History museum braces for move to new space

NORTH ADAMS, Mass. (AP) — History can’t be changed — but it can be moved.

After nearly two decades at its home in the Western Gateway Heritage State Park, the North Adams Museum of History and Science plans to pack up its vast collection and move into a newly-renovated space in the Holiday Inn on Main Street.

The museum, now located in Building 5A at the park, will close Nov. 4 to facilitate the move. The new museum will open in the spring.

“The ideal opening date would be the day after we close this one,” said North Adams Historical Society President Charles Cahoon. “But that’s just not possible.”

The historical society has applied for a building permit to begin work on the new space, which it expects will take several months.

The one-of-a-kind collection preserves a cross-section of the city’s history, including its architecture, religion, railroads, military involvement and more. Exhibits tie the city’s past to its present — for example, a concert in the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art’s Hunter Center is linked to the James Hunter Machine Co., which operated in North Adams for nearly four decades in the 20th century.

The historical society, which oversees the museum, has contemplated a move for several years as former Mayor Richard Alcombright worked to turn over the publicly owned park to private hands.

Talks between Holiday Inn management and the historical society began about two years ago. But the talks stalled for various reasons — including a long bout of poor health that Cahoon battled through in 2017.

The two parties have signed a lease and, as was the case in Western Gateway Heritage State Park, the historical society will pay no rent at the Holiday Inn, but will cover utilities. The society also will bear the cost of renovations and the move.

The museum does not charge admission, and it is sustained through memberships and donations.

The new space is only marginally smaller than in the current museum, and almost the entirety of the society’s collection will fit. Items at the museum that are on loan will be returned to their owners.The society had explored several options for a new location in the course of a yearslong search, including City Hall.

“None of them were adequate to do this. They weren’t large enough — we have a lot of stuff — or they didn’t have any parking,” Cohoon said.

By moving to a more prominent location downtown, the Historical Society hopes to increase its visitor count by as much as one-third.

“We have lots of window space on both American Legion Drive and Main Street, so, people going by can see lots, even when we’re not open,” said Justyna Carlson, secretary of the historical society.

That’s in contrast to the current location tucked away in Heritage State Park, Cohoon said.

“We were often called the best-kept secret in North Adams,” he said.

The society also looks forward to some stability after years of uncertainty and tumult in Heritage State Park.

The museum never had a lease with the North Adams Redevelopment Authority, which manages the park. That limited its ability to seek grants and other funding sources, Cohoon said.

“We had one hand tied behind us all those years,” Cohoon said.

In 2011, Alcombright, who was mayor at the time, announced plans to privatize the park — it consists of several buildings that were once a freight yard — and put it back on the tax rolls. A group of private investors unveiled plans for the Greylock Market — plans that did not include the North Adams Museum of History and Science.

The proposed development, which fizzled out and never came to fruition, had a tangible impact on the museum.

The society previously applied for grants from the James and Robert Hardman Fund for North Adams — part of the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation — to fund transportation for school trips to the museum from Clarksburg, North Adams and Florida.

“I couldn’t say in March that in the following May, we’ll be here. So, we’ve been paying for all of the buses for the schools out of our society money for seven years,” Carlson said. “It’s just been so iffy and up in the air, unfortunately, for all that time.”

The museum also survived through construction under the nearby Hadley Overpass through several years in the 2010s, which reduced the available parking at Heritage State Park.

In 2015, the city took on a grant-funded infrastructure project at Heritage State Park that, among other changes, saw the park’s pathway replaced with new pavers to help facilitate the envisioned private development.

“We had a moat for about three months,” Cohoon said. “You got in here by walking on pallets. So, those with canes or walkers — it couldn’t be done.

In 2016, museum visionary Thomas Krens announced that he wanted to build the Extreme Model Railroad and Contemporary Architecture Museum and completely revitalize Western Gateway Heritage State Park.

Again, the plans did not leave the room for a local history museum, so the museum is moving on.

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