Wanda Bubriski testifies to the historic significance of her family's home.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Historical Commission on Thursday ordered a six-month delay for the demolition of a Hoxsey Street house that once was home to one of the town's most noted residents.
Williams College was before the commission with a request to raze the 19th-century Victorian home at 42 Hoxsey St. best known locally as the longtime home of Dagmar Burbriski.
Bubriski, who died in 2011 at the age of 84, was a well-known writer and columnist for local publications, hosted a weekly radio show, served on numerous civic and community boards, and was an outspoken advocate for women's rights and historic preservation — frequently taking opposition to Williams College's building projects.
Bubriski's children, who sold the home to the college, were among several people who testified before the commission to the home's historic and architectural value — two criteria the commission could use to declare the home "preferably preserved" and, therefore, subject to a potential delay.
In a unanimous vote, the three members of the five-person panel present at Thursday's hearing determined that 42 Hoxsey St. was subject to the delay, which will give the college additional time to attempt to find someone willing to move the building from the site.
The college needs to clear the site as part of its plans for a new science building. Williams attorney Jamie Art told the commission that the school offered to move the building for its previous owner prior to purchasing it and in fall 2017 advertised its availability to the general public on historic home websites, the college's website and three local publications, including iBerkshires.com, prior to its request for permission to demolish the home.
Art said when the college purchased the home, the school's plan was to use it for construction offices during the science center project and faculty housing when the science center was completed.
"That wasn't a promise, and it wasn't a covenant or a commitment as part of the deed," he said. "That was a true and honest statement of the college's intent at that time."
Later in the meeting, Art interjected to correct one town resident who referred to the college going back on a "promise" to maintain the building as a residence.
Some time after the college acquired the site, the plans for the north building of the unified science center changed, Art said.
"I, personally, was surprised when I heard that during further evaluation of the engineering for the project, the decision was made that the house would be removed to solve a logistical challenge of where you put all the utilities," Art said. "There's stormwater management infrastructure that needs to be buried underground.
"The decision was made, I think reluctantly, that in order to make the project feasible and to minimize the impact on neighbors during the construction phase, we would have to make the house available for relocation if someone wanted to do that."
Art said a couple of dozen people had expressed some interest in the home, and there were a handful of "serious inquiries." But given the fact that, "it might cost $400,000 or $500,000 or more to move that house … There have been no takers," he said.
Williams' request for relief from a town-ordered demolition delay was based on its own unsuccessful efforts to find a taker and not a contention that the house has no value, according to Art's argument.
"I know that the Bubriski family, and especially Dagmar, have been prominent members of the community and have a personal history," Art said. "I grew up in town, and even as a young kid in the '70s and '80s, I certainly knew who Dagmar was. I certainly understand the concern and everyone's feelings about this."
Those feelings were strongly expressed to the commission on Thursday.
Williams College attorney Jamie Art tells the Historical Commission what the college had done to try to move the building.
Katharine Park, whose family home is across from the Bubriskis' at 29 Hoxsey St., told the commission that while the college is good at preserving its own history, it should also have concern for the history of town residents like Dagmar Bubriski.
Park, a professor of history at Harvard, explained that the Cambridge school has started to correct its own negligence in attending to the contributions of previously neglected individuals by installing plaques to recognize women and the slaves who built Harvard's buildings.
"Dagmar Bubriski was an important person in this town," said Park, whose sister Rachel also addressed the commision. "She was an important woman. I think if we're interested in the history of women in Williamstown and women in the community, Dagmar is No. 1, particularly because she was vocal. She was a thorn in the college's side when they were doing Bronfman [the science building the college currently seeking to replace].
"That's exactly the kind of historical figure who tends to get buried because she was a difficult person to tangle with and she was a woman and she lived in a domestic house instead of being chair of a department or something.
"If that house isn't historically important, I don't know what is."
Charles Bonenti, a former chair of the town's Historical Commission who worked with Bubriski on the panel, talked about the irony that her home could be razed in the exact manner that she would have fought against for other properties in town.
"I want to emphasize how she was a lone voice for historic preservation in this community for a long time. Because of her and a team of us working on it, we have this demolition delay we have now.
"This house expresses Dagmar's personality. Anyone who knew her realizes what a vivid personality she was. The house is just like that: vivid, patterned, filled with momentos.
"She was an important person in this community."
Bubriski's son Kevin, now a professor at Green Mountain College in Vermont, read a letter from representatives of the Doughty family, which includes five generations of Williams College alumni.
" 'The loss of 42 Hoxsey St. would be very sad because it has always been one of the elegant homes that has made Williamstown the Village Beautiful,' " Bubriski read. " 'At the very least, we would like to see the college stay any demolition until further plans could be considered.' "
Several speakers at the hearing recommended that the college pay to have the house moved to another property in town or change the plans for the new science building to move it 20 feet closer to Main Street to the north, opening up more space to the south between the new science building and 42 Hoxsey.
Art told the commission that the latter alternative was not one the college is likely to consider.
After hearing nearly two hours of testimony, Historical Commission Chairman Bill Barkin moved that the body order a 90-day delay. On a motion from Sarah Currie, that was raised to six months, and that time frame was swiftly approved by Barkin, Currie and Patricia Leach, the third member in attendance.
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I wonder if the house could be moved to the grounds of the high school, be renamed Bubriski House, and be used for the the school district's administrative offices. Williams could also donate funds to bring it up to code and make it handicap accessible. Seems like a win-win to me.
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