Opinion: Amherst’s White Elephant

In traditional Southeast Asia white elephants are considered sacred. Receiving the gift of a white elephant from a monarch is a great honer and source of pride for the recipient.  Since it can not be worked due to its sacredness, it is also a curse, as the costs of upkeep for such a large animal can impoverish, even bankrupt the honored recipient.  

The Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners’ (MBLC) $13.8 million grant to the Jones library’s reconstruction project is Amherst’s White Elephant.

The reason for starting our four major capital projects with the Jones library, instead of the more pressing needs of the Fire Station, Public Works and Elementary School buildings, is this substantial “gift” from the MBLC.  I use quotation marks because I do not see the “free” money as a gift at all.  Not after calculating the costs to the town incurred by accepting it. 

Here are some of the project’s unheralded costs.

The $13.8 million MBLC grant mandates the size and scope of this project with an escalating $35-40 million plan. This plan requires demolition of the entire 1993 addition, that was fully payed off in 2011 at a cost of $5 million (roughly equal to $9 million in today’s dollars).  Not only are we throwing away that investment, we are also forfeiting years of the addition’s usable (debt free) life span, wasting the fruits of past investments of town and state tax dollars, along with the library endowment’s proceeds from the sale of their $2.6 million Bierstadt painting

We are not simply abandoning these fruits, we are also paying for the privilege.  Many millions of dollars will be spent just demolishing and disposing of the existing functional addition.  And paying dearly for it, as the entire project’s cost will be borrowed money requiring interest payments that may well exceed the grant itself.

Another asset, the garden and landscaping at the rear the Jones, must also be sacrificed to meet the new library’s mandated footprint. It is hard to quantify in dollars the value of green spaces but in our ever more stressful world, this asset will definitely increase if allowed to mature.

As a finish carpenter by trade, I have worked on historic buildings and have an eye that appreciates the craft, skill and labor imbedded in prestigious buildings from our past.  These qualities are conveyed in the informative Jones Library Historic Structure Report, a “must read” for anyone deciding the fate of this building.  

As most of the original interior is also slated for demolition, I’ll quote one short section:

When the building was constructed, approximately 18% of the overall cost of the line item of work in the payment schedule. Records submitted by the general contractor show that 20,000 [board] feet of Philippine Mahogany was used for the millwork in the building, 3,500 [board] feet of Akle, referred to as Philippine Walnut, was used for the main staircase, and embellishment.  From the execution of the main staircase — modeled after those found in 18th century Georgian style homes of the area — to the mantels throughout the building, the level of design and workmanship is noteworthy. 

18% of the initial construction costs in 1928 was $42,458.  In today’s dollars that equals $735,631.  But in 2022, old growth Philippine Walnut and Mahogany are worth a whole lot more in our resource depleted world, if you can find them at all.  And we are planning to pay someone to throw this all away?!

There are other unquantifiable costs that cut deep.  Like the price of having a wedge issue that divides our town over a semi-popular project, as opposed to compromising on a plan that wins supermajority support.  And then there are the costs of trust in our democracy itself, by the tossing out of valid votes on a referendum ballot.  I see the damage this has done on a national stage and hate seeing it here at home. 

I implore the powers that be, able to decide the fate of the Jones, please, pull the plug on this library plan and return the white elephant grant.

Jim Turner has lived in Amherst for more than 25 years.

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5 thoughts on “Opinion: Amherst’s White Elephant

  1. Jim Turner’s remarks are sensible and ethical. The trashing of rare woods and fine craftsmanship are sad choices. And the energy embedded will be dwarfed by the energy expended in demolition and rebuilding.

  2. I agree with Jim Turner’s assessment of the Jones Library project. “The White Elephant” is an apt analogy! As I understand it, the plan submitted that got the MBLC grant was based on some misleading facts about the population of Amherst likely to use the Jones Library. 50,000 was the number of people listed. Of these, some 25,000 are UMass students, and unlikely to be using the Jones. Also, there are only 19,000 people holding cards for using the Jones, presently. The justification for planning such a large building is based on inaccurate information. This project needs to be stopped, and “sent back to the drawing board,” before even more of our hard-earned taxpayers’ money is squandered!

  3. Well said, Jim Turner! That so-called free money is by no means a gift and your piece has amply demonstrated it. The demolition of the beautiful garden will lose us outside space at our library, which ought to be all the more precious to us as we come out of the COVID-19 pandemic. I echo your call to abandon this destructive project and return to a more modest renovation and repair. There is no shame, only wisdom, in correcting course before we are locked in.

  4. Josna’s comment reminds me of this: “Wisdom too often never comes, and so one ought not to reject it merely because it comes late.” Justice Felix Frankfurter, dissenting, Henslee v. Union Planters National Bank & Trust Co., 335 U.S. 600 (1949)

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