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An historic barn stirs strong emotion

I woke up with a shiver, listening for the sound of chain saws. Some said they might come at night. A hum rose in the air: “They’re coming,” I thought. I listened closer for that electric grind, but it didn’t come. I had a moment of hope that today would not be the day that developers would tear down the century-old barn next door, the barn that is associated with the Amherst writer Warren R. Brown and his friend of Robert Frost.

I bought my house only two months ago, moving from Northampton to the enclave near the barn at 290 Lincoln Ave. because of its connections to a literary past and, of course, because of the bucolic nature of the corner.

I made assumptions about Amherst, about its values and interest in its historic past. I hope I wasn’t wrong.

Yet, those who were present at the Historical Commission’s demolition hearing on the barn report that permission was granted to the property owner very quickly, with little respect for what neighbors were trying to convey. They did not feel heard.

Neighbors, in fact, were so convinced that the Historic Commission would grant a one-year delay for the demolition that they were stunned when it failed to do so. Fiercely concerned about a piece of local history in peril, they urge the commission to reconsider and help avoid irreparable harm.

The commission’s findings (in a letter to the owner) did not show an understanding of the barn and estate as a primary physical legacy of one of Amherst’s most influential figures of early 20th century. It did not show an awareness of the significance of Warren R. Brown, the influential public speaker and writer who helped define and shape Amherst’s sense of itself for decades.

Brown was a writer, essayist, thinker, lecturer and “a philosopher,” as Frost called him. In fact, he was of such historical significance that historian Theodore P. Greene framed the entire self-consciousness of Amherst from 1890 to 1945 as “The Amherst of Calvin Coolidge, Editor Morehouse and Warren R. Brown …” (“The Gown Overwhelms the Town” Essays on Amherst’s History”).

Brown loved Amherst for its flora and fauna, extolled agrarian values and wrote about Amherst’s flowers, plants and rare specimens of trees. The significance of the barn is not merely that it is part of his legacy, but more than that, the barn perpetuates Brown’s vision of Amherst as a place of culture wedded to agriculture. He kept ducks and several Newfoundland dogs (the sibling of which was used as a model on the American stamp) in the barn.

Brown was so devoted to nature that he once submitted his friend Frost’s poem about apples for scientific review. Frost reported to the New York Times that “pomologically (the poem) got a clean bill, but not poetically.” Brown shaped the identity of Amherst for decades, a vision of Amherst as a blend of agriculture and culture. His barn was a part of who he was and who we are.

We citizens respectfully ask the Historical Commission and the building commissioner to please reconsider their decision to allow the immediate demolition of this historical structure.

If the estate is divided, the historic barn is gone, history is gone. There are technical reasons to delay as well (an abutter was not notified of the hearing). Most important, if the town continues to ignore the needs, concerns and history of the residents in favor of corporations, Amherst will become the place of private enterprise, where history and the Amherst of Warren R. Brown will be “demolished” forever.

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