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Frank Gehry Signs On For North Adams Model Railroad Museum

Renowned architect Frank Gehry has signed on to design the new Extreme Model Railroad and Contemporary Architecture Museum in North Adams, Massachusetts. 

Thomas Krens, the former Guggenheim Museum director, has had his sights set on North Adams for decades.

Krens first proposed the Extreme Model Railroad and Contemporary Architecture Museum in 2015 at the Western Gateway Heritage State Park in North Adams – a few blocks away from MASS MoCA, which Krens and Gehry started designing in 1987. The converted 19th-century factory complex opened as a contemporary art museum in 1999.

“Turned out, we couldn’t afford him,” Krens said.

Krens and Gehry have collaborated many times since, including on the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain and Guggenheim Abu Dhabi.

“Thirty years later, we are inviting Frank back to see if he can work his magic on the former railyard site, here,” Krens said.

In the planned museum, the work of more than 70 architects, including Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, will be on display – such as a 35-foot tall Empire State Building replica.

The price tag: $65 million. The museum expects to have that funding by June 2018.  So far, it has made a dent of $2.5 million from state grants and private donations. $5.4 million could come from the city via a MassWorks grant to renovate buildings and replace the Christopher Columbus Bridge.

The museum entered a purchasing agreement with the city to buy the former freight yard from the North Adams Redevelopment Authority for $1.2 million in May.

Outgoing Mayor Richard Alcombright said the museum will help attract tourists to North Adams and the region.

“Due to many factors, such as the expansion of MASS MoCA, the growth of the Clark, the prestige of having two superb public and private colleges right here at MCLA and Williams, the rebirth of our medical services, the fiscal health of the city – because of these and certainly many other factors, we’ve seen more private and public sector investment over the past three years than we’ve had in my 17 years in city government,” Alcombright says. “Investment that will help grow our economy, add to and aid in stabilizing our tax base, and enhance this new cultural corridor linking Williamstown and North Adams.”

Former Massachusetts Governor Bill Weld echoed Alcombright, saying Krens and Gehry will build up the region’s cultural corridor.

“They will totally transform the North Adams, Williamstown area,” Weld says. “My hope, eventually, is to take the act a little bit down into South County.”

Weld said that would strengthen tourism in the Berkshires as a whole – but also attract young families.

“They want to live in interesting places. They don’t just want work-life balance. They want vibrancy and creativity in their everyday lives,” Weld says. “And they insist on it, in fact. And they are going to get it in the North Adams of the future.”

Williams College professor Stephen Sheppard said the museum and its construction could create 2,000 local jobs and add $191 million a year to the regional economy. Sheppard was commissioned to produce an economic report, funded by a $250,000 MassWorks grant.  

“Let’s think about 500,000 people a year, and a somewhat more optimistic scenario would be about 750,000 visitor days a year coming here to North Adams,” Sheppard said. “So this is a very significant additional impact.”

Krens has proposed a Massachusetts Museum of Time and a distillery in the park, too. Down the road, he’d like to take on more projects in North Adams, such as building a park and boutique hotel, renovating the Mohawk Theater and creating a motorcycle museum – estimated price tag: $300 million.

Krens expects the model railroad museum to be open by 2020.

At 88, Frank Gehry says he’s got a vision for the region.

“I always thought of this place being a kind of Florence for America,” Gehry said, “because there are so many opportunities to put art around the community.”

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