Visionary people in a small New England town fixed up an old run-down church and turned it into a dynamic regional performing arts center.
Those 139 characters, including spaces, qualify for a tweet on Twitter, and also can serve as a succinct history of the 1794 Meetinghouse.
Of course, the story is more complex than that. One could say the narrative starts with the early history of the town of New Salem, first settled by English colonists in 1737 and incorporated in 1753.
In the early years of the American Republic, religious worship and civic activities took place in the same building – dubbed a “meeting house.” New Salem’s first meeting house was built by early settlers, but as the town grew, it became inadequate.
The First Church of New Salem, incorporated as the Congregational Society, determined that it needed a larger structure to house its growing congregation and meet the civic needs of New Salem.
Thus, the new meeting house was started in 1794 and completed the next year, with traditional and praiseworthy architectural design. Locally cut pine, chestnut and oak, hewn by water-powered sawmills, were utilized, along with fieldstones and granite for the foundation.
Alterations and renovations to the meeting house occurred over time. The most dramatic alteration took place in 1837, when the building, which faced north, was lifted up and rotated one-quarter to the east, while there were architectural changes associated with the Greek Revival style and changing theological concepts. The new east entrances, flanked by pilasters, included a portico supported by pillars. A belfry, bell and steeps were added, and the interior was remodeled, too.
Soon, other churches were built in New Salem and regular Sunday services in this meeting house ceased even before the Civil War.
For many decades, the building primarily served civic functions. As the largest hall in the town, it was the venue for high school graduations, summertime performances, national holiday observances, the celebration of the town’s bicentennial in 1953, and various reunions.
Though the deed retained the name “Congregational Society,” the group’s few members, in reality the owners of the building, were Unitarians, and their annual reunions continued on and off through 1984. They managed to maintain the building over the decades – but barely so.
The poor condition of the building became a matter of great concern to the Society’s members, and in 1985, at the Society’s annual meeting, the 1794 Meetinghouse Preservation Committee was formed. Its goal was to find a good use for the old church.
Erin Williams, who moved to New Salem in 1984, had run a cultural center and a theater in Philadelphia and already had ideas about establishing something similar in her adopted rural home.
Conversations that this “newcomer” to town had with Althea Gilmore, R. Bradley Fisher, Dot Hanson, and Marion von Mering – all of whom were aware of the precarious state of the old church – paved the way to a bright future for the decaying building.
Informed about a grant program to promote the development of civic centers, the committee soon found itself establishing what they called “the smallest civic center in the nation.” Williams, working with Jack Jewett and R. Bradley Fisher, applied for a $150,000 grant, and in 1987, the money was received.
In order to have the project qualify for the grant, the Congregational Society transferred ownership of the building to the town, which then leased it to a newly-formed non-profit organization, 1794 Meetinghouse, Inc.
Recognized officially as founders of the 1794 Meetinghouse, Inc., are Allan Bixby Jr., R. Bradley Fisher, Althea Gilmore, Jack Jewett, Jane Marshall, Marion von Mering and Erin Williams.
The first board of directors, assembled in 1987, had seven members: R. Bradley Fisher, president; Erin Williams, vice president; Althea Gilmore, clerk; Jack Jewett, treasurer; Dorothy Hanson, Marion von Mering and Fritz von Mering.
The civic center concept was described variably as “multi-cultural programming for the North Quabbin Region,” “a center for cultural and social activities” and “bringing the arts to life in everyday life.” Eventually, the organizers settled on “North Quabbin’s Center for the Performing Arts.”
The meetinghouse was already part of - the New Salem Historic District which was accepted in 1978 for inclusion in the National Registry of Historic Places.
Stopping further decline of the structure was the first order of business. From a financial point of view, the civic center grant was just a start, the proverbial drop in the bucket, so fund-raising became a constant concern and effort.
The building was in such precarious condition that when you entered it, as many perceived it, “you took your life in your hands.” The civic center grant was used to stabilize the exterior of the building and obtain architectural drawings for the complete renovation.
