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A "Home Town" Hall: A Storyteller Installment

Storytelling is an integral part of history. Stories teach, they inspire, they motivate, they caution. Stories tell where you have been and where you are and where you hope to go in the future. Through Storytellers we share local preservation stories that can serve to educate and inspire others, and ourselves. There has been a lot of talk about home and hometowns this past month and the connections we feel when we see the buildings, landscapes and places that make them special. Certainly, town halls are an iconic image of New England and often points of pride for their communities. Our final Storyteller of 2018 comes to us from the town of Whately, the journey to restore and renovate their historic town hall and important lessons learned along the way.

The Whately Town Hall Submitted by Donna L. Wiley, Chair, Whately Historical Commission Photographs by George Dole, Jones Whitsett Architects

Whately began to wrestle with the problems of its historic Town Hall, built in 1844 and expanded in 1871, around 2010. The two-story structure was largely inaccessible and had not been improved since interior renovations completed in 1971. The only heat was from space heaters (some inoperable) and plumbing and wiring were outdated and not code compliant, the historic windows were badly damaged and exposed to the elements, and the poorly insulated attic had become a haven for bats and rodents. The office spaces on the ground flour were not adequate to house the entire Town staff, so some were working out of the 1910 Center School building (also completely unrenovated and out of compliance with current code).

Jones Whitsett Architects (JWA) of Greenfield, MA was engaged in 2012 to develop a plan to renovate and expand Town Hall to accommodate all Town office staff members and make the second-floor auditorium accessible. The Historical Commission’s role at that point was primarily to define the most critical components of the building to be preserved properly, in order to meet the Secretary of the Interior’s standards (slate roof; two chimneys; interior wood flooring, trim, and wainscoting; and windows). We held the line against several “cost-saving” initiatives (e.g., replacing the slate roof with asphalt shingles). Unfortunately, although the expansion design was endorsed at the annual Town Meeting in 2013, its cost had increased to over $3.5 million, requiring a debt override, and that measure failed at Town Election in June 2013. At that point, despite considerable discouragement, the Town Select Board persevered and secured support for a series of facilitated discussions about the needs of the Town and the residents’ hopes for Town Hall, a process that helped to shift the planning process to a new phase. Meanwhile, a modern office building in East Whately came on the market, and the Town voted to buy it and move Town Offices out of Town Hall and Center School, a transaction that required a much smaller debt override, which passed. This opportunity allowed the Town to focus on other core needs for Town Hall, which included providing meeting and performance space for a variety of programs and activities across town, as well as a permanent home for the museum of the Whately Historical Society, an independent 501(c)3 organization with extensive collections of pottery and other artifacts. (The Historical Society had always operated in space borrowed from the Town.

In 2015, the Historical Commission offered to work collaboratively with the Municipal Building Committee (an ad hoc committee named to advance planning for Town Hall). In addition to ensuring that historic preservation considerations were always at the table, this move made it much easier for individual Historical Commission members who happened to have experience in marketing, fund raising, cultural programming, and planning to participate fully in the process. We met intensively, often for several hours/week, for two years. It was strategically useful to have Community Preservation Act funding as one of the largest likely sources for the project, through a combination of outright support and debt, as that funding required compliance with the Secretary’s Standards. The Town again engaged JWA to prepare bid-ready documents, in 2016, and the two committees worked intensively with the architects to hammer out every detail of the planned building renovation. At the same time, we were actively engaged in fundraising, putting together a combination of state grants, Town funding, and private donations to cover the total cost of $1.5 million without any necessary debt override. Historical Commission members attended a number of workshops sponsored by Preservation Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Historical Commission, and the Massachusetts Cultural Commission, which enabled us to take on significant responsibility for the preparation of grant proposals, a big task for the Town staff.

Whately engaged Wesfield Construction in the fall of 2017, and the Town Hall officially opened on September 30, in conjunction with the Historical Society’s semi-annual fair and special exhibit.

What Was The Biggest "Lesson Learned"?

Having the members of the Historical Commission actively engaged in practical discussions about matters such as building materials, energy saving measures, accessibility, and parking, rather than simply dictating historic preservation requirements from outside the process made a huge difference. We were able to bridge quite different points of view about the significance of certain measures by working together. This would not have been a success had we not all been willing to devote considerable time to lengthy, sometimes repetitive discussions and debates about matters large and small.

What Sort Of Assistance Or Resources Did You Find Helpful?

Michele Barker, a former circuit rider from Western Massachusetts, briefed the Historical Commission early on about possible funding sources for the building renovation. And Stacia Caplanson, our current circuit rider, was quite helpful at a number of points, including suggestions about other very small towns that had renovated and “repurposed” municipal buildings. The workshops that various of us attended were also helpful, both in their content and in the ability to learn from other participants in informal conversation.

What Advice Would You Give Others Facing A Similar Project?

Recognize that these projects can take a very long time and stick wit