Northampton Community Arts Trust begins renovations to 33 Hawley St. building; project timeline unclear

Last modified: Thursday, August 27, 2015

NORTHAMPTON — The Northampton Community Arts Trust last week began renovation of its 33 Hawley St. building, paving the way for affordable practice, performance and exhibition space for generations to come.

The nonprofit group was incorporated in 2010 with the intent of ensuring the viability of arts in downtown Northampton. Modeled after land trusts, the organization aims to acquire and preserve space that it is open and affordable for creative use in perpetuity.

The trust owns the Hawley Street property outright. It purchased the building in October 2013 for $1.5 million.

Though space is abundant in the cavernous structure, which housed a lumber company before being transformed into a gym, it was clear it would not fit the mission of the arts trust in the long term. “The bottom line with the building, it was unsustainable,” trust president Richard Wagner said. “Think of a soup can — that’s basically the inside of the building.”

The metal skin of the building offers little insulation, making it costly to heat. The arts trust, and by extension its future home, is all about sustainability, Wagner said.

“The primary focus with the design always was, how do you create a space that’s affordable for arts groups or individuals to use?” Wagner said.

On Aug. 10, the first of three phases in the building’s refurbishment began. That’s when crews began demolishing the structure’s interior.

The first phase will see the building’s shell replaced with all-in-one metal panels and insulation, and the installation of a new roof and photovoltaic array.

“The big thing here is that we’re taking an inefficient building shell and turning it into a really efficient building shell,” Wagner said. “This sets an excellent foundation for what comes after.”

And what comes after that is more work that will ready the building for actual use. The building’s skeleton, in this second stage of construction, will be filled in with studios, galleries and a performance space.

But until work to create a “tight” building is complete, “the rest is pointless,” Wagner said.

Wagner said the PV array will reduce, if not eliminate, the building’s energy costs, while the insulated panels will go far in stretching the energy dollar to ensure savings can be passed on to artists.

Architect Daniel Bonham of the Northampton firm Thomas Douglas Architects, was at the site last Friday to exchange paperwork with Wagner. He sang the praises of the building material.

“It’s exciting material, too, because while it’s relatively new, it’s very well-tested and becoming more and more popular,” he said. It has been used in everything from cold storage to industrial to residential applications and is above all “adaptable,” Bonham said.

The third phase will commence after much of the interior work is complete. That will involve input from members of the creative community to plan and construct the building’s black box theater.

No date has been announced for actual use of the space by artists and the public. Wagner said the trust would be better able to estimate that by the end of this year.

Investments in future

The trust is in the “quiet phase” of a $5.2 million capital campaign to complete the first two phases of renovations. So far it has raised $760,000 of the $2 million needed for construction costs of the first stage of work, Wagner said.

“We’re hoping that (the start of the renovations) will get people excited for what we’re trying to do,” Wagner said.

And it seems people are excited.

“People kind of throw around this term ‘the creative economy,’ but for us it’s actually a meaningful component to economic development,” Ward 3 City Councilor Ryan O’Donnell said. “It has inherent value in terms of our cultural identity.”

Wagner says that cultural identity is threatened when artists cannot afford to continue to live and create in a city that’s known for its art scene.

Peter Blanchette and his Happy Valley Guitar Orchestra know that all too well.

They were based in the former Northampton Center for the Arts building, which was turned into office space after the center lost its 30-year lease in 2013.

“We’ve almost never been able to have access to rehearsal space that we could possibly afford for any more than a year at a time,” Blanchette said. “That’s really stressful on an organization like ours, to not know that you can regularly rehearse.”

They found stability at 33 Hawley St. before the renovations began.

“I think Northampton is gentrifying itself out of its artistic identity,” Blanchette said. “When I think back to the 28-year-old me that first came to Northampton ... the 28-year-old me couldn’t make it here anymore, couldn’t live here, wouldn’t live here.”

But he says organizations like the arts trust can provide shelter from that force.

“What I really admire about the notion of the arts trust, it’s the idea just like a land trust — if you take away the pressure of the market, then you can create this spot that stays away from the inertia of the real estate market,” Blanchette said.

With ample parking across the 1½-acre parcel, easy access to downtown, the bike path and the Amtrak station nearby, the trust believes it is ensuring that art will remain accessible in the heart of Northampton for years to come.

“I don’t know who is going to be using the space in 20 years, but I can tell you it’s not going to be a jewelry store, it’s not going to be an auto dealership,” Wagner said. “It is now and forever a space for creative work.”


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