Northampton Historical Commission backs $500K in CPA funds for St. John Cantius Church

  • St. John Cantius Church on Hawley Street in Northampton, seen in July 2021. Gazette file photo

Staff Writer
Published: 8/10/2022 8:23:33 PM
Modified: 8/10/2022 8:20:17 PM

NORTHAMPTON — The Historical Commission has voiced its support for an application to the city’s Community Preservation Committee requesting $500,000 to help preserve the exterior of the former St. John Cantius Church, where a Holyoke developer is planning to construct 10 units of multifamily housing.

In a 3-0 vote, the commission voted Monday to support O’Connell Development Group Inc.’s application for funding provided that the company follows the guidelines for the 10 Hawley St. building outlined in the historical structural report that was requested by the CPC.

The Historical Commission’s vote also included the caveat that the Holyoke developer works with Massachusetts Historical Commission to craft a historic preservation restriction on the building, which would require any future work to go through the Northampton commission for approval.

‘The restriction will certainly provide the city with a level of review that certainly doesn’t exist now,” said Sarah LaValley, conservation and preservation planner for the Northampton Office of Planning and Sustainability.

Martha Lyon, chairperson of the commission, said that she felt really comfortable with supporting O’Connell’s application if this approach was taken.

“I think this is a great opportunity to make this building even better, but it has to be done sensitively. I like the approach you’re thinking of. I think it has a lot of promise if it’s handled right,” said Lyon.

The former church building was designed by architect John W. Donahue in 1911 and constructed in 1913 by Polish immigrants. The building has been vacant since 2010 and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield sold the property to O’Connell in 2020 for $1.6 million.

Previously, O’Connell had proposed demolishing the more than a century old structure to then construct townhomes.

During an April meeting with the CPC, the committee requested a historical structure report and O’Connell hired consultant Mark Thaler of the Albany firm Lacey, Thaler, Reilly, Wilson Architecture & Preservation.

Since then, Matthew Welter, vice president of development at O’Connell, said the design has not been advanced as the company wanted to better understand its limitations as it works with the state Historical Commission on a preservation restriction.

“This has been an ongoing process,” said Welter. “In the spirit of what we intend to construct, it’s a 10-unit, multi-family project with the one caveat pending further comment and guidance from Mass. Historic.”

Thaler provided a brief overview of the report at the Monday meeting, noting that he has dealt with historic properties throughout his entire career.

“My thesis project in school was the adaptive reuse of a spectacular church in my hometown … Unfortunately, no function was ever found. This spectacular building came down,” he said. “I’m very sensitive to finding new uses that really respect these buildings. When we were approached to do this report, it was really in that spirit.”

Thaler noted some of the Romanesque revival-style building’s highlights including the brick and terracotta work as well as the areas that it required maintenance, including the red slate roof. Over time, many of the tiles have been lost or remain in poor condition due to weathering and age, he said. The roof’s poor condition allows water to seep in and has damaged the interior plaster.

Thaler also recommended that all of the gutters and downspouts are replaced.

Following his presentation, Welter said that the replacement of the red slate tiles may not be economically viable as not only are they a costly endeavor, but also exceedingly challenging to get amid availability and supply chain issues. O’Connell’s intention would be to use the $500,000 in potential Community Preservation Act funds to pay for repointing and fixing the masonry envelope of the building to stop the leaks.

“This is purely for stopping and stemming the water infiltration,” he said.

Moving forward, O’Connell’s application will now go to the next CPC meeting, which has not been scheduled, and then before the City Council.

Emily Thurlow can be reached at ethurlow@gazettenet.com.
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