How Not to Save Old Main (Part Two)
Thursday, October 25th 2007
It took Save Old Main several weeks to regroup after the presentation. Many of us were surprised by the coolness of their rejection. All we wanted was to be given a chance to help. Clearly we’d been naïve in thinking there might be any enthusiasm to ignite, but they didn’t seem in a position to reject volunteered help flat out.
Their logic seemed off. Something other than their stated reasons was at work here. Why would so many of the members of the Citizen’s Advisory Committee emphasize the length of their service as evidence of the impossibility of success? Typically, people only emphasize the length of the endeavors in which they feel they’ve accomplished something.
But here was Mayor Higgins, chairperson, telling us that even though the developer hired to preserve the buildings was now recommending demolition instead, it was okay. No second opinion was being sought—not even from local architects who were standing before them, drawings in hand.
They were admitting failure, but treating it like success. Until I understood the origins of the CAC, none of this made much sense to me.
The initial goals of the CAC as defined by the state were not concerned with historic preservation. Before the CAC was created, the hospital site had stood empty and neglected for more than a decade, and in that time developers, realtors and other organizations lined up to try and lobby lawmakers (the state owned the property) to acknowledge their claim on the site’s future. The creation of the CAC was an attempt by Boston law-makers to be fair and satisfy as many squeaky wheels as possible. The legislation was specific about who needed to be represented in the decisionmaking process, singling out members of the squeakiest of wheels: politicians, local business leaders and the heads of local social service organizations. The state saw no need, though, for architects, engineers, historians or preservationists to advise the Advisory Committee.
The plan was simple. Those serving the interests of the former patients, as well as other local affordable housing activists, wanted to make certain some of the new housing was made available to those they served, but beyond that, the intention was to make as much money and tax revenue as possible. A hunk would be preserved as public open space, but the rest would be sold for private use. As reported in Mike Kirby’s book Back Row, Back Ward, Gene Bunnell, the city planning director in the early ‘80s, declared that the land was the asset, not the buildings. More recently, in 1993, current planning director Wayne Feiden said, “The buildings at this point are a major liability.”
In the CAC’s first year, several local realtors were among its members, including the son of the last superintendent of the hospital, Pat Goggins. Given the lack of expertise on the committee in managing massive redevelopments like this, not surprisingly the realtors had a strong hand in plotting the CAC’s early course by working with builders, state politicians and zoning officials, and developing a request for proposals from developers.
It also comes as no shock that before the committee’s second year, the realtors were asked by the state to step down from the committee to avoid any suggestion of conflict of interest. No matter whose interests were ultimately served up on the hill, these realtors stood to win big.
Even though the CAC’s creation and Old Main’s placement on the Historic Registry happened within a month of one another in ‘94, it took a year before the CAC was willing to publicly embrace preservation as a possibility. That’s when Mayor Mary Ford, a representative of the CAC, signed the agreement with the Massachusetts Historical Commission that stated that every attempt would be made to preserve as much of the historic campus as possible. And while the former mayor remained an outspoken advocate for saving the buildings, it’s clear from the weak language in the RFP they produced and from the results that followed that others on the committee only went along with talking preservation because it was the politically correct thing to do.
When Save Old Main addressed the committee in the public forum, my sense was that the committee members felt that with the passage of a half dozen years, they’d finally met the not very rigorous strictures of their agreement with the Massachusetts Historical Society. By just sitting on their hands and waiting long enough, they’d proven no one was going to pour money into saving the buildings, and they could move forward with an agenda that involved flattening them.
In 2004, Goggins made nearly $100,000 on the first stage of the redevelopment: 16 houses, including two low-income buildings out at the Ice Pond property off Route 66.
The other hard truth SOM had to swallow after our meeting with the CAC was that we’d met a definite dead end. In one night we’d run out of options, and there really wasn’t another organization we could approach.
During my presentation to the CAC, I’d accidentally referred to the CAC as “the city,” and Mayor Higgins quickly set me straight. They were separate and different entities, she made clear, and I wasn’t talking to the city. They weren’t involved in the discussion.
For a long time, I wondered if making the mayor a member of this development oversight committee might have been another possible conflict of interest.
After the cool reception we’d gotten from that group, it would have been comforting to be able to turn to city hall and ask for mediation from a third party. If we were ever going to attract a developer, they’d certainly want to know that city hall was at least open to the idea. With things as they stood, though, we knew just how the city leadership felt, and a dialog between the chair of the CAC and the mayor would have been schizophrenic.
The legislation that created the CAC specified the Northampton mayor should be a member, so on the face of it, there was no conflict. But the law also specified that the chairmanship of the committee should alternate among members from year to year. Mayor Higgins has been chair of the CAC since before she was mayor and remains so today.
Ultimately, the CAC’s cool reaction galvanized Save Old Main. We decided on two tactics to look for a developer. We posted a website rich with images and history, trying to show the building in its best light, and we also began collecting signatures to support a nonbinding referendum on whether funding ought to be sought to “button up” the building and prevent further damage. We felt patching the large holes in the roof would show potential developers that Northampton cared about the site’s preservation.
