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Disassembly required: Sawmill building heading to new life on farm

  • Workers disassemble the roof of the former W.D. Cowls sawmill on Cowls Road in North Amherst on Tuesday. In foreground are panels featuring the poetry of Emily Dickinson that were used in the 2012 art installation “The Little White House Project: ‘Dwell in Possibility’” by Deerfield Academy student Peter Krasznekewicz. Gazette Photo/Kevin Gutting

  • Above, a crew works on disassembling the roof of the former W.D. Cowls sawmill on Cowls Road in North Amherst on Tuesday. Below, in foreground are panels featuring the poetry of Emily Dickinson that were used in the 2012 art installation “The Little White House Project: ‘Dwell in Possibility’” by Deerfield Academy student Peter Krasznekewicz. Far left, he Trolley Barn is seen through the north doors of the former W.D. Cowls sawmill. Gazette PhotoS/Kevin Gutting

  • The Trolley Barn is seen through the north doors of the former W.D. Cowls sawmill on Cowls Road in North Amherst on Tuesday. Gazette Photo/Kevin Gutting



For The Recorder
Wednesday, January 17, 2018

AMHERST — On the roof of the former sawmill at W.D. Cowls, two workers remove bolts that keep the large metal panels in place, work that is part of an ongoing process to carefully deconstruct the large post-and-beam building.

When the job, which also includes taking down the rafters and pulling off the siding, is complete by mid-March, only the concrete foundation will be left in the building where lumber was once produced.

Local developer Barry Roberts, who is overseeing the project to take down the 14,400-square-foot building, says it will eventually make its way to Muddy Brook Farm, the farm on West Street in South Amherst run by his daughter, Kathy.

“The idea is to resurrect it for my daughter’s riding program,” Roberts said.

The dismantling is being done for free by Roberts for Cowls, which intends to lease the 5.3 acres on which the building sits to Beacon Communities Development of Boston. Beacon plans to break ground in the spring on the $47.5 million North Square at the Mill District mixed-use project, featuring 130 apartments and space for eight to 10 businesses.

Roberts said his workers have to be finished by March 15, a much faster schedule than he anticipated when he first offered to do remove the building. That timeline changed when Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito announced in mid-December that Beacon would get funding through the Department of Housing and Community Development.

“The timing couldn’t be worse,” Roberts said.

Roberts described deconstruction as a six-step process that includes removing all the support systems and setting down the various pieces in piles that will allow the building to be put back together, once the pieces are trucked to the farm and a foundation is in place.

The sawmill building was constructed in 2004, two years after an historic sawmill that opened in the 1940s was struck by lightning in 2002 and burned down. But even though it was built new, the sawmill has been mostly empty for the past several years, with equipment removed after Cowls stopped cutting logs at the end of 2009.

At its peak, the sawmill and planning operation, which specialized in timber framing and supplying many post-and-beam builders, could produce 18,000 board feet per day.

In 2010, the sawyer’s box, where an employee would oversee the operation and handle controls, the carriage and conveyor to take logs through the saw blades, and electrical boxes that powered the entire operation were removed and shipped to Nicaragua.

Roberts said he is serious about improving Muddy Brook Farm. He recently purchased the 40 stalls previously used by the equestrian program at Smith College. Smith held an auction in late December to sell off items from its horse barn.

W.D. Cowls President Cinda Jones said she appreciates that Roberts is finding a way to reuse the barn. While a mural on its side, created in 2015 by Arielle Jessop, will be leaving the Mill District, Jones said she remains committed to having public art.

Jones said Roberts could probably build a new barn more cheaply, but helping to avoid demolition shows his commitment to Amherst and its principles. “He obviously cares about the environment and our community and is willing to put in a lot of effort to do the right thing for them,” Jones said.