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Project Aims To Recreate Berkshires' Historic Literary Network

An art and architecture exhibit on view in Pittsfield is a sneak peak at a summer project that aims to reinvigorate the area’s rich literary history.Herman Melville, Henry David Thoreau, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Nathaniel Hawthorne…what do these five men have in common other than being well-known for putting pen to paper? They all spent time in Pittsfield, Massachusetts in the mid-19th century.

Tessa Kelly, who’s also from Pittsfield, is working with fellow architect Chris Parkinson to build five writing studios to be placed throughout the city this summer.

“We started this project by looking at Pittsfield through a lens of historic preservation,” Kelly said. “Our specific interest was in the stories that exist in Pittsfield which may not be physically legible anymore in the city’s fabric.”

The mockups are on display at the Lichtenstein Center in Pittsfield through November and by appointment in December.

“We are hoping to use the studios to mark the positions from which the original five writers were writing about Pittsfield,” said Kelly.

Studios dedicated to Hawthorne and Melville will be placed near Melville’s Arrowhead home where Hawthorne used to visit. It now houses the Berkshire Historical Society. Longfellow’s will go near Pittsfield High School where the writer used to live. Canoe Meadows on Holmes Road will – as you guessed it – welcome that author’s studio. And since he wrote about his travels from the top of Mt. Greylock to Pittsfield, Thoreau’s studio will either go on the banks of Pontoosuc Lake or near the historic Springside House, areas he would have passed on his way to the city. The architects used the writers’ work to inspire each studio’s design. For Longfellow, they looked at his poem The Old Clock on the Stairs written at the house on East St., according to Kelly.

“The design for the Longfellow studio is a large, inhabitable staircase,” Kelly explained. “Each stair tread is a place where the writer-in-residence could actually stop and sit and write, but the staircase also functions as a keeper of time. Through the columns that mark the rhythm of the stair treads and the overhang of the roof we’re hoping to use the passage of sun throughout the sky during the day such that it will illuminate an additional tread with each hour of the day that has passed.”

The plan is to have five literary enthusiasts spend the summer in Pittsfield writing in their respective studios during the day while staying at the Hotel on North, in a sense recreating the literary network that existed in the mid-19th century. The exhibit itself is called Mastheads, taken from Melville’s Moby Dick, according to Parkinson.

“Melville describes the masthead as both a place of isolation and introspection,” Parkinson said. “You climb to an elevated vantage point and look out toward where the ship is heading and where it’s been, but you also have an opportunity to be isolated from the rest of the ship and reflect inward. So we see these studios as operating in a similar way, but instead of the ship we have the city.”

The project is being supported by a $75,000 National Endowment for the Arts grant, but the City of Pittsfield and the architects are looking to raise $100,000 to complete the effort.

Information on how to donate can be found by clicking here.

After this summer, it’s expected that the studios will be dismantled and placed elsewhere in the region welcoming a new network of writers in following years.

“There’s a great quote from John Ruskin,” Parkinson recalled. “He says there are two things that conquer the forgetfulness of men: poetry and architecture.”

Jim is WAMC’s Assistant News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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