Members of Save Old Main spent dozens of weekends on Main Street, near the farmers’ market in summer and inside Thornes in the winter, disseminating information and collecting signatures for the referendum. A few people thought saving the wreck simply impractical and unlikely, but overwhelmingly people were supportive.
I spoke with many who had either worked at the hospital or who had been patients. A SOM member recruited from our street campaign had been the daughter of a doctor there, and she’d lived in an apartment on the grounds with her family. She remembered playing hide-and-seek around Old Main. Several people told me that when they were kids, their parents would sneak them into the balcony during the patients’ movie night in the auditorium.
Of course, the patients’ stories were not cheerful. There was consensus that conditions were very bad, but most of the patients who talked to me remembered their doctors and nurses, and insisted on reminding me that most did the best they could with what they had. More than once, patients lamented the loss of a place where they felt understood and some interest was taken in them.
Our move to get a referendum question on the ballot had three unexpected consequences for Save Old Main. First of all, having moved our fight into the political realm, the city was now involved, no matter what the head of the CAC said. Secondly, engineers were going into the building to evaluate how much patching the roof would cost, and city councilors and SOM members were going to be allowed to accompany them. Then there was the third surprise.
Initially, when I heard the offer from the League of Women’s Voters that we face off with the mayor in a public, televised debate, I wanted no part in it. I thought we’d get ripped apart. Most of my colleagues agreed, and for a short while we contemplated politely refusing. But that would have been cowardly. We said we’d only debate as a team, and it was eventually agreed there would be two debates, the first a practice run in Florence that was public, but off-camera. The first debate was painless enough, held in the Florence Community Center. The mayor sat that one out as an audience member, though occasionally she and the developer would interrupt to clarify. The script for the second one was not much different from that of the first, but with the cameras rolling, the much larger audience before us, and the mayor playing a featured role, the energy was charged.
In response to our nonbinding referendum, the CAC had been spending money not toward preservation, but proving that preservation was pointless. They commissioned a report from a firm of architects to evaluate whether or not renovating the building was financially viable.
The “Arrowstreet Report,” as it was called, measured the space inside the building, estimated how much it would cost to renovate that space for different uses (business and residential), and then estimated how much the refurbished space would need to be sold for to make back the investment.
The report cost them roughly $4,000. Such a sum could have bought a website to promote the buildings to potential developers, possibly buy a run of color brochures to be mailed out, or consultation from a marketing firm. In the architecture world, though, this kind of money doesn’t get most architects out of their seats. Why so cheap?
It’s clear the report’s architect-authors didn’t get out of their seats and actually visit the building. The report’s numbers were all based on a building with three identical floors. The central portion of Old Main has six floors and the wings have five. There is a basement floor with windows, and there is an attic with some of the most bucolic views in the Valley, but these spaces weren’t counted.
As luck would have it, shortly after the report was released, the CAC needed to fill seats on their committee, and Tom Douglas was nominated and invited to join. SOM’s great hope was that with one of our own (and the first and only architect) on the committee, finally there would be a voice of reason. But as recorded in the Daily Hampshire Gazette at the time, even when Tom presented his recalculations to the committee, proving the report seriously flawed, it provoked CAC member Jack Hornor to state, “Your numbers might be correct, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to do what you want.”
Perhaps knowing Tom was going to be with us during the debate to shoot holes in their report, someone in the CAC’s camp apparently thought another tactic was needed to defend their position that the building’s dire state of deterioration absolved them from their promise to try and save it.
Councilman Jim Dostal had been with the engineers, me, and the other SOM members inside Old Main for our final tour inspecting the roof. We’d gone north along the second floor, then taken the stairs up to the attic. As I looked for the best light and compositions for my shots, he took snapshots of walls and floors with his compact digital camera. I wondered a little at his choice of subject matter, but I didn’t give it a lot of thought at the time.
Then I saw the glossy, poster-sized blowups of those digital shots presented to the debate’s live audience and the local cable network’s cameras: full-color, vivid digital shots, taken in that resplendent morning light, of rot, rust, mildew—places where the decay of the building was the most apparent. We’d brought some diagrams and drawings, but no large-scale photographs. After years of feeling that the mayor, the city and the CAC had always dodged their responsibility to market the building’s rebirth, here she and her team were out-marketing us on the building’s demise. Someone shelled out several hundred bucks for those mounted glossies, but how effective! Who needs to listen to the architect with preservation experience in the room: look at these pictures!
A peculiar tactic for someone who would save the building if she could.
Roughly 60 percent of Northampton voters agreed with the mayor that no money should be spent trying to patch up the building and prevent further neglect. While I think everyone on Save Old Main was glad to have gotten the issue debated and voted on, in many ways the loss was the last nail in the coffin of both the building and our group.
Having lost by only 11 percent of the vote, I wonder how things would have gone had our question asked simply, “Has enough been done to save Old Main?” Instead of a debate on finances, we might have focused on the work the CAC had actually done, and not having a cost attached, people may have been more supportive.
