Nobody expected West Stockbridge to draw crowds. For most of its existence, the rural town was best known for its proximity to its namesake, from which it split in 1774, and for its location at the last exit along the Mass. Pike before the New York border. Surrounded by green hills and lily-padded ponds, West Stockbridge was the kind of quiet, out-of-the-way community where change came slowly. In the sixties, residents balked at the introduction of an orderly house numbering system deemed “Communist.” Twenty years later, many were reluctant to adopt 9-1-1 as an emergency telephone number – what was the point when the Fire Department already knew where they lived? West Stockbridge has always been a place where continuity and community mattered. Thus it is no surprise that when change did come to town, it was the result of one vacant historic building and the local people who saw its potential.
As president of the West Stockbridge Historical Society, Bob Salerno is deeply familiar with the decade-long effort to restore West Stockbridge’s Old Town Hall, which dates to 1854. The excitement in his voice is palpable as he recounts the building’s history over a telephone call in early November. For 150 years, the Old Town Hall functioned as a community center containing a large meeting area, town offices, a library, a police station, and commercial space. Age took its toll, however, and in 2004 the building was emptied of tenants. When the Select Board proposed demolishing or selling it to the highest bidder, alarmed residents banded together to save their local heritage. The long-inactive Historical Society revitalized itself and bought the building for a dollar (a fundraising brochure on the group’s website quips that it “seriously overpaid for the privilege”). Says Bob with no hint of weariness, “The Society has been working on restoring the building ever since.”
For a community with a population of just 1,084, this is no small task. The rehabilitation initially was expected to cost between $300,000-$500,000; it is now estimated at $1 million. When the project began, the Historical Society struggled to get seed funding from most organizations. “Massachusetts is very Boston-centric and East Coast-centric,” Bob observes. “Every grant application we sent in, we’d get a letters saying it’s not going to work, why bother, you’re rural. It was very painful.”
To make matters worse, West Stockbridge had little to attract visitors who might have been inclined to invest in the Old Town Hall’s restoration, and still less to encourage those who did happen to pass through to linger. According to Bob, “West Stockbridge used to be a drive-by community where people picked up their beer on their way to Tanglewood.” The downtown stretched just three to four blocks, bookended by a Congregational Church and the Public Market, a grocery-turned-deli in continuous operation for nearly a century. There were (and still are) no traffic lights in the entire town. Yet the Historical Society was not deterred. Its members knew that the Old Town Hall could become a magnet not just for local residents, but for tourists ordinarily focused on well-established cultural destinations in Stockbridge and Pittsfield. The trick was to make others see the same thing.
The Historical Society began dusting off old relationships and building new ones. Board members wooed full-time, seasonal, and former residents with a vision of the Old Town Hall filled to capacity for performances and lectures. They won over businesses and foundations, and established a tiered annual membership system for the Historical Society that has yielded a reliable stream of funds for renovations. Over ten years, the Massachusetts Historical Commission and the Massachusetts Cultural Council contributed more than $200,000 in matching grants to the project – fully one quarter of the $780,000 that the Historical Society has raised for the building to date. Thanks to private and public philanthropy, the Old Town Hall now has a new basement, elevator, and plumbing system, and it will soon have a new roof as well. Each improvement raised awareness of the restoration and increased the community’s confidence that the Old Town Hall had a future.
One fundraising strategy in particular had impacts that extended beyond the renovation efforts to the town as a whole. The Historical Society began to hold benefit concerts in the Old Town Hall soon after purchasing the building. Board members forged partnerships with the Berkshires’ thriving cultural community, filling the organization’s events calendar with performances, exhibitions, lectures, and holiday celebrations. Four members of the West Stockbridge Chamber Players who also performed with the Boston Symphony Orchestra declared the auditorium “an acoustical jewel.” Audiences clearly agreed. Annual attendance at Historical Society events grew to 3,200 as word spread from West Stockbridge to Boston and Albany. Whereas established Berkshire performance venues attracted predominantly out-of-towners, the Old Town Hall consistently drew both visitors and locals – a fact that Bob noted with pride. This past year, when COVID shuttered theaters across the country, the Historical Society hosted socially distant outdoor concerts over the summer and virtual programs once cold weather set in – most recently, a presentation by Mass Audubon on how birds survive the winter. In just ten years, the Old Town Hall has become a community anchor, and West Stockbridge, a destination.
“The project has been the spark plug to revitalize the town,” Bob enthuses before launching into a list of attractions that have opened in West Stockbridge since the restoration began. TurnPark Art Space, a gallery and sculpture park founded by Russian immigrants. The Foundry, a performing and visual arts venue that provides “a safe space to create dangerous work” and “experience joyful creation.” Four restaurants that were thriving before the pandemic began, where patrons could indulge in dishes ranging from roast beef to pho. Unfortunately, the statewide economic shutdown dealt a blow to the burgeoning arts-based economy. “COVID’s impact caused West Stockbridge to slam to a halt,” laments Bob. “All the businesses are struggling.” The situation makes the Old Town Hall rehabilitation all the more urgent. When life returns to normal, this anchor institution will host many of the events that bring people and their disposable income back to Main Street. The more often the building can operate, the better.
Of course, much work remains to be done before the Old Town Hall reaches that point. The property requires ADA-compliant restrooms, as well as an HVAC system that will accommodate year-round use (winter and mid-summer temperatures in the building do not allow for prolonged visitation). The Historical Society also intends to insulate the attic, repair leaky windows and doors, and finish the interior. Last November, the organization requested another $100,000 matching grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council to complete many of these tasks. A generous donor gave the effort a boost by offering a $30,000 challenge gift to assist in raising a match, should the grant materialize. The community is even considering designating the downtown as a Historic District to aid fundraising and increase visitation, though this move remains controversial in a town that, until recently, saw little traffic.
West Stockbridge is the poster-child for what historic preservation and an empowered community can accomplish. To an outsider, the Old Town Hall might not have seemed a promising investment, but to residents, it was central to their heritage and local identity. Revitalizing a single historic building transformed Main Street from a has-been to a will-be. Socially, culturally, and economically, West Stockbridge is poised to rebound from the pandemic stronger than ever – all thanks to the fact that Historical Society members had the gumption to “seriously overpay” for the privilege of saving the Old Town Hall, and local voters had the vision to let them try.
Architectural Heritage Foundation is a 501(c)3 dedicated to stimulating economic development in disinvested communities through historic preservation. Follow AHF and its projects on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn.