The Historical Commission on Wednesday gave conditional approval to the removal of the stairs — the lower stairs, four upper ones and a fifth in the far north corner — in Colegrove Park.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The Historical Commission on Wednesday approved the removal of the stairs at Colegrove Park with conditions, and pending the project's clearance from federal review.
The six commissioners voted unanimously to recommend the deteriorating concrete structures be removed as long as the decorative wall at the bottom be restored and the missing one at the top be replaced. However, should a federal 106 process be required, or if the state determines an "adverse effect" under the Chapter 9 preservation legislation, the recommendation will be revisited.
The commission last meeting also requested an opinion from the city solicitor on whether school project funds can be spent in the park. The solicitor said yes, providing the public park's purpose wasn't changed.
The stairs leading up to the former Drury High School have been a sore spot in the renovation of the building into an elementary school. Project designers and school officials say the concrete stairs are dangerous and detract from the $30 million project; commissioners and some residents, on the other hand, are concerned that an important architectural element will be lost.
"The school was placed where it was so it would command a high position in the community and would have a sweeping vista," said Commissioner Paul Marino, also a well-known local historian, in making the motion for removal. "It has that without the stairs. As much as I would like to see the stairs remain, it's going to be cost prohibitive to replace them. I would not be opposed to their being removed. I would like to see the decorative wall replaced ... but the removal of the stairs, I have no objection to it.
"It does not affect the historic integrity of the school."
But it could run afoul of federal preservation laws, warned Hulda Hardman Jowett, former chairman and an original member of the commission.
"Colegrove Park is in a [Monument Square] National Historic District and the rules and regulations are significant and need to be followed," she said, whenever federal or state monies are used. "Nothing can be done until a federal 106 review is done. That is very very important and usually it's done very early in the process. ... It can be a very messy process."
The park and the school both lie within the historic district, which encompasses the rough rectangle of Main, Holden, Center, Union, Summer and parts of East Main and Church streets.
Julie Sniezek of Guntlow & Associates, the landscape designer for the project, said she believed that had all been taken care of with the notifications of intent sent to the Massachusetts Historical Commission.
However, when pressed, neither she nor Dorrie Brooks, representing Margo Jones Architects, could confirm whether the 106 review was not needed or had been done. The federal statute looks at historic significance and determines if any undertaking would have an adverse effect "that would diminish the integrity of the property's location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling, or association."
(The reviews are made through the federal Advisory Council on Historic Properties, but the agency's website could not be loaded on Wednesday.)
Brooks said she believed that the project's historic consultant Douglas Kelleher at Epsilon Associates Inc. had dealt with all the historic issues, including with the state Historical Commission, which approved the project last fall.
Resident Richard Zona expressed frustration that Kelleher was frequently referred to but had not attended the last meeting or this one.
"I think a lot of issues are being kicked around here that could be addressed if he was here," said Zona.
The meeting recessed for five minutes to see if Kelleher could be raised by phone; when that failed, Brooks said she could arrange for him to attend the next meeting.
Above, an undated view shows no lower stairs; below, the decorative lower wall has some issues; the top wall, seen at left, was removed at some unknown time.
Chairwoman Justyna Carlson said another meeting will be scheduled should the 106 process have to be followed.
Resident Edward Morandi again asked what the estimates were for removing and for replacing the stairs but Sniezek did not have the figures.
Brooks and Sniezek described the current plan, which will leave the lower wall, the paved circle and restore the upper wall, as being a hybrid of current needs and historic integrity.
"Repairing them makes them accessible to part of the population but not all of them," said Brooks. "We would have to provide the ramp, which would affect the historic design significantly ... taking out the stairs is less detrimental than putting in a path that cuts through it."
Mayor Richard Alcombright said it could be possible to restore the stairs at a later time, through fundraising, but the park itself was not desirable for play space for the school.
He also, several times, apologized for the commission not being apprised of changes to the plan after it had approved playground space early in the design. The state Historical Commission signed off on a different plan, which had changed somewhat again before coming back to the local commission.
"I don't want the committee to think in any of this was a bum's rush," he said, promising to keep them fully informed.
The commission also reviewed some of the exterior changes, including the removal of planned sunshades on the west side because of their ineffectiveness, and attempts to feature a still existing wall of the second Drury Academy on the east side of the building.
Brooks said elements of the former high school were being integrated into the building and that it would be closer to its original look than before. Carlson and Marino suggested some elements, such as the former school plaque now at the new Drury High School, and possibilities of where an errant stained-glass window could be.
"What we have tried to do is keep the 1916 structure," said Brooks. "Make the building accessible and safe and find that balance and do no permanent damage to the historic structure."
In other business, the commission:
Approved the demolition of "selective portions" of the Dowlin Block. Owner Scarafoni Realty is planning to remove the rear of the L-shaped apartment building to provide more parking and create 25 high-end units.
Approved the demolition of a carport at 86 North St., in an historic district, provided that care be taken not to undermine the adjacent home.