Letter: Law Mandates Protection Of Jones Library’s Invaluable Historic Features


Jones Library stairway as it looks today. The original stairway was carved from Philippine walnut. Note the intricate hand carving on the newel post. Photo: From a slide presentation by Eric Gradoia

The following letter was sent to the Amherst Historical Commission on September 14, 2023

Thank you for the opportunity to comment on the request to the Amherst Historical Commission for a permit to demolish the 1990s addition to the historic Jones Library.

I was a Jones Library Trustee from 2009 – 2012, and Trustee President my final year. I am also a member of the D.C. Bar. 

For legal reasons, this request is premature. The Amherst Historical Commission should defer action on it.

As you know well, the 1920s Jones Library is on the State and National Registers of Historic Places. Experts in architectural history thus have recognized the irreplaceable historic value of the Jones Library’s remarkable original design, and of its unique place in the history of public library architecture.

The current deslgn for the Library’s demolition/expansion project, however, includes major changes to the historic library building, both exterior and interior. For instance, the Library Trustees obtained emergency Community Preservation Act funding in 2010 precisely to repair the Library’s original slate roof. Apparently this slate is now to be replaced with a modern material. How is this historic preservation? 

Furthermore, Jeff Lee’s recent letter to the Amherst Historical Commission details select, invaluable historic interior features of the Library that are apparently slated for demolition or removal. As the Library is a State Register property, I question the Amherst Historical Commission’s legal authority to permit this.

Because of the state construction grant for this project, public money is involved. The Library Trustees and town accordingly have a particular legal responsibility for historic preservation of the 1920s Library. By law, they must give the Massachusetts Historic Commission the opportunity to identify all exterior and interior changes that would constitute “adverse effects” on a State Register property. Then that commission must consult with the project proponents — here, the town and the Library Trustees — and other interested parties, including the public, with a view to eliminating, minimizing, or mitigating these “adverse effects.” 

Furthermore, the Town and Trustees ought to have submitted their project plans to the Massachusetts Historical Commission “as early as possible in the planning stages of the project”. See Title 605, Code of Massachusetts Regulations (CMR), Section 6.05 (d) 23, concerning compliance with regulations about “Protection of Properties Included in the State’s Register of Historical Properties.” See also the Massachusetts Historical Preservation Law at Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 9, Sections 26 and 27C, and implementing Massachusetts Historical Commission regulations at Title 950 CMR, Section 71.00. 

Astonishingly, “as early as possible in the planning stages of the project” was more than six years ago. Nonetheless, town and Trustees have yet to submit their designs. I would therefore strongly suggest that the Amherst Historical Commission forebear to consider any demolition permit for this Jones Library project at this time. The Trustees and town should first submit to the Massachusetts Historical Commission their plans for all destruction and changes, interior as well as exterior. 

Actually, it would seem to make sense for the Amherst Historical Commission to participate in the State Historical Commission’s historic preservation review process. The regulations, as I read them, favor this.

Please note: A state grant recipient’s obligation to comply with the Massachusetts Historic Preservation Law remains, whether or not the grant recipient also applies for the historic preservation tax credits that the Trustees hope will help finance this project. The tax credit application appears to require much less information about a building’s historic features than does the Massachusetts Historical Commission’s consultation process concerning “adverse effects” on a State Register property. 

Sarah McKee

Sarah McKee was an Amherst resident for more than 20 years. She is a former President of the Jones Library Trustees, and is a member of the D.C. Bar.

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4 thoughts on “Letter: Law Mandates Protection Of Jones Library’s Invaluable Historic Features

  1. In a spirit of full disclosure, may I add that, at the close of public comment last night at the Amherst Historical Commission’s demolition permit hearing for the Jones Library, Library Trustee President Austin Sarat responded to my oral comment based on my letter reprinted above. The gist of what he said was that the Library Trustees had been in contact – perhaps he said close contact – with the Massachusetts Historical Commission (MHC), and that the MHC was fine with what the Trustees intend to do with the historic, 1928 Library building. That’s a paraphrase. I stand by it.

    Many of us love the Jones and value its matchless history and aesthetics. Some of us have been concerned for years that the Trustees were simply blowing off the Commonwealth’s legal requirements for preserving the history embedded in the 1928 Library building.

    Indeed, new schematics that the architects used at last night’s meeting showed, for the first time to my knowledge, red color-coded areas of the 1928 Library that the architects said would be removed. As I read the regulations, each such area counts as an “adverse effect” on a building that’s listed on State Register of Historic Properties. Because of the State construction grant for this project, these “adverse effects,” by law, must be eliminated, minimized, or mitigated. To see these “adverse effects” clearly identified now was accordingly a revelation. What, exactly, is each of these effects? What original features are affected? Are historic materials, for instance, the 1928 Library’s glorious, hand-carved woodwork, to be stored and then used in the Library again?

    It is worth emphasizing that historic preservation of the 1928 Library is a PUBLIC matter. The MHC is required to inform the public about “adverse effects” in what proponents of a project intend to do. As last night’s demolition permit hearing did touch on historic preservation, it is worth noting here that the MHC is to accept public comment on ways to address those “adverse effects.” I cannot see that Trustees’ private communications with the MHC are any substitute for the public input to the MHC that the regulations not only permit, but encourage. Also, those private communications must be made public if requested under the Massachusetts public record law, must they not?

    It is therefore to be hoped that the Trustees will submit their project designs promptly for the MHC’s historic preservation review, and that the public will get to make constructive comments and suggestions while these can still factor in to design decisions.

    I add my admiration for the exceeding care with which Amherst Historical Commission members queried aspects of the plans to demolish the Library’s 1993 addition. They were concerned that the demolition itself could affect the historic Library. We all know that wrecking balls swing hard and wide. In my view, the concern was well-founded.

  2. If we’re going to call for the preservation of facets of architects Plimpton and Cox’s work then we should do a full accountibg of why, and what that architecture was attempting to do in the beginning of the 20th century. I don’t think you’re seeking an “it’s old, it’s rare!” approach, but any discussion of that period in Amherst needs to account for the architect’s relationship to historical narrative and how this affected certain members of the community.

  3. Thank you, Sarah, for reminding us that that the preservation of registered historical properties is subject to state laws.

    If the Massachusetts Historical Commission (MHC) and Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners have encouraged the Jones building project to wait until construction documents are being prepared before submitting to a MHC historical adverse effects review as Trustee President Sarat has claimed, then the two state agencies have been remiss in not enforcing their own regulations.

    Conducting the review “as early as possible in the planning stages of the project” is crucial. It allows project architects to follow MHC recommendations before the design is cast in stone. Had the Jones Library proposal been reviewed earlier, we might well have seen suggestions to avoid demolishing the 1993 addition which is attached to the original 1927 building, use slate as the roofing material to match the historic roof, avoid demolishing irreplaceable stairways and millwork, design a new elevator that does not protrude above the roofline, use building materials more historically appropriate than Hardie Plank and Thermoplastic Polyolefin, and consider designing a more compatible addition than the modernistic and oversized eyesore that is being planned.

    As it stands, we may be stuck with these historic travesties.

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