History for sale: Should Colrain sell Pitt House?

  • The G. William Pitt House. RECORDER staff/DIANE BRONCACCIO

  • The G. William Pitt House. RECORDER staff/DIANE BRONCACCIO

Recorder Staff
Wednesday, March 07, 2018

COLRAIN — It’s been almost 42 years since town meeting voters unanimously accepted an 1840s-built house bequeathed to the town by G. William Pitt, founder of the town’s Historical Society and a theater buff.

According to Pitt’s will, the house was to be used as a town history museum, but now it needs too many repairs to be open to the public under a “museum” certificate of occupancy, according to an engineering study by Michael Rainville of Conway. That study estimates the cost of renovations for museum occupancy at between $84,000 to $120,000.

But a new study by Shelburne architect Joseph P. Mattei argues that renovations could be done in stages and that the buildings could be used by the public, with limited occupancy. The Selectboard just received copies of the Mattei report, and had not read it before Monday night’s meeting.

The Selectboard is debating whether to sell the building — or give it to the Historical Society for $1 — and end the town’s financial obligations.

One question is whether such a sale is permissible, under the terms of the will.

“We’re all heart surgeons,” said Selectman Jack Cavolick. “We have a 95-year-old patient on the table. We all wish that patient will get well. But it’s unlikely.”

Cavolick said the Pitt House needed structural repairs in 2001 that are “still the same in 2017.” He and other Selectboard members said, under procurement laws, the town would have to make repairs at prevailing wages. But if the Historical Society, a non-governmental group, were to own the building, they could hold fundraisers and get volunteers for much of the needed repairs, the board argued.

“This year, we had a more vigorous fundraising,” countered Belden Merims of the Historical Society, “but we just don’t have deep pockets. This is a poor town.”

“You’ve just stated the crux of the problem,” said Selectboard member Eileen Sauvageau. “This is a poor town. … If the town didn’t own it, and gave it to the Historical Society, you might have more flexibility,” she said.

“Your timing is one thing,” added Chairman Mark Thibodeau: “We’ve got two bridges closed and two more that could be closed.”

About a dozen residents at the Selectboard meeting spoke in favor of doing whatever is possible to preserve the Pitt House.

According to Merims, the Historical Society has about 89 members who have paid $50 each for a “lifetime membership” over the years. However, many of the members are 70 or older.

“The town is losing its history,” Merims told the board. “The (Colrain) Tavern is gone. Memorial Hall is gone. The Blue Block will be going and the Methodist Church will be going,” referring to historic structures within a block of the Pitt House that have been taken down or are likely to be taken down because of deterioration.

“You’re mixing philosophical with the practical,” said Cavolick. He said he would like to see the Pitt House remain a fixture in the town, but not at the cost of other priorities. “We have to take care of it every year,” he grumbled. “It’s falling down.”

Merims said one practical consideration would be where to put the historic items left by Pitt, along with items donated by residents over the years since, so that they could be seen.

Pitt’s will gave the town the house and an adjoining woodlot. Timber was harvested from that woodlot in the early 1990s, in hopes of providing money for Pitt House costs. For several years, an upstairs apartment in the house was rented out to a caretaker, but that practice was stopped several years ago.

Two reports

According to the Mattei report, “educational use” is exempted from some state zoning regulations, allowing the Pitt House, barn and Stacy Carriage Barn to be used by small groups, providing there is sufficient egress and occupancy is limited to correct load-limits in some areas. Mattei points out there are no fire protection systems in the buildings and they do not comply with current energy conservation standards, although they fall into the “historic” category of building codes.

He said the buildings have minimum lighting which should be increased. Mattei said any hazardous materials in the building should be removed. “Nothing is accessible to the public, based upon the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) and AAB (Architectural Access Board), he noted.

The “life-safety” conditions needed before use of the buildings begins, according to Mattei, are:

An ADA ramp and adequate access to the Pitt House; and access restricted to the first floor only. Access to the second floor might be allowed through special permission.

Fire extinguishers must be installed at all exit points, and doors must be unlocked and working whenever people are inside the museum.

The second-floor bathroom is to be off-limits and an accessible bathroom installed on the first floor.

He recommends restricting occupancy in the building to 10 at a time.

Use of the barns includes installing fire alarms and detectors, emergency lights and accessible egress.

The “Structural Evaluation” written by Rainville this summer cited needed repairs to the buildings. It includes masonry and foundation work, installing a second means of egress to the second floor, installing fire extinguishers, lighted exit signs, smoke and fire detectors, and replacing roof slates on the west wing of the house.

If the Pitt House were to be restored as a private home, Rainville estimated it could be done for about $68,000. If it is restored to be used as a museum, he estimated the cost at $84,000 to $120,000.

The Selectboard said it would try to reconcile the two reports, to get an idea of what the minimum costs would be, under the alterations recommended in the Mattei report.

Also, town officials are waiting to hear from Town Counsel Donna MacNicol on whether the town can legally sell the building, because of conditions set in the will.

Pitt was born at his family’s homestead in Colrain in 1912, but spent much of his life in Boston. He was a fan of actor Edwin Booth — the brother of President Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth — and the house contains a poster of the play Lincoln was attending when he was killed. The Pitt House also has a hand-carved oak canopy bed once owned by Edwin Booth, and autographed portraits of early movie stars, along with portraits of early Colrain residents. Pitt founded the Colrain Historical Society in 1957.