Work continued over a period of several years, including electrical upgrade, ceiling plaster repair and handicapped access. In addition to the founders, this effort involved various townspeople including Henry Cramer, Mary-Ann DeVita Palmieri and Linda Overing.
Part of the early success of the Meetinghouse is due to Williams’ success in attracting grant funds. The Meetinghouse was a recipient of numerous grants over many years from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, which awarded the Meetinghouse the number one ranking as a community-based arts organization. Funding also was provided by the National Endowment for the Arts, local cultural councils, and grants from several foundations, including the Community Foundation of Western Mass., all of which recognized the organization’s unique role in the North Quabbin area as an arts presenter and creator as well as a performing arts center.
Individuals and businesses in the local community also responded to the Meetinghouse’s numerous fund raising activities. An anonymous $10,000 gift in 1993 made it possible to make the repairs necessary to open the building the following year. Community Development Block Grant funds covered the cost of creating handicapped access while several Massachusetts Historic Preservation Projects matching grants were used to stabilize the steeple and restore the interior.
Having the building suitable for opening in 1994 (its bicentennial year) was a goal that spurred the board members and volunteers to spend countless hours repairing the structure and fund raising. The dedication and ribbon cutting ceremony during New Salem Old Home Day in July 1994 was followed that evening by the Aspire to the Arts’ first performance, the Wright Brothers.
Over time, the board grew in size from an initial group of seven to more than 20.
Ideas, enthusiasm and in-kind labor on the building improvements came from many individuals, including Cramer, Carl Johnson, David van Iderstine and Mark Wright. Linda Overing was effective in keeping the restoration moving forward, while Jean Stabell kept watch over the finances.
Program development, which also helped the enormous task of fund-raising, did not wait for the work on the building to be completed. The preservation committee’s earliest events included a Rag Time Revival in the New Salem Town Hall featuring new music by Nat Needle. There was a Quabbin-related slide show by historian J.R. Greene of Athol, and the elaborate nature-oriented music-photography extravaganza offered by Les Campbell of Belchertown.
Events took place in New Salem as well as neighboring communities of Orange and Athol.
Williams was given the title of executive director in 1990.
In tribute to the structure’s iconic pointed steeple, the phrase “Aspire to the Arts” was adopted as a slogan.
Assisting Williams with programs in the early years were Steven and Jane Schoenberg, Karen Powers, Mark Wright, Linda Overing, Susie Feldman, Shuma Chakravarty, David Skillicorn and others. While New Salem residents were at the core, gradually they were joined by people from other North Quabbin Region towns. These early productions, which promoted the meetinghouse and helped raise money, were varied in form and content.
Raymond Harvey, pianist and conductor of the Springfield Symphony, gave performances in Athol’s Memorial Hall, as did Schoenberg, a New Salem resident who is an accomplished professional composer and improvisation pianist.
“Stout of Heart,” which told the moving story of how area residents gave up their homes for the creation of the Quabbin Reservoir, filled up the town hall. It was produced by Williams with music by Schoenberg. Other programs were “Lysistrata” in the New Salem town hall, Circus Minimus and Michael Pickett at the Orange Town Hall and historian Howard Zinn at AO/TV, the local cable station.
“Celebrate Diversity” was an innovative program sponsored by the 1794 Meetinghouse for students at the Swift River School (serving students in New Salem and Wendell), and the Mahar Regional School in Orange. “From Our Eyes” brought an interactive program to the youth of Athol and Orange, who used original videos and the performing arts to share a teenagers’ perspective of the world around them. It received funding from the Massachusetts Cultural Council’s “Youth Reach” program.
Quabbin Valley Pro Musica, a community-based chorus, was formed by Wright and Williams, and continues to this day as a 1794 Meetinghouse project.
“Speak Out: spoken word” was dedicated to the work of local poets.
