Report On The Meeting Of the Amherst Historical Commission, November 17, 2021
The meeting was held on Zoom and was recorded.
Commissioners: Jane Wald (Chair), Jan Marquardt, Pat Auth, Robin Fordham, [Hetty Startup, absent]
Staff: Planner Ben Breger and two new members:
Becky Lockwood, a former librarian, serves as a guide at the Emily Dickinson Museum and as a docent at the Yiddish Book Center. She is interested in ensuring that the inventory of historic structures in the Town is complete. She also has a special research interest in Indigenous peoples.
Katherine Davis has a degree in Historic Preservation, a Graduate Certificate in Public History, Museum Studies, and has worked for over ten years with historical and cultural organizations as a director and independent consultant. In other communities where she has lived, she has served on arts councils, housing and redevelopment committees, and downtown development committees. She brings a renter’s perspective to the lack of maintenance of historic structures often neglected by landlords, a special interest of hers. She also serves as Historical Commission representative to the Design Review Board.
Commission recommendations to Town Council regarding the construction of a band shell on the Amherst South Common was the major item on this agenda. Gabrielle Gould of the Business Improvement District gave essentially the same presentation received by the Design Review Board last week.
Jan Marquardt, who was the Historical Commission member on the jury that reviewed the 15 architectural design applications for this bandshell submitted in 2017, reported on the decision process. She noted first that they did not have a rich source of good proposals from which to choose a winner. Discussions were robust but there were no designs that would “fit in” with the neo-colonial Amherst College buildings to the east. All were very contemporary, starkly modern renderings. The Darling/Mann proposal was the only acceptable option even though many on the committee were not sure of its viability—that it would not be blown away. (Since that time the architects have been working with Silman Engineers in Boston and have made the shell bottom heavy.) In other words, this was the best entry in a bad lot, according to Marquardt, cautioning members that the public may not be happy with this design on the historic common. Robin Fordham, who hadn’t seen the designs until this meeting, wished there had been a broader selection of entries.
Katherine Davis, who likes this design, informed members that the DRB requested that designs be brought back for its approval while Gould assured everyone that no more money would be spent on engineering studies until the design is approved by all the boards.
Amherst College has also reviewed the design. The college representatives approved it as a piece of architectural art unique to Amherst. The college has used very contemporary designs for their new buildings, very different from the pre-war colonial revival campus buildings. Others are pleased that this is an aesthetically attractive structure, not a reproduction of a Victorian gazebo that would “look fake”.
Ben Breger reported that details like the circulation pattern, walkway materials, plantings etc. of the landscape design for the South Common need to be decided. But the band shell will be nestled between existing trees. It is important to have continuity in design features in the North and South Commons, though members cautioned that the South Common should not be cluttered with densely built features. Both Pat Auth and Jane Wald sit on the North Common design committee.
Becky Lockwood asked how much weight the jury placed on public input. The designs were displayed at Jones Library where viewers could leave comments. Most comments were apparently pejorative and not useful to the jury. However, the few useful comments recommended the same top three entrants as the jury.
Gould noted that the downtown had gone downhill before Covid hit and needs this revitalization to bring shoppers back. Other comments noted that the acoustics are more important than the aesthetics of the design, as well as concerns as to the longevity of the building materials. What would weathering do to the appearance of the wood? Can the commission be in the loop with the Design Review Board regarding engineering reports?
The commission voted to write a letter to the Town Council with their questions and recommendations.Fordham abstained and there were no nay votes.
In other business, the commission has asked for $25,000 from the Community Preservation Act Committee to continue the inventory of out buildings and barns throughout the town and another $25,000 to update the 2003 preservation plan. Staff noted that other towns of our size spent considerably more money on preservation plans though this one is not “from scratch.”
One member of the public noted that North Amherst residents have been following the many proposed zoning amendments in their various iterations. They are concerned that the North and East Amherst National Historic Districts are in dire peril should apartments be allowed by right in the three Residential Village Centers, all surrounded by wetlands and preserved farmlands. This was news to the commission!