Justin Brown of Mass Design explains how the Mohawk ideas will be categorized by size.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — What could go into the Mohawk Theater? A super trampoline facility, a bakery, a ninja course, a recording studio, a Mount Greylock replica for climbing, a brewery. Maybe even a theater.
Those ideas and more were part of the out-of-the-box thinking at a forum Monday night to gather community feedback on possible uses for the long-vacant Main Street movie house.
Facilitated by Mass Design Group of Boston, a nonprofit architectural firm, about 50 community members clustered around tables at Terra Nova Church's The Green on Main Street to toss out ideas for different sectors of the building.
Justin Brown, a director with Mass Design, described the 80-year-old theater as an "extraordinary asset."
"I know there is a long history to this building, one I'm only beginning to understand," he said. "But Mass Design is here today because we believe in the capacity of a building through a community-driven design process ... We ask what a building can do rather than what a building is."
As an example, he pointed to the 100-year-old Trolley Barn in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. Mass Design has been working with the Mid-Hudson Heritage Center to re-imagine the building as an arts center and find funding to make it happen.
The conversations are part of a private effort to prepare a response to an anticipated request for proposal or statement of interest from the city, which has owned the theater for some years. Leading the charge are Keifer Gammell and Geeg Wiles. City Councilor Benjamin Lamb has also been involved.
Wiles said Mayor Thomas Bernard was invited but could not attend; also present were Lamb and City Councilors Marie T. Harpin and Keith Bona. The rest of the invited guests, about a third of whom attended, included members of the arts community, development and local business.
"This is one of, hopefully, many conversations even if we have to hold another group," Wiles said. "This doesn't represent the whole community."
Gammell said conversations with small groups have been going on for nearly a year. The mayor's raising the possibility of asking for proposals — he also had suggested a holding a charrette — had gotten people excited, he said.
"A lot can happen when you put all those people talking in a room and say, 'let's brainstorm,'" he said.
Plans to revive the Mohawk in some form have floated for years. The building was stabilized and the city did more work on the front entrance, but a viable, affordable proposal for reuse hasn't surfaced. The building would need significant additional work to make it suitable as a performance venue. The structure itself is bare bones — there are no walls, and minimal electrical and plumbing.
"We need to figure out what we want to keep and what we need to let go and reinvent," Brown said.
For many, the theater offers nostalgia. Richard Tavelli remembers when there were three theaters downtown, and the Mohawk not the fanciest but his favorite because he thought the motif was about cowboys and Indians. Every year the police association would put on a free movie showing with gifts at Christmas.
"It was just a very cordial part of the Christmas season for all the kids in North Adams," he said.
For Bona, it was the retro feel. "Everything seemed bigger, even when the cineplexes came in they weren't as big or weren't as grand," he said.
Brown thought there could be a way to present the more emotional and historical aspects but for a newcomer to the city, it was less about history and more about mystery.
"I'm continuously amazed by the buildings in this city. They're shockingly beautiful," said Megan Karlen, but often the outside doesn't give clues to the interior. "I think it's important to not to expect visitors to go in. They need to be brought in because they won't see the grandeur behind all these walls."
The riddle for the Mohawk is what can go in there. Brown said the theater portion could hold an NBA regulation court; the entire building, seven tennis courts. There are multiple levels including two basements.
The question posed to those at the forum was what could be put in the building in sections or in its entirety. It's large enough for go-karts but there's also smaller space for a restaurant or bakery. One suggestion was turning the entire structure into a wellness or healthy experience venue with different levels and activities. Or a "bar arcade" or professional gaming center. Or develop a modular concept with movable walls to accommodate performances, galleries or other activities.
All of the ideas were gathered up, along with where in the building they might occur and when they would happen.
"We're trying to turn this into what everyone thinks it should be and that way everyone can use the space and it turns into that cultural touch point," Wiles said.
It's the first step in a long process and may never happen, cautioned Brown. Still, there is hope if the community can coalesce around an idea and push to keep it moving.
"The first community meeting we had zero to build it, now we have $1.5 million," Brown said of the Trolley Barn. "This is something that involved a lot of different stakeholders. I think our commitment is strengthening each time we go through it."
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