Historic barn renewal project nears goal in Northampton


Staff Writer

Published: 06-12-2022 8:24 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Historic Northampton’s dream of turning the Shepherd Barn into a thriving community space is on the cusp of coming true as the project continues to receive grants and planners stump for a final influx of donations.

The nonprofit on Bridge Street plans to renovate its roughly 220-year-old barn into an exhibit hall, performance venue and meeting room. The $765,000 project is still $80,000 shy of its target and organizers of the effort are working to fill that gap by the end of June.

“We hope to be open to the public by spring/summer 2023,” Historic Northampton co-director Laurie Sanders said during a recent tour of the site. An event for members and donors is planned for June 29 “and then soon after, July and August, the work gets underway.”

Funding has come from several sources, including a $173,000 allocation from Northampton under the Community Preservation Act last month, two grants from the Massachusetts Cultural Council totaling $137,000 and a $40,000 gift from the Beveridge Family Foundation.

An anonymous donor has contributed $450,000 in unrestricted gifts this year to Historic Northampton.

The anonymous donor “has played a pivotal role in the history of this organization,” Sanders said, and “made this gift to inspire more giving.” The donor has been contributing to Historic Northampton for the last six years to support its overall mission and operations.

According to Historic Northampton’s latest application for city funds, the Shepherd Barn is “likely the oldest outbuilding” in the city. Researchers have pored through old tax records to nail down where the barn came from, but so far, those efforts have not yielded a firm answer.

Based on evidence of changes over the centuries, Historic Northampton co-director Elizabeth Sharpe said the building used to be something other than a barn, but what is not clear. Holes in the wall of the east gable, called dovecote openings, show that at least one person raised pigeons there.

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In 2016, Bill Flynt, Historic Deerfield’s architectural conservator, dated the barn’s oldest timber to 1801 and placed construction in 1805. The building is often called the 1805 Shepherd Barn.

Historic Northampton believes that the structure was built by the Shepherd family during the presidency of Thomas Jefferson, probably somewhere in downtown Northampton, and around 1850, through a method that remains unclear, brought to the site behind 46 Bridge St. where it stands today. In the 19th century, Sanders said, buildings were sometimes rolled, ever so slowly, on a system of logs.

“This building is, through marriage, connected to almost all the old Northampton families,” Sharpe said. “The Pomeroys and the Wrights and the Shepherds,” among others.

The remodeled space will have two ADA-compliant gender-neutral bathrooms, green rooms for performers, a kitchenette, a stone patio, and a brand new roof and electrical system. An addition on the front will be torn down and rebuilt by local timber framer Alicia Spence and an addition consistent with 19th-century design will be made to the rear.

“The whole building gets lifted up and then you can repair underneath,” Sanders said. “Also, we’ll put in a full foundation and a floor, and then we’ll put in a wooden floor on top of that. To me, it seems like a complicated process” but Spence is an internationally renowned expert who has Historic Northampton’s full confidence.

Students of Bridge Street School use the yard in front of the barn for their Sprouts gardening program. The garden plots likely will be moved to another spot on the property.

The barn once housed more than 600 artifacts from Northampton’s past, such as a neon WHMP sign, a wooden Daily Hampshire Gazette sign, a 12-foot-tall weathervane, antique sleighs, a shoeshine station, bathtubs and a cabinet full of farming tools.

Sharon Mehrman, a historian and woodworker, led a group of volunteers in cataloguing each item. The plan is to restore and display some of these artifacts, each on its own custom-built wall mount, in the new space.

Historic Northampton once used the two-story barn as an exhibit hall, but it was closed to the public about 10 years ago and the staircase was removed, Sharpe said.

“This space has been a chameleon,” Sharpe said. “It’s been a bookbinding place, it was a gift shop. It’s changed its use over the years” and the new concept is “fitting.”

Sanders said the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted the project, which first received CPA funding in January 2020, but Historic Northampton took the first year of shutdowns and gathering restrictions to pore over the details and make sure the design was spot-on. They also invited artists to tour the space and pitch ideas, and Sharpe said they are approaching playwrights to see if the barn can host performances about local history.

Sharpe added that Historic Northampton is “super sensitive to being a good neighbor” and keeps the residents around their site in mind when making performance plans.

In November, cellist Quaverly Rothenberg, a neighbor of Historic Northampton, shot a video of herself playing in the barn, a moment that Sanders said was “really magical.”

Rothenberg, a Graves Avenue resident who has played the cello since she was a toddler, said she’s “hoping to finagle some way to practice cello there every day.” She said she recorded the video as “kind of as a sendoff to commemorate (the barn) in its last untouched state” before the renovation.

“I know Laurie is being mindful of acoustics in her design,” Rothenberg said. “I think it’s just going to sound gorgeous and look gorgeous.”

Neighbors of Historic Northampton have contributed money to the project, she said, to show support for an organization that serves as an “anchor” to the neighborhood.

“My expectation is that this space is really going to complement the arts scene of downtown Northampton,” Sanders said. “We can imagine this lineup of programming that is so strong that (the barn) becomes one of the must-sees if you’re coming to Northampton. Or if you’re local, people will be really proud of what this can mean for the community.”

Brian Steele can be reached at bsteele@gazettenet.com.]]>