But as it was, the mayor was vindicated. No one needed to know that the $100,000-plus estimated fee to seal the roof would soon be dwarfed by the $3,000,000-plus actual cost of erasing the hospital entirely.
Buildings are preserved the same way they are built: someone believes in the idea, consults with experts, and marshals the resources and interest needed to make it happen. Every architect and engineer I’ve spoken to about Old Main has said that buildings in far worse condition have been preserved. The way you discover whether a project is possible is by actually trying.
Even after the referendum was voted down, Save Old Main found two interested developers, the second being Bruce Becker of Becker and Becker, who seemed like an ideal candidate. He had gotten his undergraduate degree in Amherst, so he was familiar with the area, and he had worked on similarly-scaled, mixed-use preservation projects on Roosevelt Island and in downtown Manhattan. His insistence that preservation would require state and federal support, though, was not something the mayor wanted to pursue, and now he is working on “the greenest large-scale building” ever constructed in New Haven, Conn.
It’s been more than six months since the last traces of Old Main were bulldozed, and while there is still no plan for what to do with the newly available space, the city has announced other plans for new development everywhere else in the city. This year has seen the destruction of the Green Street neighborhood for Smith’s new science building, the repurposing of Pulaski Park into a new hotel courtyard, and the announcement of an exploratory committee to build a conference center on the Northampton Fair Grounds.
Though some of these plans are exactly the same ones rejected as uses for Old Main, they are now held up as part of a master plan for the city’s future. As the city permits the destruction or devaluation of affordable housing and puts our public spaces up for sale, they gently twist and bend the past, trying to create the impression that they are following a plan and adhering to a process.
This past July, for instance, the city announced a plan to develop a new, tight cluster of affordable housing up on Hospital Hill—not where Old Main stood, but elsewhere on the site. On WHMP’s Bill Dwight Show, Mayor Higgins endorsed the new building project (that remains unfunded), stating that it was a step toward fulfilling the goals set forth in the 1995 Hospital Hill Redevelopment Request for Proposals. Presumably, 12 years later she thought no one would quite remember what those goals were. The winning proposal for redevelopment she and her committee selected showed the historic building intact with a developer’s wonderland of mixed-use spaces built surrounding it. The colorful rendering showed tree-lined avenues of townhouses, shops, small and large businesses, room for light industry, all designed in a way that would reflect the aesthetics of the cornerstone of the site, the hospital.
That plan is no more, but only last year, the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission gave the then-current plan an award, and the jurors’ comments on it indicated they were “impressed by the mixed-use densification.”
But there is no mixed use in the latest plan, and no preservation: just a knot of houses tucked behind the drab, clinical Haskell Building. No Village on Hospital Hill. Just another housing development.
The RFP was issued during Clinton’s first term, and by the time any foundations are actually dug, the city will have spent almost as much time starting a housing development on a tract of vacant land as the construction of the Big Dig through downtown Boston took. Yet the mayor continues to ask us to see failure as success.
In the Smith College Art Museum hangs an early painting of Northampton looking out toward the Holyoke range. Painted in the mid-1800s, it shows no downtown between the painter and the river. Just fields, a few houses and a steeple or two.
Though not in the picture itself, the hospital is apparently represented. The perspective of the painting is such that it had to be done from a higher elevation than any of the surrounding hilltops could provide. In early photographs of Old Main, you can see that the central administration section of Old Main featured a large, ornate cupola, and it’s believed the artist had painted his view from there. Northampton State Hospital was here before the village became a city. Easthampton and Holyoke had mills to drive their economies; our town had, among other institutions such as Smith College, the hospital. It was built by social activists who spared no expense, and it was built to last 400 years. By the time the doors closed 120 years later, these good intentions had gone awry, and many dark, dark days had passed in those walls for multitudes.
In the past month, a committee that was established by the CAC to come up with a memorial for the site has announced three proposals and is now looking for funding. One idea is to rehabilitate a cast-iron fountain that used to be in front of Old Main. Another is to put up an historical plaque somewhere on the grounds, and a third is to devote a room in the Haskell Building for a collection of memorabilia. There seems something deeply ironic about the people who demolished this vitally important building being the ones deciding how best to commemorate its loss. None of these ideas, I feel, will amount to anything more than a late, token effort to whitewash what has been a catastrophic failure of planning and vision. None of these ideas can hope to evoke the depth or importance of what happened on that site as well as what was destroyed there.
The reason Old Main fell is because those in charge of our city don’t value our past and think we can make a lot more money without it. This is why, quietly and without fanfare, the name of the development has also been changed. No longer does the sign at the gates announce the Village on Hospital Hill; now it’s the Village Hill of Northampton.
This article was written by Mark Roessler and published by The Valley Advocate on Thursday, October 25th 2007 and NOT owned by nor affiliated with opacity.us, but are recorded here solely for educational use. The photographs featured in the article are randomly selected from the Northampton State Hospital galleries on opacity.us unless noted otherwise; they may not directly relate to the article subject matter except for the site location - any other relation is purely coincidental.