to protect it chose not to.

Talking to Anna, I learned about Save Old Main, and I went with her to their second meeting.

*

Save Old Main was an eclectic, energetic group with as many agendas as there were members. What we had in common, though, was a desire to see the building saved. How and why were the topics of our endless discussions.

We were high school students, senior citizens, and a full spectrum in between. Our ranks included health care workers, a retired psychiatrist, professors, students, a former city councilor, artists, architects, activists, and many others. Sometimes we had a general meeting with dozens of people around the table in a room Smith College let us use; sometimes it was just a few of us, sitting on a member's porch.

Many people attended meetings for a few weeks, eager, full of drive, ready to help out any way they could, and many left after a few weeks, dismayed to learn we didn't have a lot of answers. We weren't entirely certain why Old Main was in peril, which bureaucracies were involved, and whether or not there was anything for us to do about it.

But a core group of us were prepared to take the time to figure this stuff out. We were hopeful, we dreamed big, and our ignorance about what we were up against was blissful. We debated possible uses for the space. The local architects saw living and office spaces as being the most practical, but they could also see a hotel and conference center. Artists' lofts was another popular idea. Others, including myself, thought whatever happened, portions needed to be preserved as a record of both Northampton's history and that of mental health care.

We debated a lot, but there was action, too. As none of us had ever saved an historic landmark, we sought out people who had been successful preservationists. We emailed, called, and made field trips out to see them.

I went on three road trips with other members of SOM to seek advice. My first trip was out to the historic Tewksbury State Hospital. A modern building now houses the facility, but portions of the central administration building from a building that followed a similar plan to Old Main's had been saved, and it included a small museum and amazing WPA murals depicting the history of medicine. To explain how they'd been able to save their building, the board of the museum kindly met with us: a strong, well-connected board dedicated to preservation and the ability to raise the money to match their commitment. They suggested we start working with whoever was overseeing the development of the Northampton site.

Another trip was to the Salem Witchcraft museum. Given their success at running a museum about a difficult topic, we hoped they'd have advice on how to build local support. They recommended we think big and seek celebrity support for events that would bring the cause to the fore. Marketing was key, and we needed to be tenacious.

While some of us were road-tripping, others were making calls, visiting libraries and reviewing public records, trying to better understand the state and local politics of who was responsible and how demolition had come to be considered inevitable.

Gradually we began to understand who was behind the government acronyms, and learned to our surprise that a great deal of work had already been done to save Old Main. Rather than its demise being the inevitable end to years of neglect, as recently as the late '90s, state and local officials were talking preservation.

*

In the summer of '94, the oldest portions of the hospital, Old Main, were put on the National Register of Historic Places.

Earning a spot on the list requires advocates to submit a lengthy application with ample supporting evidence that the site is significant enough to receive this federal protection. Ellis Island, Faneuil Hall, the Capitol, Calvin Coolidge's house and thousands of other sites share this distinction. While, as is evident by Old Main's fate, a place on the Register doesn't assure that the building will be preserved, it does make preservation a more attractive option—by offering tax incentives, expert council, publicity and access to funding.

A month later, Beacon Hill legislated that there would be a Citizens'Advisory Committee (CAC) made up of Valley locals who would help select a developer, oversee the redevelopment, and act as a liaison between the state, which owned the property, and the developers.

A year later, in 1995, the state and the head of the newly formed CAC, Northampton Mayor Mary Ford, signed a document stating that they "enthusiastically support the redevelopment and reuse of the Northampton State Hospital (NSH)." The building's nationally protected status was applauded, and they pledged to do everything they could to save the significant structures.

Following through, the Request for Proposals (RFP) the CAC helped write detailed the structures that needed to be protected, and made part of their selection criteria that the chosen developer show "[a] commitment and a plan to preserve historic buildings and landscapes, if feasible, and/or develop new buildings that are sensitive to the character of historic buildings or landscapes." It was anticipated that, given the enormity of the project, multiple developers with deep pockets and ample experience would be needed to take on the job. The RFP was announced in ads posted in national papers, and an advertising firm was paid $28,000 by the state to send out fliers nationally via bulk mail.

The response was underwhelming. Mayor Ford told the Gazette in October, 1997, that "effective marketing means targeting the type of organization that could handle this type of project. Sending a thousand (advertisements) across the country isn't the best way to go." Developers who were curious about the project reported that getting straight answers to their questions was difficult, and several large developers (such as Westmass Area Development Corp.) decided not to make bids because of lack of information. It was anticipated by many that there would be a second RFP.

Eight developers submitted bids, none of which impressed the CAC. Committee member, Dan Yacuzzo, said, "I didn't get any inspired vision from any campus-wide developers. There was more missing than the dollars and cents issue." Still, The Community Builders, Inc., a Springfield-based non-profit developer, was hired.

On the initial color site plan that won the bid, the buildings of Old Main were preserved, nestled amongst the deluxe, million-dollar mansions to the north and the small businesses and low-income housing to the south.

On the second plan, without explanation, the wings were cut off Old Main, but the center building remained. Soon after, the plan was revised so a road cut through where the theater used to be, and some of the mansions were given bigger yards.

*

Just about every state and local official Save Old Main talked to expressed regret about the building's inevitable demise. The standard line was that they would save the building if they could, but it was not possible. In the beginning, the politicians and even developers were very cordial to our members, and they maintained that if a viable solution could be found, they would be glad to see the building saved.

The developer even granted us my long-held wish: a trip inside the historic hospital.

For an hour, I joined the two local architects who were members of SOM, Tris Metcalf and Tom Douglas, and a handful of engineering consultants for a look inside.

I'd been looking forward to the opportunity for so long, studying building plans and reviewing pictures, that once inside, I was ready to start photographing immediately. From the theater to the front of the administration building, and then all along the second floor, south wing, I took hundreds of pictures and dozens of panoramas.

