Holyoke’s Wistariahurst closed through fall as renovations soon begin

  • The Wistariahurst historic house museum. SUBMITTED PHOTO/WISTARIAHURST

Staff Writer
Published: 6/13/2020 3:37:28 PM

HOLYOKE — The Wistariahurst historic house museum will stay closed through at least November as it undergoes renovations beginning next month to upgrade aging and inadequate electrical equipment throughout the mansion.

The renovation project was originally planned for 2021, but fficials saw an opportunity to start the project now as the museum has been closed to the public since mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a statement from the museum. Archival projects and virtual research access will continue; the museum grounds will be open to drop-in visitors until the renovations begin.

“The original timeline on this project was built around our program schedule, which obviously has been thrown into disarray,” Kate Preissler, director of Wistariahurst, said in the statement. “Like so many other small cultural institutions right now we are feeling devastated by this extended closure and we’ve already taken major hits to revenue and budget. We decided the simplest and smartest thing to do was to move forward with the electrical project rather than play a game of waiting to see if we could reopen safely in the near future.” 

The museum was recently awarded $214,500 from the Holyoke Community Preservation Act Fund as well as matching money from the Massachusetts Cultural Council Facilities Project Fund for the renovations, which is the bulk of the project’s cost, the statement said. A City Council meeting agenda from early June placed the total budget for the project at $353,350.

Owned and operated by the city of Holyoke and supported by The Wistariahurst Foundation, Wistariahurst is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is the former home of William Skinner, a prominent silk manufacturer. It was built in 1874. 

The museum utilizes fuse boxes from the 1930s and 1960s, among other issues, the statement said. An engineering study in 2018 “revealed the extent of the hazards posed by the existing equipment,” according to the statement. Preissler and City Engineer Robert Peirent brought experts in to develop a plan to bring the museum up to code and improve the functionality of spaces that see high electrical loads due to performances at the historic home.

Wistariahurst received a Comminity Development Block Grant award in 2020 and partnered on a public campaign with The Wistariahurst Foundation, a private 501c(3), to raise money to support the museum. The Friends of Wistariahurst, a now disbanded support group, previously donated $28,000 designated to improvements in lighting and sound in the historic Belle Skinner Music Room, according to the museum.

The renovations will not stop the work of preserving and teaching history. Staff will continue to work at a second building on site, which was renovated into a climate-controlled exhibit and archival facility in 2010. 

“In what now seems like an incredible coincidence, I have spent the last two years working on a Disaster Plan for our site,” said Penni Martorell, city historian and Wistariahurst curator, in the statement. “While I can’t say that I had a pandemic in mind while I was working on it, we did lay out several scenarios in the plan for how to continue to fulfill our mission if we found ourselves without access to the historic buildings. What that means is that we have contingency plans we can now put into action.” 

Michael Connors can be reached at mconnors@gazettenet.com. 

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