Gordon Thorne, arts promoter, developer of Thornes Marketplace, dies at 77

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  • A 1977 Daily Hampshire Gazette article shows Gordon Thorne, right, along with his wife, Anne Woodhull, his brother, Brinkley Thorne, and his wife, Mazie Cox, after they acquired the Main Street Center, later Thornes Marketplace. SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • Gordon Thorne talks about the Northampton Business Improvement District in in the APE Gallery in December 2014. Thorne, who developed Thornes Marketplace along with his brother and their wives, and provided space and encouragement to the arts community for 40 years, died last week at 77. Carol Lollis

  • Gordon Thorne talks about the Northampton Business Improvement District in in the APE Gallery in December 2014. Carol Lollis

  • JERREY ROBERTSGordon Thorne, left, and Michael Tillyer collaborate on their show "Make work: Gordon Thorne and Michael Tillyer", Friday at A.P.E. Gallery in Northampton. JERREY ROBERTS

  • —Submitted Photo

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  • From Rehabitations, a series by Stephen Petegorsky. April, 1981 Stephen Petegorsky—Submitted Photo

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Staff Writer
Published: 7/5/2018 9:56:01 PM

NORTHAMPTON — A key player in the revitalization of downtown Northampton in the late 1970s who remained at the forefront of promoting arts in the city for 40 years has died at the age of 77.

Gordon Thorne, who died June 27 at his home at Bramble Hill Farm in Amherst, is being remembered by friends and colleagues as the longtime co-owner of Thornes Marketplace and the founding director of A.P.E. Gallery, the centerpiece of the top floor of Thornes where he demonstrated his commitment to having a venue where visual arts could be on display and community artists and arts groups could practice and perform.

“It’s my opinion that Gordon is probably the most important person for the vitality of the creative community here,” said Stephen Petegorsky, a photographer and board member of the Northampton Community Arts Trust.

A.P.E., Petegorsky said, was envisioned as a versatile space above the retail entities at Thornes that could spawn creativity, whether for a large gallery exhibit for visual arts or an experimental theater production.

“It was a space where people could create things that didn’t necessarily have to sell tickets or products to keep the doors open,” Petegorsky said, noting that profits from the rentals on the two retail floors supported that third-floor area.

Lisa Thompson, associate director of A.P.E., said Thorne was an artist himself, but made sure everyone had an opportunity to pursue their creativity.

“In my experience of working with Gordon over 20 years, I think he was most committed to providing and protecting spaces where artists could work less encumbered by time and economic pressure,” Thompson said. “His influence was felt on an individual level, as well as through his generosity in the community.”

Born in 1941 in Greenwich, Connecticut, Thorne began pursuing a career in the arts after graduating from Yale University, initially finding a spot where he painted on Main Street in New Haven.

In 1977, he acquired what would become Thornes Marketplace with his wife, Annie Woodhull, and his brother and sister-in-law, Brinkley Thorne and Mazie Cox, for $535,000. The building, which had first opened in 1871 and was once known as McCallum’s Department Store, had closed in 1973. It was revived two years later when Floyd Andrus, a Northampton electrical contractor, converted the site into a collection of shops called Main Street Center.

The Thornes kept this much the same, but added the Available Potential Enterprises, or A.P.E., space.

“Brink and Mazie did a lot of work that first year to bring in new kinds of businesses; we had high expectations for what we wanted to see there,” Gordon Thorne said, in a quote supplied by the family.

“They were inspired by marketplaces they’d seen in their travels in the Middle East — no solid walls, lots of interaction. The model we were after was something like the Whole Earth Catalog, that the building would become a series of tools for living.”

The family continued to own the property until 2006, when Douglas Kohl bought Thornes for $6.4 million.

In an earlier interview, Thorne recalled Northampton being a good place for the creative community when he first arrived.

“It was an artist’s dream. There were a lot of empty stores so there were artists working everywhere in the building.”

This changed over time, though, with many of the upper levels of downtown Northampton buildings not remaining affordable, but instead turned into residences, offices and other commercial spaces, making artists pay a premium for space.

