In 1990, when I first started pushing for the transition of the sprawling mill complex in the heart of this city to a museum of world-class stature, a lot of excitement was generated, that lasted for many years, regarding the architectural improvements that could, or should be, implemented to enhance its appearance and attract visitors. Today we see how little of those changes were made.
After a decade of high-powered wrangling during the developmental phase about how to use the capital investments, both public and private, that were eventually secured, there is a prevailing consensus, at present, shared by the international arts community that Mass MoCA is an extraordinary venue. The hundreds of rooms where many generations of this mill city’s citizens worked were simply opened and polished up, miles of wiring conduits were taken out of the ceilings and floors, and scant traces of radiation jack-hammered out of the walls.
An attitude of reuse was embraced and a spectacular mix of industrial environment and exhibition capability to display cutting-edge contemporary art was established. I studied well all those old proposals and was actually surprised that the path of least resistance was adopted. No doubt the reduced funding which became available tempered ambitions and got wisely targeted toward functionality rather than thrown at the decor.
The Conte School building, which has been noticeably depreciating for a long time, has only been moth-balled since 2009, seeing minimal use as a result of the recent downturn of the economy and population of this region. Walking past the elegant turn-of-the-century edifice sitting high on a hill with an empty funeral home and empty church on either side of it is unsettling.
I live in a nearby historic district where handfuls of huge multi-dwelling structures have been demolished and where many others now stand empty with trash-strewn yards and broken windows. That the fiscal struggles we face as a small metropolitan community have been previously overcome by recycling or tearing down old building stock indicates a realistic, unsentimental approach exists for making future school accommodations. However, if the decision is made to breath life into the unique Conte structure again, to totally restore it, the stunning outcome of the effort needn’t be feared.
The lower costs of re-investing in the existing property might even permit increased investment in state-of-the-art, 21st century educational techniques, while simultaneously instilling in our youth a heightened sense of wonder about the past.