From “Drive-By Community” to Destination: How Historic Preservation Put West Stockbridge on the Map

West Stockbridge Old Town Hall viewed from the north
Bob Salerno of the West Stockbridge Historical Society relaxes outside the Old Town Hall. Credit: Ben Garver, The Berkshire Eagle.
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.”
Announcement for a temperance meeting at the West Stockbridge Old Town Hall, c. 1862
The West Stockbridge Old Town Hall hosted civic events, such as this “Grand Rally” for temperance in 1862. Courtesy of the West Stockbridge Historical Society.
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.
Old Town Hall stage
The main hall and stage at the West Stockbridge Old Town Hall. Courtesy of the West Stockbridge Historical Society.
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.
A concert at the Old Town Hall
A large audience listens attentively at a concert in the Old Town Hall auditorium.
“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 Old Town Hall
West Stockbridge Old Town Hall. Courtesy of the West Stockbridge Historical Society.
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 FacebookTwitterInstagram, and LinkedIn.

How a Small Group of Volunteers is Transforming a Rural Town through Historic Preservation and the Arts

North Brookfield Town House framed against a deep blue sky. Architectural Heritage Foundation (AHF) is preservation consultant to the Friends of the North Brookfield Town House.
North Brookfield Town House

What if a vacant town hall in a small Massachusetts community were granted a new life as an arts center devoted to solving the national problem of rural isolation? For the Friends of the North Brookfield Town House, this vision holds the key to their community’s revitalization.

Not many people know about North Brookfield. Nestled among orchards and state forests, this town of 4,800 could, at first glance, be any rural New England village. Modest single-family homes line Main Street, which runs north to south through a small downtown. The white steeple of the First Congregational Church rises above a sprawling green, opposite the Romanesque bulk of the Haston Free Public Library. Dark storefront windows of low-rise commercial blocks turn blank stares to the street. The “For Rent” posters are offset here and there with “Open” signs that wink redly from the businesses that have managed to hold on: Angel Nails Salon, St. Jeans Country Package Store, Jim’s Pizza… Near the center of town, Vibram employs over two hundred in manufacturing rubber soles for outdoor boots – a modern incarnation of the Batcheller Shoe Factory, which fueled the community’s growth during the nineteenth century. And rising above it all is the North Brookfield Town House.

A For Rent sign in an empty storefront on Main Street.

“The center of everything.” That’s how North Brookfield residents characterize the Town House, whose tall, arched windows and Italianate bell tower reflect the importance that its nineteenth-century designers and subsequent users attached to it. Once a town hall, theater, retail venue, and jail, the building has been vacant since 2002, victim to the same forces that have challenged North Brookfield and other rural communities throughout the country: reduced industry, the success of big box stores at the expense of small businesses, an exodus of young people seeking opportunity elsewhere. For many residents, the Town House’s peeling paint and locked doors came to symbolize these problems. Restoring the building would have to be part of the solution.

The Town House still stands today thanks to a dedicated group of volunteers. The Friends of the North Brookfield Town House were founded in 2006 to raise awareness and money for preserving the building. During the first several years, they focused on stabilization, such as repairing the roof and bell tower following Hurricane Irene. Yet the building’s future use was a persistent question. The Friends wanted the Town House to become a community hub – a coffee shop or artisan bakery, something to draw people downtown. But how to accomplish this multimillion-dollar restoration project in a financially sustainable way?

A volunteer from the Friends of the North Brookfield Town House teaches a third grade class about the Town House. Architectural Heritage Foundation (AHF) is helping the Friends of the North Brookfield Town House to preserve and redevelop the building as an arts center.
A volunteer from the Friends of the North Brookfield Town House teaches a third grade class about the Town House.

Finding an answer required the Friends to transform their approach to the project from fundraising around a predetermined use to amplifying the building’s unlimited possibilities. In 2017, AHF began consulting for the Friends and soon discovered that the plans for a coffee shop and bakery were infeasible in the local economic climate. There was simply not enough traffic downtown or expendable income locally to support a dining establishment. Rehabilitating the Town House as a destination café, or any other commercial venue, would require a full-scale downtown development plan to create a more business-friendly environment.

Far from being discouraged, the Friends ran with AHF’s advice – and ran further even than they thought possible. They forged a strong relationship with the North Brookfield Board of Selectmen, Central Massachusetts Regional Planning Commission (CMRPC), and Main Street America, leading to the creation of a Downtown Development Committee. They broadened their vision for the Town House to encompass a wide variety of future uses, from commercial to cultural. They raised the visibility of the building online, in classrooms, and at community events. At AHF’s suggestion, they organized a community-wide effort to repaint the Town House façade, transforming what appeared to be a shabby building into one brimming with potential. And people noticed.

The North Brookfield Town House being repainted. Architectural Heritage Foundation is preservation consultant for the Friends of the North Brookfield Town House.
Repainting the North Brookfield Town House

Bonnie Milner, Owner and General Manager of local recording company Long View Farm Studios, was astounded when she saw the repainted Town House – a building that she had often passed, but seldom noticed. The Friends invited her to tour the building in hopes that she might furnish an idea for its reuse. She realized that it would the perfect location for her to fulfill a lifelong dream of establishing an arts center for rural at-risk youth. Several months of collaboration later, the Creative Life Center concept was born.

The Creative Life Center (CLC) at the North Brookfield Town House is intended to be a replicable model for addressing rural disfranchisement through the artistic reuse of cherished historic properties. Under Bonnie’s leadership and in partnership with Berklee College of Music, the CLC will offer educational programming in music, theater, and the visual arts for local youth and seniors, provide a performance venue for the broader Central Massachusetts community, and give emerging artists the opportunity to showcase their work. In so doing, the CLC will foster connection and stimulate economic development in an oft-overlooked rural region. Yet it’s only the beginning of North Brookfield’s revitalization.

An audience watches young dancers perform on the Great Hall stage at the North Brookfield Town House during MayFest, 2019. The Architectural Heritage Foundation (AHF) is helping the Friends of the North Brookfield Town House to preserve and redevelop the historic building.
Young performers at the Town House during MayFest, 2019

While the Friends and Bonnie were refining the CLC concept, the Downtown Development Committee was working with CMRPC and Main Street America to create a business-friendly environment around the Town House.  Their plans include streetscape improvements, such as handicapped-accessible sidewalks, bike lanes, benches, and plantings; renovations to the Common, its playing fields, and playgrounds; and the rehabilitation of other vacant historic properties for commercial and nonprofit uses. These improvements will be driven by the Town House restoration and the expected increase in foot traffic downtown around the CLC.

By doggedly trying to preserve an historic building, the Friends catalyzed a downtown revitalization project. Their perseverance, diligence, and flexibility are putting North Brookfield on the map and giving other rural communities throughout the country reason to hope. Not even the pandemic has slowed them as they embark on a capital campaign to raise $2.5 million for the Town House’s rehabilitation. Each day brings them closer to their goal of reinvigorating rural communities through historic preservation and the arts.

To help the Friends realize their vision, visit their website to donate.

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 FacebookTwitterInstagram, and LinkedIn.

Let’s work together.