Report on the Meeting of the Amherst Historical Commission, February 5, 2024
This meeting was held over Zoom and was recorded. It can be viewed here
Robin Fordham (Chair). Madeleine Helmer, Mikayla Rasnic, Antonia Brillembourg, and Hetty Startup. Absent: Pat Auth. One vacancy.
Staff: Nate Malloy (Senior Planner)
Concern Voiced Over Impact of Proposed New Downtown Apartment Building
Hetty Startup voiced concern about a previous performance space located on the second-floor of the ell addition behind the Hastings building. The ell, which is between Hastings and the Amherst Cinema, is slated to be demolished along with the former Jeffrey Amherst Book Shop to make way for a five-story apartment building proposed by Barry Roberts .
Startup noted that the former performance space has a “very interesting history.” In a previous article in the Amherst Indy, she stated, “The rear ell is a handsomely detailed commercial red brick addition to what was once the A.J. Hastings building. It is in good repair, but more information is needed to assess its condition and significance. It contains, on the second floor, an intriguing performance space with good acoustics, possibly used historically by Phi Epsilon, an Amherst College fraternity. The performance space has a barrel roof and is lit by old gas lights. It is accessed from the Fretted Instrument Workshop by a set of stairs to the main building fronting the Common.” [pictures from Hetty with narrative]
She maintained that the commission must be careful with the William Fenno Pratt building that once housed Hastings and monitor how the apartment building and the elevator shaft fit in with the existing historical built environment. The Design Review Board provided some advice about the new apartment building, but the Historic Commission needs to protect the character of the streetscape. There was a suggestion that the commission engage with the architect in the design phase and that in future petitions that this engagement could result in a shorter demolition delay. In October, the Historic Commission placed a six-month demolition delay on the wood building at 55 South Pleasant Street that once was the site of the Jeffrey Amherst Book Shop. Commission member Madeleine Helmer stated, “We need to ensure that the sense of place be continued.”
Historic Farmhouse and Barn Lost in Fire
Planner Nate Malloy reported that 1240 South East Street, a 19th century farmhouse near the South Amherst Cemetery, sustained a fire last year that burned the middle section of the barn and part of the house. The house has been unlivable since, and the insurance company ruled the structures a total loss. The owners intend to tear the house down and build new. The commissioners discussed how the Historical Commission is supposed to interpret the Demolition Delay bylaw in this situation, since the significance of the structure was not determined prior to the fire. Does there need to be a public hearing, or can the Commission inaugurate an emergency demolition process? No definite decision was reached as to how to proceed. If it is decided to have a public hearing for a possible demolition delay, it would need to be scheduled within four weeks.
Regarding the Demolition Delay Bylaw in general, Malloy asked commission members whether they should attach conditions to demolition delay orders. This might include requiring photos, architectural drawings, and structural condition reports to document a building before it can be demolished. The length of the delay should be long enough to permit research into the history of the structure and the families who lived in it or businesses that occupied it, although commissioners acknowledged this research could be done after the demolition without it being too onerous for the developer.
Commission Supports Construction of Carriage House at the Austin Dickinson Homestead
The Emily Dickinson Museum has proposed a reconstruction of the Austin Dickinson Carriage House. This portion of the meeting was chaired by Helmer as Chair Robin Fordham had a conflict of interest. Because this project is within a local historic district it must be reviewed by the Massachusetts Historical Commission and maybe even the National Park Service. Fordham is now a member of the Massachusetts Historical Commission. Amherst Historic Commission members voted 4-0 to support this project in the review process.
Historic Commission Wants Councilor Liaison
The Town Council has asked all town committees if they want a non-voting councilor liaison. Startup said she supports this idea because “the more eyes on what is going on, the better.” She was supported by Mikayla Rasnic. The Commission voted 5-0 in favor of a Town Council member attending their meetings. The liaison is allowed to speak and ask questions during the meeting, but not during public comment.
Downtown Design Consultant Hired
The town has hired Dodson and Flinker of Northampton to help design guidelines for the downtown. They will begin their work in February or early March. The guidelines will address what the town wants to see in new construction. The Historical Commission will be able to make comments to the Planning Board about their vision for the downtown. Commission member Antonia Brillembourg recommended that the commission also oversee rules for appropriate signage downtown.