Suffield is celebrating its 350th year of founding. How would one ever know that? Where are the layers of architecture testifying to those centuries of decades? There are the Kent and Hatheway Houses, and a few other old grande dames scattered around—and thank God we managed to save our Platner-designed, mid-century library. But so many of the vintage Colonial-era and 19th-century homes and barns, and later-centuried storefronts and shops that I’m told once graced our Main Street—edifices that told us at a glance what we valued in that niche of time when they were erected—are gone, replaced by homogenous, sterile, Friendly’s-like stacks of brick and mortar—wiped out as if they had never been. One of the pleasures of going to Northampton is walking down Main Street—a main street that we once had. Those buildings speak to you of another time, a time that has just as much a right to linger as the current one has to be.
When I first moved here 19 years ago, I was horrified to see a photograph on the Post Office wall of the old brownstone that was razed to make way for the present brick Town Hall. An almost identical brownstone still stands in the town of Norfolk—a place that either didn’t have the resources to “modernize” or else had enough smarts to save it from the wrecking ball. Likewise, the town of Farmington has applied for a grant for restoration of its old barns owned by the Town in an attempt to keep them. What does Suffield do? Nothing. 150-year-old and older barns around town are knocked down without a word. The Oliver Hanchett House—a beautiful, 18th-century gem—hauled away to Duchess County, N.Y. without a whimper.
AND NOW? Bridge Street School! I thought I went to the polls at least twice to save it. Built in 1918—the year my mother was born (there’s some emotion there)—it was schoolhouse to two of my nephews; but more than that, it tells a tale of architecture, workmanship and materials of a hundred years ago. Yes, it would take a lot to restore it. Yes, it would’ve taken a lot to restore the 150-year-old barn that once resided next door to me. But wouldn’t that be—wouldn’t it have been—worth it all to salvage the soul of a place? Because that’s what these buildings are—the soul of a place.
Mystic Seaport, Boston, Paris. Some of the most awesome sites of human habitat on the planet are those where edifices reflecting thought in design of another time stand alongside others that came after it, as though the culture and idea of beauty of that time had been frozen in wood—or stone and mortar—or whatever material they were made of. Those thoughts of what constituted beauty in other times inform us, connect us to place; they help to define us.
Structures that we build are every bit as much a part of our culture and our art as the Colosseum in Rome or a Rembrandt at The Wadsworth. As someone once said to me about these old buildings, “They aren’t building any more of ‘em. And when they’re gone, they’re gone.”
Bridge Street School deserves to stand.