A.P.E, which was used to promote both Thorne’s own work and that of other artists and performers at hundreds of events, was forced to move to a smaller site at 126 Main St. when a lease arrangement wasn’t possible with Kohl.

“He was all about making space for artists,” said Andrea Olsen, a staff member of A.P.E, who noted that the arts trust in development is the brainchild of Thorne who “began to envision an arts trust to save the space we’re losing.”

Kathy Couch, an A.P.E. board member, said Thorne believed that creative endeavors were essential to the health of a community, committing his personal resources to ensure artists had space to do their work.

“This legacy of generously creating, maintaining and offering such space for artists and the community will be carried forward by all of us who worked, grew, evolved and imagined in these spaces that Gordon made,” Couch said.

“Gordy’s vision for Thornes shaped our lives and played a very large role in shaping the renaissance of Northampton,” said Patty Arbour, founder of the Artisan Gallery.

Thornes was the community of entrepreneurship that cultivated a downtown revitalization, said Elizabeth Sustick, co-owner with husband Paul Sustick of Paul & Elizabeth’s, which has been part of Thornes since 1978.

“One of Gordy’s gifts was vision. He looked for what would bring us to a modern vibrant community, and food was a cornerstone,” Sustick said, noting that the restaurant was doing a farm-to-table philosophy and focused on vegetarian cuisine before these things were in fashion.

Land-based education

Thorne’s career was more varied than supporting artists and being part of the growing commercial sector, though.

In 1996, Thorne established the Open Field Foundation, which aimed to create a land-based education site and to protect and sustain agricultural ecologies. With Woodhull, he created an incubator for young farmers and a nature site for schoolchildren at an Amherst farm.

They bought the 120-acre Jacque family dairy farm on South Pleasant Street in Amherst, turning it into Bramble Hill Farm, refurbishing barns, restoring the 1880 farmhouse, bringing in sheep and restoring an open-field farm structure

As Woodhull explains, “When you build a house in a field, you lose the field. We wanted to preserve the open spaces for the imagination.”

And like other endeavors, some of the space at the farm was used for rehearsals by performers, though much of it was seen as a space to educate students at the neighboring The Common School.

An agricultural curriculum was important to Thorne, said Heide Zajonc, co-founder of The Hartsbrook School in Hadley.

She said Thorne made possible the purchase of the historic one-room school, known as The Homestead, that included a small barn to house a number of farm animals, along with a fruit and vegetable garden, and a compost operation. The school later added 35 acres under the Agricultural Preservation Restriction program, with Jersey milk cows, sheep, goats, chickens and bee keeping.

“Gordon was a great visionary and combined generosity with self-effacing modesty,” Zajonc said. “He did not impose himself or his vision on others but sought to create the conditions that would allow the community to flourish with its own aspirations according to deeper shared values.”

Woodhull continues to serve on the trustees at Hartsbrook.

Art in the community

Petegorsky recalls designing posters to publicize events in the A.P.E. space, which became an incubator for Dance Gallery and No Theater, among others local companies.

“What was unique is he was always committed to the process of creativity,” Petegorsky said. “He had a very, very deep and strongly held view that arts should be part of the community.”

Thorne also pushed for sustainablity, advocating for a large solar array on top of the new Community Arts Trust building on Hawley Street that will reduce operational costs.

Thompson said this building has partially opened, with a new flexible performing space that will become a reality later this year. “It’s been a complete honor and privilege to work with him,” Thompson said.

Couch is confident that Thorne’s legacy will be carried forward with the Northampton Community Arts Trust.

“His work was not about building a stronger ‘cultural economy’ or attracting more tourism to the region,” Couch said. “It was about the lives being lived in this place and how we can create an ecosystem that will nourish and protect the resource of our imagination.”

Ongoing tributes to the life and work of Gordon Thorne are being collected at the A.P.E. website at www.apearts.org

A gathering will be held at 5 p.m. on Aug. 12 at Bramble Hill Farm in Amherst.

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

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