Fate of Hadley’s Russell building headed for vote in May


  • The Russell School building has not had a full-time tenant since 2015. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 1/23/2023 5:58:55 PM

HADLEY — More than two-thirds of people surveyed on the future of the deteriorating Russell School in Hadley center want the 1894 building preserved.

With results of this input presented to the Select Board by the Russell School Building Committee, the opportunity to begin the process of stabilizing the building could come as soon as Annual Town Meeting in May.

The Select Board gave unanimous support at its Jan. 18 meeting for the committee to pursue a $1.2 million application to the Community Preservation Act Committee.

“Judging by the results of the survey, they’re going to expect they are going to be given a choice on this,” Building Committee member Dan Regish said.

Regish said town officials have to know the direction residents want to take, whether to stabilize or demolish the building that opened 129 years ago as the fourth home of Hopkins Academy. The Russell School has not had a full-time tenant since Northstar Self-Directed Learning for Teens moved to Sunderland in the fall of 2015.

“The building at this point is pass or play,” Regish said. “The pass or play time is now. It’s do or die for this structure.”

The committee has come up with estimates that $1.24 million would go toward fixing the retaining walls, granite foundation and slate roof. But what happens beyond that for the vacant building would be determined at a later date.

The survey shows that 402 of the 562 residents who responded, or 73%, indicated that it’s very important or somewhat important to them to save the building.

“The two most popular responses were to stabilize the building and to rehab it for town or community use,” said Committee Chairwoman Courtney Meyer. “As a result the Russell School Committee recommends the town stabilize the building as soon as possible to prevent further deterioration.”

The Russell School survey was included in the town’s Nov. 1 water bill, paper copies were placed at the library and senior center, and it was posted online to specific Hadley social media groups.

When results are broken down by residents and non-residents, who weren’t excluded from participating, more support was evident from those who don’t live in Hadley, though residents appeared to like the idea of using CPA money for the project.

Still, board member Joyce Chunglo said her concern about the results is that 72% of non-Hadley residents strongly support its preservation, and only 44% of Hadley respondents feel likewise.

“I want to know what our Hadley residents say, who’s going to pay for it,” Chunglo said, noting that the picture is blurred because of the way the results were obtained.

But Select Board Chairwoman Jane Nevinsmith said the decision to have a CPA application is about no longer kicking the can down the road.

“What we’re doing is finally, we’re not going to kick the can, we’re going to place it for the final punt, and it either makes it or it doesn’t,” Nevinsmith said. “We put it on the warrant and let the town decide.”

The survey also collected anonymous comments about the building, with some in favor of preservation and others suggesting the building be razed.

“I spent two happy years learning in Russell School and would hate to see this gorgeous building demolished. The town center needs to try and retain its charm,” reads one comment.

Another states, “This is a magnificent building that graces the Hadley town center with a strong sense of place. To lose this historical building would be nothing short of tragic.”

One who felt differently writes, “It’s just a building. Why should we really care about the buildings in town when no one cares about keeping history even if it happened and was wrong it just disappears. It’s just a building.”

“The building is old, ugly and out of date for practical use. Historical preservation only applies to buildings that have actual historical value. What historical value does this building have? It’s a building that has outlived its usefulness and to think otherwise isn’t useful.”

Committee member Carolyn Holstein said Russell School is one of the most beautiful buildings in town and that a grant from the Massachusetts Preservation Fund could be pursued, which could ease the financial burden for the town.

“We’re hoping the preservation of this building will not cost the taxpayers too much money,” Holstein said.

Meanwhile, the building will be used by the Hadley Fire Department for non-fire, non-destructive training, such as search and rescue and getting out of buildings safely, with theatrical smoke to be used.

“It’s a great building for that type of thing,” Fire Chief Mike Spanknebel said.

When doing that training that might cause alarm to passers-by, Spanknebel said signs will be displayed along Route 9 and Middle Street that indicate training is in progress.

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

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