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History lost: Former resident laments Smith College’s demolition of old Lyman Estate gardener’s house

  • The carriage house, which is part of the Lyman Estate on Lyman Rd. in Northampton. The gardener’s house, not pictured, was demolished this summer.  GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • The carriage house, which is part of the Lyman Estate on Lyman Rd. in Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Trees on land owned by Smith that was part of the Lyman Estate on Lyman Rd. in Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Land that is part of the Lyman Estate on Lyman Rd. in Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Land that is part of the Lyman Estate on Lyman Rd. in Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Leonard Baskin in the library built when he lived in the gardener’s house, which was part of the Lyman Estate on Lyman Rd. in Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Tobias Baskin talks about growing up in a house that used to be on the plot of land behind him and was part of the Lyman Estate on Lyman Rd. in Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Tobias Baskin talks about growing up in a house that used to be on the plot of land behind him and was part of the Lyman Estate on Lyman Rd. in Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Courtesy Tobias Baskin

  • Courtesy Tobias Baskin

  • Courtesy Tobias Baskin

  • Courtesy Tobias Baskin

  • Courtesy Tobias Baskin

  • Courtesy Tobias Baskin

  • Courtesy Tobias Baskin



Staff Writer 
Sunday, September 09, 2018

NORTHAMPTON — All traces of Tobias Baskin’s childhood home have vanished. An empty clearing, where once a Georgian 1880s-era home stood on the Lyman Estate, greeted him on Friday evening. 

“It was a fantastic place to grow up,” said Baskin, 61, of Amherst. “My parents built an extension with a library, and when you were at the bottom and you looked up to the second story, it had a balcony with books and a spiral staircase with a skylight at the top.” 

Baskin’s father, Leonard, a famed artist who worked as a professor at Smith College from the 1953 to 1974, and his wife, Lisa, a well-known activist and women’s history and arts collector, raised Tobias and his brother, Hosea, at the now-demolished home. Tobias is also a University of Massachusetts Amherst biology professor. 

A few weeks before the house was razed, Tobias and Hosea visited it after 44 years away. The building was originally built for the estate-owner’s gardener. Up until last year, half the building was rented to Smith faculty, and the other half had not been used for the past decade, according to Smith spokesperson Stacey Schmeidel. 

“Part of it was walled off, the part with the library got too damaged, and Smith must’ve worried about it being a liability,” Tobias said. “It was absolutely amazing going in there again. Even with all the water damage to all the bookshelves, it still made you want to sit down and read. It’s a shame they let it go to wreck.” 

On Friday, Tobias visited the property and looked out at the nearly 50 acres where he used to play baseball with the neighborhood gang behind his former home in grassy fields. What he saw were large box trucks with rusted wheels, piles of broken bits of concrete, and a large collection of dumpsters. 

“There was a fleet of neighborhood kids and we would play here,” Tobias said. “This is beautiful land so close to Northampton, and it’s being used for junk. There is just no vision.”  

He wondered why there could not be a park, a conference center, a special collection or arts center. He also spoke of Albert Blakeslee, an early-1900s botanist who taught at Smith, and the experiments they used to conduct on the very same field. 

Edward H.R. Lyman, a Northampton native, made his fortunes as a tea and silk importer in Brooklyn in the mid-1800s, and purchased the 27-acre estate in 1866. Lyman is best known in Northampton as the benefactor of the Academy of Music, which he bought the land for and had the building constructed with costs exceeding $100,000. 

Smith College eventually bought the property in 1946, and the main house was used as a dormitory from 1946 to 1964. Then, from 1964 to 2005, the main house hosted Smith College’s Early Childhood Education Center before moving to a new site on the estate in 2005. The main house has remained empty since. 

Schmeidel said the former gardener’s home no longer had any use for the college and, with no suitable use for the building, the college applied to demolish the building in January. 

The city’s Historical Commission reviewed the application and determined that the property did not meet the city’s demolition-delay law. Whenever there is an application to demolish a building built prior to 1939, a review is triggered to give the Historical Commission the ability to delay the demolition for up to 12 months so that alternatives can be explored. 

As for the college’s plans for the future of the estate — there are none, according to Schmeidel. 

On the city’s Department of Planning & Sustainability website, it states: “At some point, Smith College will be selling the Lyman Estate, probably retaining only the preschool on the site” under the “Just Big Enough” section. 

An abutting neighbor to the Lyman Estate, Jonathan Harr, has lived on Lyman Rd. since 1981 and said there has been a lack of information to neighbors living nearby.

“We’ve been reduced to speculation, hypothesis and inferences,” he said.