New arts, community center opens at Florence Congregational Church

  • Cassandra Holden and Kyle Homstead, principals of Laudable Productions in Easthampton, are in the process of acquiring the Florence Congregational Church and turning the sanctuary into a music and arts venue. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Kyle Homstead and Cassandra Holden, principals of Laudable Productions, have refurbished the front of the sanctuary at Florence Congregational Church into a performance stage. The couple is in the process of acquiring the church and turning it into a music and arts venue. Photographed on Monday, Oct. 25, 2021. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • From the new stage in the sanctuary at the Florence Congregational Church, performers can see the Sojourner Truth park on the corner of Pine and Maple streets. Photographed on Monday, Oct. 25, 2021. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • A side room at the Florence Congregational Church. Kyle Homstead and Cassandra Holden, principals of Laudable Productions, are in the process of acquiring the church and turning the sanctuary into a music and arts venue. Photographed on Monday, Oct. 25, 2021. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Kyle Homstead and Cassandra Holden, principals of Laudable Productions, talk on Monday, Oct. 25, 2021, about their plans for turning the Florence Congregational Church into a community space for music and arts. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Laudable Productions is in the process of acquiring the Florence Congregational Church and turning the sanctuary into a music and arts venue. Photographed on Monday, Oct. 25, 2021. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Kyle Homstead and Cassandra Holden, principals of Laudable Productions, are in the process of acquiring the Florence Congregational Church on Pine Street and turning the sanctuary into a music and arts venue. Photographed on Monday, Oct. 25, 2021. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Cassandra Holden and Kyle Homstead, principals of Laudable Productions in Easthampton, are in the process of acquiring the Florence Congregational Church and turning the sanctuary into a music and arts venue. Photographed on Monday, Oct. 25, 2021. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • A “Blessing of Transition” took place earlier this month at the Florence Congregational Church for the new partnership with the Bombyx Center for Arts & Equity. From left, FCC Pastor Elizabeth Blackburn; former FCC Pastor Irven Gammon; and Rabbi Riqi Kosovoske of Beit Ahavah.  Image courtesy Kyle Homstead

  • The Florence Congregational Church, built in 1861, will now become part of the Bombyx Center for Arts & Equity. Photo by Julian Parker-Burns

  • Jazz guitarist Gilad Hexselman, a native of Israel, is one of several musicians slated to play in November at the new Bombyx Center for Arts & Equity. He’ll also conduct a master class there. Photo from Gilhad Hexselman website

Staff Writer
Published: 10/31/2021 8:06:16 PM

FLORENCE — During the last few years, the Florence Congregational Church, struggling with declining revenues and an aging congregation, began looking for a potential buyer for the historic building, opened in 1861 and then expanded in the 20th century.

But the church didn’t want to sell to just anyone. Officials wanted the property, home to two other organizations — Beit Ahavah, a reform Jewish community, and the Cloverdale Preschool — to remain a local center.

Some hopeful talks developed with others in the Valley in 2019 about creating a nonprofit group that could turn the complex into a community arts center, one in which the FCC, Beit Ahavah and the preschool would remain.

But then the pandemic hit and that effort fell by the wayside — until now.

Laudable Productions, the music and live event producer in Easthampton, is now in the initial stage of acquiring the 130 Pine Street property and turning it into just the sort of multi-purpose venue that had been envisioned.

What Laudable calls the Bombyx Center & Arts and Equity is a new forum for live music, art exhibits, music workshops, community gatherings and more, as well as a permanent home for the current tenants.

Some arts events are already underway. The Bombyx Center held its official opening Oct. 29, with a concert featuring jazz specialists Dee Dee Bridgewater and Bill Charlap, and several more shows are scheduled in November and December, with a particular emphasis on jazz; an art exhibit focused on the work of Angel De Cora, the first Native American to graduate from Smith College, is also now on display.

Kyle Homstead and Cassandra Holden, Laudable’s principals, say they first became engaged two years ago in the talks about creating a nonprofit group to buy the FCC property. Though that effort was sidelined by the pandemic, the couple got back in touch with church officials late last year and then committed a few months ago to acquiring and renovating the property. Terms for the deal have not yet been made public.

A key factor in creating the new community arts center, they say, is honoring the FCC’s roots as a church founded by Florence residents committed to ending slavery and creating genuine racial and sexual equality in the U.S.

“We’re really inspired by what an organization like this can bring to the fabric of the community, using the arts as a vehicle to reawaken the history here of local activism,” Homstead said during a recent tour of the property.

