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Editorial: Promising historical project in Deerfield deserves funding

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Monday, November 13, 2017

Deerfield’s one-time town hall, located in Old Deerfield since the 19th century, stands ready to play a new and important role in the 21st century.

The Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association (PVMA), one of two museum organizations in Old Deerfield, is looking for ways to renovate the former Town Hall on Memorial Street into an entry point for people coming to learn about New England’s past.

PVMA sees a rejuvenated Town Hall as a possible linchpin for a Franklin County convention center in Old Deerfield that would incorporate facilities of both its Memorial Hall Museum and its larger neighbor, Historic Deerfield.

The memorial association, which also owns adjacent Memorial Hall Museum as well as the former Deerfield Grammar School that is now used as its teacher-education center, would need to partner with Historic Deerfield to pull off this venture.

The heads of both museums say they see value in a collaboration that could yield a new entry point for Old Deerfield’s thousands of visitors each year. PVMA Executive Director Tim Neumann sees such a large-scale collaboration advancing the prospects of both organizations.

Originally a one-story structure, the Town Hall in 1870 was jacked up to have a first floor added below for schoolrooms and a library. School functions moved to the 1925 brick Memorial Hall next door, where a dozen or so one-room schoolhouses were consolidated, but the Town Hall functioned as such until the 1970s, when town offices moved to South Deerfield. It has been sitting largely idle since.

PVMA used an $800,000 U.S. Park Service grant several years ago toward repair of the building’s roof and foundation and to replace windows. But its lack of accessibility for handicapped people and fire-protection equipment has kept the upstairs auditorium from being used.

A study several years ago suggested Old Deerfield lacks a focal point for visitors coming to the village. Restoring the old Town Hall could create a shared orientation center right off Routes 5 and 10 that would not only explain what Historic Deerfield and Memorial Hall Museum offer, but also put it into context and possibly include an exhibit on the village’s famous 1704 French and Indian raid and other features.

The project could cost $3 million or more, according to local architect Margo Jones, who chairs PVMA’s building study committee.

The concept is being considered by PVMA leaders and has been discussed with Historic Deerfield, which might share in the costs and benefits of the project envisioned by Neumann as Memorial Hall approaches its 150th anniversary.

With an upstairs auditorium that could seat maybe 200 people, as well as rest rooms and perhaps a snack bar, the restored building could also be combined with meeting space in PVMA’s teacher-training center as well as Historic Deerfield’s Community Center next door and its Flynt Center exhibit hall down the road. This could create a conference center for functions of both organizations as well as others, according to a PVMA study in 2014. An addition would contain an elevator and kitchen.

Historic Deerfield President Philip Zea said it could make sense to have a shared visitor’s center “right in the middle of town. And a gallery with interpretive exhibits that present an overview of the town’s history, the raid and the different people who lived here — all stories that PVMA and Historic Deerfield share … a partnership on that kind of interpretation is certainly desired.”

It’s agreed. Such a project would be good for the museums, their visitors, county tourism and education. Now all the historians of Old Deerfield have to do is work out the politics of partnership and find $3 million.