Renewal In Store For Two Former Town Halls In The Southern Berkshires

Apr 11, 2018

With so many old buildings in New England, it’s not unusual to see old mills or even churches transform into retail space or condominiums. But what about town halls taking on a new purpose?

In Berkshire County, Massachusetts, two former town halls just a few miles from each other may soon see new life.

West Stockbridge has about 1,300 residents, so the town's center is quite small. The old town hall has been a fixture on the village's main street since 1854.

It's a simple-looking, two-story wooden building with white clapboards and tall rectangular windows. Before being officially designated as the town hall early in the last century, the building served as a barber shop, library, and even a bank.

Bob Salerno of the West Stockbridge Historical Society led a tour.

"We actually have the vault that was pretty much home-built," he said.

Many of the bookshelves from its days as a library are still there, too, along with some historic artifacts from the town's past.

"The stairs date back to 1854," Salerno said. "They're not fire compliant, of course, but they're original, so we're keeping these."

At the top of the old stairs is a small auditorium, with old wooden floors, about 100 seats, and a small stage. Many of the town offices used to be up there, and it was even once used as a gym.

The second floor of the old town hall in West Stockbridge, Massachusetts.
Credit Adam Frenier / NEPR

After the West Stockbridge town offices moved out early this century, the town tried to sell the building, but there were no takers.

Salerno said there was concern the building would be demolished. So some of the townspeople reformed the dormant historical society, came up with a plan -- and in 2009, made a bid.

"We got the building for a buck," Salerno said. "When we did the deal with the selectmen, both sides laughed over who got the better deal."

Since then, through fundraising and grants, the historical society has sunk a half-million dollars into the old town hall, with a lot of money going towards much-needed structural repairs. There's still more work to do, and another half-million dollars to raise.

In the end, Salerno said the downstairs could be used as meeting space and things like art classes, with the upstairs continuing as a performing arts space. He said that it's been a long, yet worthwhile, journey to save a building important to West Stockbridge's history.

"It is the center of the town," he said. "It's the showpiece of the town. It is the heart of the town."

And as one nonprofit continues to work on the former town hall in West Stockbridge, five miles down the road in Stockbridge, another nonprofit is looking to do something similar.

The old town hall actually sits on church property – the First Congregational Church of Stockbridge. The town and church have had lease deal since the late 1830s.

The town hall is a large, white building with tall columns holding up a gently peaked roof, flanked by pine trees.

The old town hall in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.
Credit Adam Frenier / NEPR

Pastor Brent Damrow of First Congregational Church, leading a tour, pointed out some features.

"It is a building that has evolved over time to serve the needs of the community," he said. "Architecturally, the back half of the building used to be the town offices, and was spun 90 degrees, and moved, to make room for an addition of this front part of the building."

It hasn't been used for about a decade, and the town struggled with ways to reuse it. But one institution in Stockbridge, the Norman Rockwell Museum, is interested in doing just that.

Laurie Norton Moffatt is its head.

"A couple of years ago, a citizen in town brought this building to my attention and said, 'Have you ever considered this for the museum's expansion needs?’” Norton Moffat said. "And it was like a light bulb going off, because the civic function -- the civic center that building holds in our town -- is so related to Norman Rockwell's work."

Norton Moffatt said the museum is short on space for preparing traveling exhibits, storing art and educational programs, and the old town hall could be just the place for these functions.

The Rockwell Museum and the church have a two-year deal to allow the museum to sort out a number of details: changing the building's zoning with the town, and seeing if it's possible to raise enough money to renovate and modernize the building.

Norton Moffatt said it’ll cost somewhere in the millions to do that, but she thinks it’s worth it for both the museum and the community.

"I think it's an exciting potential future use for the town hall that brings vibrancy to the community, and a beautiful location for these museum activities that we've outgrown space for here," she said.

While it will continue to require a lot of effort and money, both of these buildings stand a good chance of seeing their 200th birthdays in just a few decades.