“I grew up in Florence,” Homstead added, “but I never understood the history. Florence was always a sort of sleepy bedroom community of Northampton, which was considered the center of everything.

“But as we got into this project,” he continued, “and began to learn the history not just of this property but also of Florence and all the incredible activism, the whole thing just became more and more appealing.” The FCC, he notes, once served parishioners from nine different denominations.

Holden says the name of the new arts center is drawn from the Bombyx mori, or silk moth, which was central to the Northampton Association of Education and Industry (NAEI), a group of activists, farmers, and silk manufacturers that formed in Florence in the early 1840s and was committed to equality, religious tolerance, and ending slavery. The NAEI ran a silk mill for several years to finance their utopian community.

The silk mill didn’t last, but the spirit that fired the NAEI’s creation did. Florence became home to a number of African Americans who had escaped from slavery in the South, as well as to Black abolitionists such as David Ruggles and Sojourner Truth; Frederick Douglass also spent time here and gave speeches. Today, the statue in Florence honoring Truth sits just across the street from the FCC.

“To become part of this history and this community is really exciting,” said Holden.

‘A beautiful little theater’

Aside from that history, Homstead and Holden also say they were struck by how well the FCC’s sanctuary, which can seat 330 people, seemed suited for the kind of music they produce — jazz, world beat, Latin American and Caribbean sounds, and more — both from an aesthetic standpoint and for sound quality.

“The space really spoke to us,” said Homstead. “It’s a lovely room, with beautiful stained glass (that doesn’t have) a lot of symbolism. It really feels like a beautiful little theater.”

The couple, working with Florence architect Marc Sternick, have made some initial changes to the sanctuary, removing two pulpits from the altar to create a stage. They’ve also added lighting and worked with Klondike Sound to install a sound system. They’re looking as well to remove some pews to form a small dance area near the stage.

Longer-range plans envision adding a new floor, replacing the pews with regular seating, and installing a moveable stage that could be repositioned for different events, said Homstead.

Those changes will in turn depend on the success of a capital campaign the couple plan to launch later this year, and on getting grant funding they’re looking into; if all goes well, construction could start next summer.

“We’re really in the information gathering phase right now,” said Holden. “We’re doing an environmental study and a code review, and we’re having plans of the building drawn up — there aren’t any existing plans, and it is more than 150 years old.”

That said, Homstead noted that the FCC property as a whole, which has multiple rooms and spaces and a large kitchen, appears “wonderfully maintained. We haven’t encountered any real problems so far.”

The sanctuary, even if modified, remains the setting of FCC services, as well as for services for Beit Ahavah. The Rev. Averill Elizabeth Blackburn, FCC’s pastor, says she’s thrilled by the new collaboration with Laudable Productions, as it lets the church stay in its historic home while also relieving FCC of much of its recent financial burden. She now leads services from a moveable pulpit.

“This is just a great fit, and it’s a real partnership,” Blackburn said. “To work with a local arts organization like this that’s committed to our spiritual community, and to our history here, it’s just what we were hoping for.”

Adapting to change

Part of the new arrangement includes Laudable giving a 99-year lease to the FCC, which grants the church the right to use the space for services and events. Beit Ahavah and the Cloverdale Preschool, which have been tenants of the FCC, will continue that arrangement with the church.

Blackburn said FCC members do have to reckon with the changes to their sanctuary. But she believes the congregation is ready to accept them in return for the comfort of knowing everyone can stay in the building.

“Change is always something you have to get used to,” she said. “But along with the changes, now we have a way to revive this whole property.”

Laudable also plans to use other spaces on the property for different events. The FCC chapel, for instance, will be used to host a master class with jazz guitarist Gilad Hekselman, who will play at Bombyx Nov. 13. A large room adjacent to that, which currently displays artwork by Angel De Cora, could become a lobby; future plans include building a new main entrance, a glass atrium, to the arts center just outside that room.

Holden and Homstead have another reason for creating an arts center in Florence. They’ve produced shows in multiple places in the Valley — Millside Park in Easthampton, Northampton’s Academy of Music, Gateway City Arts in Holyoke — and in venues outside the area. But with the Bombyx Center, they’ll have their own performance space for the first time.

“We like moving audiences around and having different places for shows,” said Homstead. “But there is something wonderful about having a home base.”

But, he added, “To be part of the history here, to be a part of preserving this community and bringing a new dimension to it, that’s really what this is about.”

More information about the Bombyx Center for Arts & Equity can be found at bombyx.live. A COVID vaccination card or results from a negative COVID test within 72 hours are required for entry, and face masks must be worn at all events.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.


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