Williams College is asking to tear down 54 Stetson Court (Harper House) to make way for a new dormitory.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Williamstown Historical Commission on Wednesday voted to delay for three months removal of two houses owned by Williams College on land where it wants to build a new dormitory.
Williams Executive Director of Design and Construction Rita Coppola-Wallace went before the board to discuss plans to move the building at 66 Stetson Court (Mather House) and demolish the building at 54 Stetson Court (Harper House).
The college has found a buyer for Mather House, which will be moved to another location in town, Coppola-Wallace told the commission. She said she was not at liberty to identify the purchaser, whom she called a "local businessman," because he is in the process of securing permits for the planned new location.
She said Williams sent an internal email to the college community asking for interest in either property but found only interest in preserving Mather House.
The college's plans for Stetson Court met strong resistance from the floor of the meeting by Peter Bubriski, who, along with his sister Wanda Bubriski, owns the nearby building at 42 Hoxsey St.
Bubriski objected to the college's plan to build a 60-bed dormitory on Stetson Court because, "Hoxsey Street is party central already," and he said the plan to tear down Harper House represents part of a pattern of disregard for historic architecture on the part of the college.
Historical Commission Chairman William Barkin told Bubriski the former concern is not the purview of the body.
But the commission agreed with Bubriski's idea to delay destroying Harper House so another buyer could be found.
"I'm surprised," Bubriski said. "There are many people who might be interested in a house like Mather, which was moved once before, and you sent [notification] around to your cohorts at Williams, which is the typical way things happen at Williams.
"Williams has a horrifying history of total disregard for anything historical. ... I'm furious. I think it's very sad we're losing the great housing stock in town."
Commissioner Linda Conway asked Coppola-Wallace if the availability of Harper House could be advertised locally. The commission's newest member, Sarah Currie, asked if the college could put a notice on the town's website or send an email blast to the wider community.
Coppola-Wallace told the commission that the plans to build a new dormitory on the site were detailed in "the local paper" months ago.
Currie asked if she meant the college newspaper, but Coppola-Wallace repeated that the story had appeared in "the local paper."
A Google search turned up an article on the Stetson Court plan in the May 14, 2014, edition of the Williams Record student newspaper. Archive searches on both iBerkshires.com and The Berkshire Eagle turned up no reference to "Mather House" in the last year. The North Adams Transcript and the Advocate Weekly both folded in January of this year. A college spokesman on Wednesday said he did not recall a story in The Eagle.
"The first that anyone in the town who is not associated with the college heard of this was a week ago in a postcard," Bubriski said, presumably referring to the town's notification to abuttors of Wednesday afternoon's meeting.
Coppola-Wallace told the commission the college will pay about a quarter-million dollars to move Mather House to its new location, and the purchaser will pay "about $250,000 to $300,000" to have it installed and brought up to code.
"If the college were to relocate Harper House to another location on the college campus — we had a cost estimate done — it would be $700,000 between moving it and bringing it up to today's code," she said.
Likewise, the college looked at repurposing Harper House and Mather House by converting the neighboring properties into a dormitory. She said the cost of building a connection between the two buildings and renovating them did not compare favorably with the benefit of new construction on the site.
The plan to build a new dorm on Stetson Court grew out of a 2013 plan for the southwest sector of the college, Coppola-Wallace said.
"The college adopted the option of making Stetson Court a student residential neighborhood," she said.
Williams felt that students in the Agard House dormitory on South Street felt cut off from the rest of the residential system, and creation of a new community of dorms on Stetson Court would address that, she said. Plans call for between 25 and 30 beds at Bascom House on Stetson Court, currently the home of the Admissions Office, in addition to the 60 beds across the street where Mather House and Harper House now stand.
Harper House's current occupants, Center for Environmental Studies and the Zilkha Center for Sustainability Initiatives, are moving to a new building on the north side of the new Sawyer Library. The occupants of Mather (the Experiential Education Office, the Academic Program Coordinator and the Spouse/Partner Employment Counselor) are moving to other offices on campus, Coppola-Wallace said.
After stressing to Coppola-Wallace its desire that the college find a purchaser for Harper House, the commission voted unanimously (with Williams employee and Commissioner K. Scott Wong recusing himself) to delay demolition for three months.
"Peter, hopefully, you can dig up some people," Barkin said to Bubriski. "And I hope the [unnamed] businessman can get Mather to another lot."
Stetson Court also was connected to another item on the commission's agenda on Wednesday, a less debated request from the college to remove a 30-year-old one-story addition to Weston Hall on Main Street in order to make room for a new two-story addition to the 1905 building.
Williams Project Manager Jason Moran told the commission that the new Bascom Hall will increase in size from about 16,000 square feet to about 19,000 square feet and will be the new home for both Admissions and Financial Aid.
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