The mood inside the building was less frightening than I'd anticipated and more somber. There were silhouettes where calendars and framed pictures had been hung, and there were lots of traces of the past, but mostly it was empty. There were a few rooms (out of many hundreds) toward the center of the building where the water damage had been bad and floors were missing, but by and large, the experts there all confirmed that the wings were solid.

We went in at about 10 o'clock in the morning, and as I took pictures, I was taken with how light the building was—I never wanted for a flash. The hundreds of windows poured light across the wide floors.

I was also surprised to see how distinct the different sections of the hospital were.

The building was designed so that the most acute cases were kept out at the furthest ends of the building's wings, and those halls and rooms had a severe, institutional design with harder edges and harder surfaces. As you walked closer to the center of the building, the design of the halls and rooms changed. The middle stretch looked more like a conventional hospital with ornate wooden window and door frames and more comfortable public spaces. The stretches of hall connected to the building's center were almost hotel-like in their design, and those patients were allowed to move at will.

The idea was that as your health improved, you moved closer to the center, both inside the hospital and figuratively. The heart of the building was where the staff and administration had their offices, where the public could visit, and where patients left the building on days out or when released. The architect designed a building he thought could help heal a person.

But there were also abundant signs of how the builder's plans had gone awry. Many of the tiny patient rooms were crammed with bunk beds. The one place where there appeared to be the scratched ramblings of a demented mind etched into a wall I later realized was part of a set in In Dreams, a lame Robert Downey, Jr. and Annette Bening psycho-drama. Cider House Rules had left a fake wall up in the middle of an otherwise open hallway. Vandals had also left their tags and directions for future visitors all over the place. Doorframes were decorated by Technicolor paintball splatters.

The space told a story that enhanced my town's history, but it also transcended it. We all left the building more committed than ever to convince the world to not to give up on Old Main yet.The search for developers had not been exhaustive or effective, and the marketing of the site had been poor. We wanted to offer our free support to whoever could give the building a last chance.

We decided we needed to address the CAC directly. We asked to make a presentation, share our findings, and make our case for how the building might be reused. They agreed to give us space on an upcoming agenda.

*

We prepared a written report with photos and diagrams, bound with a color cover, that we gave to the committee members. The architects prepared drawings and studies. I assembled a multimedia tour of the inside of the buildings with the panoramas I'd taken. The meeting was held where the Citizens' Advisory Committee's usually met: at the Haskell Building, a former treatment facility for the hospital, now turned into regional offices for the Department of Mental Health. my own way upstairs into an institutional dayroom.

While some CAC meetings have been open to the public, it was rare that anyone other than the committee was permitted to speak or ask questions. Not surprisingly, for other than a few die-hard activists, the meetings didn't have much draw. For more than 10 years now, before and during her multiple terms as mayor of Northampton, Mary Clare Higgins has chaired the CAC meetings. In her opening remarks during that meeting, she noted the unprecedented attendance. Every seat was taken and people were standing in the hall outside.

This evening, people were allowed to speak and ask questions.

While our group felt encouraged by the turnout, the CAC, sitting behind aluminum tables in a long row before us, apparently did not. From the outset, I had the sense that our presentation was falling on deaf ears.

As the members of Save Old Main addressed the committee, presenting our possible uses for Old Main, some CAC members listened obligingly but others thumbed through the reports we'd given them, and still others stared out the windows. The architects shared drawings they'd done, illustrating how the small rooms could be expanded into lofts, apartments or condominiums. Others offered their ideas for a hotel or conference center. Some of us pitched for a portion to be preserved and used as a museum.

The committee let us exceed our allotted time and listened to statements from the public, but eventually they ended the proceedings before everyone who wanted to speak had had a chance. The members of the CAC sighed a collective sigh and rejected our offer to collaborate. They'd been working at this for years, they explained. They had tried everything, and saving the building was impossible. Old Main had succumbed to the state's neglect, and the building was simply too far gone to be saved.

One by one they picked apart our suggestions for alternative uses. Astonishingly given the city's recent support for the proposed Hilton Hotel at Pulaski Park, we were told that the local need for hotels was already met, and there was no market. (How would the local hotel owners react if the city invited a competitor? the mayor asked us to contemplate.) What evidence did we have that there was any need for a conference center? A museum was a pie-in-the-sky notion that could never attract the funding to support it.

Housing was the only option they had ever entertained, but they had decided the cost of renovation was too great. If they spent what it would take to rehab Old Main, the resulting real estate would be too expensive, no one would move in, and the project would lose money.

Thank you. Good night. Come back when you've found a developer who can actually do something, but until then, don't waste our time.

For part two of "How Not to Save Old Main," click here.

Comments (2)
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I am origionally from Springfield. The wrecking ball is also aimed at the York Street Jail as well. This building should at least be documented before its demise. I public tour of that building would also be nice so it can live on as a memory in more people.
Posted by Frederick Picroski on 11.12.07 at 9:25
This building could have been used by a consortium of the colleges as over flow dorm housing. Shuttle bussing woud eliminate the need for many cars in the area and the benefit to Northampton to have so many residents who would not be as self sufficient as a condo dweller would have been tremendous. Downtown would have many more people at its businesses. Maybe some of the building down the hill may still be left standing and could be used for such. It woud be a challenge for the students to "Green" historical buildings, but isn't that what college is all about - learning thru challenge? Books only go so far and are as only as good as their authors. Greening Old Main would have been quite a challange, but not impossible as the Kirkbrides had an appreciation for nature that today's buildings lack. Some of the additional buildings would have had to cone down as to unclutter the area and give the Kirkbride (origional Old Main) back its space and dignity.
Posted by Frederick on 5.30.08 at 13:05
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