Rockwell Museum aims to turn Stockbridge's Old Town Hall into National Center for Illustration Research and Education

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STOCKBRIDGE — For just over a century, the classic, Greek Revival-style Town Hall on the village green, across from the First Congregational Church. served continuously as a beehive of town government and community activities.

But when the town offices moved to the former Stockbridge Plain School in 2008, the Old Town Hall, also known as Procter Hall, was left vacant — if not abandoned. For 10 years, town and church leaders cast a net far and wide for a plan to reuse the venerable building, with no luck.

Now, the Norman Rockwell Museum and the church — which owns the land and shares a two-centuries-old lease with the town that either side can terminate — have come to the rescue with a proposal to save the building and renovate the interior for educational use as the museum's National Center for Illustration Research and Education, the first of its kind in the U.S.

The center would house the museum's Rockwell and illustrations archive, library, study gallery for researchers and scholars, reading room, distance learning and curatorial offices, as well as preparation and production of the museum's traveling exhibitions.

"It's a low-impact, minimal traffic use, but a very high-impact education, research and collections-based use," said Laurie Norton Moffatt, the museum's director and CEO, in an interview.

The Old Town Hall's exterior would be preserved as is, while the interior would be completely redesigned and rebuilt to modern standards, she noted.

She emphasized that the museum's public exhibitions and programs, including the Rockwell collection and exhibition presentations, will remain at the 34-acre Linwood estate, two miles west of downtown.

The concept was presented by Norton Moffatt and Brent Damrow, pastor of the church, at Monday's Select Board meeting.

Following approvals by the museum's board and the church's trustees and congregants, the building, which is structurally sound but probably needs a new roof, will undergo close study to make sure the project is feasible. If so, the museum and the church will seek permits and approvals from town boards.

Then comes a heavy lift, as Norton Moffatt explained. The renovation of the Old Town Hall is expected to require well over $10 million, including climate control and security costs.

"It's a very special landmark structure and has a rich, important history," she told the Select Board. "This building has lain vacant for a decade, and many people have worked hard to find a suitable use for the building."

The museum would have to mount a major fundraising campaign, while seeking possible federal and state historic tax credits, Community Preservation Act support and creating an endowment to manage the building. At the same time, it would need to bolster the museum's existing $5 million endowment for its current campus, which is running out of space.

"We have grown over the past nearly 50 years to be the nation's central illustration museum," Norton Moffatt said. "We believe we have a use that is highly compatible with the Old Town Hall structure and its location in the original civic center of town."

The museum and church leaders have signed a memorandum of understanding giving the museum a two-year option to determine along with the town whether the project is possible, although that timeframe could be extended if things are going well. On the punch list: Physical factors, clear title to the property, design, zoning and all fiscal and fundraising considerations.

The idea is to preserve the exterior of the Old Town Hall through historic preservation, and adapt the interior into the proposed national center for research and education as a home for the museum's scholarly pursuits and related collections activities, Norton Moffatt said.

"If we are successful in securing all necessary permissions," she said, "we would ultimately become the owner of it. Everything feels aligned; we hope the town will be equally enthused and get behind us."

She credited a town resident for suggesting to her the possibility of the Old Town Hall for the museum's expanded needs.

"This is a great way to not just get a neighbor but a partner," said Damrow, whose church has about 200 members and attracts up to 125 people attending Sunday worship services. "The church's mission is to create a community and a sense of connection and togetherness. This can help to do that and help to solve the weight hanging on this building as people try to figure out what we're going to do with it; can we save it, can we use it?"

The renewable two-year option gives the museum time to "make sure they have the legal, fiscal and other means to carry forth on a project that we all want to work," he added. "With the museum's resources, commitment and wherewithal, this partnership is making a decision for generations to come."

Church moderator and former Selectwoman Deborah McMenamy told The Eagle that the museum would be "a wonderful neighbor; they care for the history of the town, they care for their own properties, the type of use they're proposing certainly fits how we would imagine our church mission next door. This is such a desirable project for the town."

The preliminary agreement requires that the church obtain from the town whatever legal releases are needed to gain clear title to the building, Norton Moffatt said. Attorneys for the museum are set to discuss the potential project with Town Counsel J. Raymond Miyares and forge a roadmap to bring the proposal to the appropriate town boards.

"We plan to work very hard and as quickly as we can to raise the funds necessary to do the renovation once we have all necessary permits," Norton Moffatt said.

"The church and the town have a very long history entwined with this unique building located in the community's original center of civic life and whose history stretches far back to the original partnering with the Mohican community in forging what is now Stockbridge," she said. "We hope that we can honor that heritage and breathe new educational purpose into this building, which would serve to bookend the town's Main Street with the research and education center and archive."

Damrow, the church pastor, told the selectmen and Town Administrator Danielle Fillio that the church's leaders and congregants have embraced the proposal.

"We think that the museum would make sure the west end of Main Street is open to the community, a place that is alive and continues to partner around making Stockbridge the great town that it is," he said. "We have decided to extend our commitment to work with them and create a period of time where they can do the due diligence necessary to make sure it meets with the town's approval so this can move forward in a good way."

Select Board Chairman Donald Chabon greeted the plan enthusiastically. "Congratulations!" he told Norton Moffatt and Damrow. "I personally feel this is an extraordinarily good use of this building."

In response to a question from Selectman Terry Flynn on the building's condition, Norton Moffatt stressed the importance of maintaining and caring for the structure by the town so it doesn't deteriorate while the feasibility of the project are studied.

As town historian and former Police Chief Rick Wilcox has written, the Congregational Church completed its first meetinghouse for spiritual and civic purposes in 1739; "not just a place of worship, but a building where all town business was conducted. From the bluff where the Town Hall and Congregational Church sit, one can see what was once the Great Meadow (now the Stockbridge Golf Club), cut by the meandering Housatonic River, and where in 1739 one of the early divisions of intervale (meadow) land was laid out for the Stockbridge Indians."

The original Town Hall was built on 1839 on the church's land. Although a site for municipal government was built in 1884 on Main Street in the center of town, it was called the Town Offices.

In 1904, town government returned to the old site after enlarging it, rotating the original entrance 90 degrees and hitching it to a Neoclassical front section. In 1963, a second-floor community meeting space and auditorium was renovated with the help of a $40,000 naming gift from the late Mrs. Rodney Procter. Thus, Procter Hall became synonymous with the Old Town Hall.

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com or 413-637-2551.


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