Think about your town. If you are fortunate enough to have a local arts center, a theater, a museum, or a space for music and dance, you know how these places enhance your enjoyment and the special character of your neighborhood.
Many of these arts and cultural organizations are housed in historic buildings - old homes, theaters, opera houses, and storefronts that can tax a small group’s ability to restore and maintain them. But what they also provide is an opportunity for a community to come together and rally around a project that makes them stronger as a result.
A great example of this is Pickens Hall and Opera House in Heuvelton, a small community in St. Lawrence County, close to the St. Lawrence River. In 1819, John Pickens came to the area as an immigrant from Ireland and by 1858 had prospered sufficiently to be able to construct the Pickens Stone Block. Commonly referred to as Pickens Hall, the building housed the Pickens Mercantile Store and a third floor Opera House. Built of stone and three stories tall, Pickens Hall was one of the most substantial structures around, but by 2001 the building was facing imminent demolition due to deterioration and neglect.
In 2001, just steps ahead of the wrecking ball, a group of concerned citizens led by David Kingsley formed the Heuvelton Historical Association (HHA) to acquire and save this local landmark. They secured the building against the elements and with an initial grant and their own labor they installed a new roof and made minor repairs. It can be extremely difficult to raise large amounts of money for such efforts in small towns in rural counties and constant fundraising and sweat equity became hallmarks of the organization.
Today, after a fifteen-year restoration effort by a dedicated group of supporters – and for many, a labor of love – it’s once again the heart of the community. Exhibit space on the second floor houses everything from memorabilia from the glory days of the Opera Hall, to quilt shows, to regional artwork. As Randy Crawford of Crawford & Stearns said of the project, “Once the building project is done, it’s the programming that keeps it relevant. The preservation is just the start.”
In many cases it’s a grant - or two - from the Preservation League that jumpstarts a grassroots effort to restore a local asset. In Poughkeepsie, the Barrett Art Center (BAC) connects residents and visitors to the visual arts as a way to inspire the creativity and civic spirit of the region through rotating art exhibitions, lectures, workshops, and demonstrations. BAC is headquartered in an 1840s Greek Revival style brick townhouse that was once the home of artist Thomas Weeks Barrett, Jr.
In 2016 the group successfully competed for a Technical Assistance Grant of $3,000 to assess the building’s roof. As so often happens in historic buildings, once you scratch the surface, you realize that there’s much more work to be done. So in 2017 they applied for an $11,600 Preserve New York Grant for a comprehensive Building Conditions Assessment.*
But how to raise the partial match needed for this grant? For that, the BAC turned to what it knows best - art.
Enter Rudy Vavra, a painter from Rhinebeck, and board member of the Dutchess County Art Association which operates the Barrett Art Center. For years Rudy and his wife sent homemade Christmas cards to friends featuring his hand-painted Christmas trees. Friends loved them and collected them. So began Trees for Tom (Tom being Thomas Barrett in whose former home the BAC is located). Rudy donated an edition of 100 prints of a watercolor holiday tree he painted to BAC to help support the match for the League’s Preserve New York Grant.
From the North Country to the Hudson Valley, these projects have allowed neighbors to work together and create a stronger community as a result. We hope that these preservation success stories will stay with you and buoy your spirits when you think the odds are against you.
Does your community have a preservation success story to share? We hope you’ll consider a nomination to our statewide Excellence in Historic Preservation Awards.
*The Preserve New York and TAG programs are a partnership between the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA) and the Preservation League, made possible with the support of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.