Henry Hills House hedge irks Amherst abutter 

  • The Henry F. Hills House Amherst Media

Staff Writer
Published: 11/15/2020 8:08:06 PM

AMHERST — A recently planted hedge in front of the Henry F. Hills House and parallel to Main Street is prompting a public complaint that the shrubs are undermining the integrity of a historic green in the Emily Dickinson Local Historic District.

Jim Lescault, executive director of Amherst Media, said in a statement this week that he is troubled by the decision by Henry Hills House owners Robert Speiser and Anthony Brackett to put in the bushes, especially since a project to construct a new headquarters for the nonprofit, on two parcels in front of the mansion, was only approved by the Local Historic District Commission after extensive changes were made to the building designs to protect the viewscape.

“We are very troubled that the most active opponents and abutters, Bracket and Speiser, have walled in the Hills House, making it the sole property of the owners and not the integral historic public symbol of Amherst’s past, the symbol they so publicly demanded,” Lescault said.

During the extended hearings on Amherst Media, which plans to build a 1½-story Greek Revival building as headquarters for the nonprofit that oversees the public access, educational and government television channels for the town, concern was repeatedly expressed about how the building might block both the Henry Hills House and the Amherst Woman’s Club buildings.

The woman’s club is located in a Victorian home built in 1864 by Amherst hat manufacturer Leonard Mariner Hills, whose palm-leaf hat factory employed more than 200 people by 1869 and was the largest hat manufacturer in the country. The Henry Hills House was built in 1862 and 1863 by Leonard Hills’ son, who joined his father’s business and became a prominent town figure instrumental in establishing local railroad, gas and water companies.

Lescault said he has brought his concerns about the new plantings to the town, though it appears there is no action officials can take.

Planning Director Christine Brestrup said because the Henry Hills House is in the general residence, or R-G zoning district, and is currently being used as a single-family home, neither the Planning Board or Zoning Board of Appeals would have been required to discuss the matter.

And while the Local Historic District Commission reviews projects, it only has jurisdiction over the built environment, not over landscaping, Brestrup said.

According to the bylaw creating the commission, it can issue a certificate of appropriateness, certificate of non-applicability or certificate of hardship when a building permit or demolition permit is required, or when architectural features are being removed from a structure, even if a building permit isn’t necessary.

As the discussion surrounding Amherst Media’s plans demonstrated, the town has long been interested in preserving the lawn in front of the mansions.

In 2008, Town Meeting authorized the creation of what was to be called the Hills Historical Landscape Park, using a combination of Community Preservation Act money, donations and a state grant to buy the properties in front of the house for $360,000. But the deal was never finalized when the state grant fell through, and Amherst Media eventually acquired that land.

Even though the permanent protection was not realized, the appearance of the historic lawn has improved in recent years, as until the early 2000s there was significant overgrowth that largely obscured the buildings from Main Street.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.
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