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Pittsfield Catalogs Endangered Historic Buildings

The Masonic Temple on South St. is among the more than 25 buildings identified as endangered and of value to Pittsfield.
Jim Levulis
The Masonic Temple on South St. is among the more than 25 buildings identified as endangered and of value to Pittsfield.

The Pittsfield Historical Commission has identified more than 25 buildings with historic and community significance deemed to be endangered.The current list includes older homes, mills, schools and churches selected for their history and potential economic impact if maintained and in many cases reclaimed. Pittsfield’s city planner CJ Hoss explained the project’s purpose.

“Instead of waiting to the point where the historical commission is reviewing a proposed demolition of a property when it’s too far gone to be salvaged, not to say that still can’t happen in the future, this is an effort to identify properties that may become endangered, raise awareness of them and try to come up with solutions practical to address to some of the issues that are making them potentially endangered,” said Hoss.

The list was compiled using input from City Hall, the historical commission and more than 100 properties put forward by the public. Elizabeth Rairigh of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission is the project’s consultant and put together four pages of content on each property.

“The very things that make these buildings special and important are the very things that make them challenging to reuse in other ways,” said Rairigh.

A number of churches — the First Congregational Church in downtown’s Park Square, the First Church of Christ Scientist and the vacant St. Mary the Morning Star on Tyler St. — made the list. Rairigh says she’s heard of church sharing, where small congregations share space within the same building. She says the First Church of Christ Scientist, a 1905 building on Wendell Avenue, only has 15 congregants. Rairigh offered some further use options.

“This one sits the downtown arts district so getting engaged in the arts community and opening the space up could not only help encourage use of the building, but also for them potentially attract new congregants which would then in turn help preserve the building in the future,” Rairigh said.

Meanwhile, the Masonic Temple, built in 1914, is on the list and on the market. Standing in the shadow of the Masonic Temple and a realty sign, across South St. is the Colonial Theater and further down the street is the Berkshire Museum leading right into Park Square, showing that this really is the main thoroughfare into downtown Pittsfield. Former schools and Pittsfield’s current police station are among the endangered properties. The early 19th century Pontoosuc Mill complex is one of a number of industrial sites left over from yesteryear. Rairigh says the size of the buildings is one of the primary challenges.

“Probably the integrity of the smokestacks should be checked at some point,” she said. “In speaking with the owner, his biggest concern is that there is a lot of water on the site because of the way that the site is laid out. So that is one of the challenges he sees moving forward is just the sheer layout of the property. They are occupied. They’re not completely vacant or abandoned. They are what I would consider ‘underutilized.’ It is a site to consider in the future for potential commercial, retail and light industrial use. He [the owner] would like to see maybe residential. That would require some sort of zone change in the future.”

Now that the historical commission has identified the most vital properties, what can be done? Rairigh says Pittsfield does have a National Register Historic District, which includes Park Square and parts of downtown, but no local historical districts. She says those can lead to permanent preservation of buildings.

“Creating a study committee, doing study reports and having public meetings,” Rairigh explained. “It requires a vote of the city council and writing the legislation itself determining what pieces of a building are going to be regulated. Each local historic district would have its own particular guidelines for what is unique and special about that building.”

Moreover, Rairigh says the catalog of buildings, which includes structural conditions, assessed values and identified improvements, can be used as a marketing tool by City Hall.

“You would hope that if someone gave them a call and said ‘I’m thinking about relocating to Pittsfield. I need a building that is a certain square footage,’” Rairigh pointed out. “They could flip through, pull one out and say ‘Look I have the perfect building for you.’ That’s one of the tools that this can be used for and not just for the city. It can be used by realtors.”

Meanwhile, Pittsfield voters will decide in November whether they want the city to adopt the Community Preservation Act. It would place a 1 percent surcharge on tax bills with some exemptions to support local citizen-driven preservation and restoration projects.

Jim is WAMC’s Associate 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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