A program entitled “Emily Fest: A Different Look at Emily Dickinson,” featured the innovative Sleeveless Theatre based in the Pioneer Valley along with authors Polly Longsworth and Doris Abramson. Their Valley connections helped bring people up from the Northampton-Amherst area to the serene New Salem Common – and bringing that population into the Meetinghouse over the years is still a challenge.
Some of these early performances took place in the meetinghouse, once it was safe enough to accommodate the public. The very first performance in the refurbished church was given by the trio of vaudeville clowns known as the Wright Brothers, and that took place in 1994 on Old Home Day.
Dorothy Johnson, a Meetinghouse neighbor and playwright, collaborated with others to produce a number of community-oriented plays. The first one, in collaboration with Steven Schoenberg, "Small Town Life", was presented in the New Salem town hall. Later, she worked with Andy Lichtenberg to produce “Yankee Spirits,” the first in a long series of plays performed at the Meetinghouse. Johnson-Lichtenberg collaborative productions remain a popular biennial series at the Meetinghouse. All of these had, and continue to have, large casts consisting of people from New Salem and other area towns.
In the early years, the Meetinghouse hosted fewer than 10 productions a season, but gradually the number of performers coming to New Salem increased to as many as 40 per season. The New Salem Common has heard the sounds of classical music as well as rock, jazz, folk, bluegrass, opera, blues, Caribbean, fusion, Celtic and more – name a musical style and it’s probably been offered to Meetinghouse audiences. Diane Lincoln of Royalston, also known as singer-songwriter Linq, became active on the program committee and brought a number of women performers to the Meetinghouse stage to represent the Indiegrrls musical movement.
While some of the performers have been seasoned veterans, others are young people being given the first opportunity to reveal their virtuosity to an audience. Instrumentalists and vocalists have been equally represented, including an array of singer-songwriters.
For a brief time, the nearby building which had been used as a library for years, also known as the Town House, served as a smaller venue for special Meetinghouse events, especially in cooler weather, as the Meetinghouse has no heat. For that matter, it has no air conditioning, and while sweltering summer weather was occasionally problematic for performers and audience alike, at least there wasn’t any noisy air conditioning equipment to interfere with the purity of the sound.
When Williams departed to pursue her career goals in the cultural field elsewhere, others served as executive director: Jim Willis, Adrian Grace, Barbara Brown and Nicholas Thaw. Diane Lincoln stepped in as a volunteer executive director for a year, and now Michael Ruocco is at the helm.
Through it all, board members served to keep the non-profit organization functioning in a responsible and effective way. They helped with all aspects, including programming, building maintenance, fund-raising and publicity. Keeping the organization solvent is always an issue. Many individuals have made generous donations, but there are so many expenses. Grant funding dried up in the 1990's. The 1974 Meetinghouse went from receiving $15,000 per year from the Massachusetts Cultural Council in the early years to $7,000 -- then down to about $3,000.
Audiences are sometimes very small, but they average a respectable 60 people – but with a seating capacity of 200, larger audiences are always a goal. Some of the early events filled the Meetinghouse, including Martin Sexton, Archie Shepp and Craig Eastman. In later years, the hall was sold out or nearly sold out for the Johnson-Lichtenberg plays, Hampshire Young People’s Chorus, Paul Winter, Rexton Park, Hudson & Senier, Southern Rail, Quabbin Valley Pro Musica, Rory Block and Patty Larkin.
Over the years, thousands of tickets have been sold and hundreds of performers have come to appreciate the unique experience of this intimate space.
For a time, there were also “talk backs,” where audience members could interact with performers.
The Meetinghouse eventually purchased and restored a 1915 Mason & Hamlin grand piano for use by performers.
This brief history contains many names, but some are surely missing due to the nature of this kind of long-term community project. As one of the founders, Erin Williams, said, “There have been hundreds of people who contributed time, inspiration and creativity, let alone their dollars.”
In 1986, the 1794 Meetinghouse Preservation Committee published a 10-page booklet to explain the group’s ambitious plans. Printed on the booklet cover were these three brief sentences:
“The past has taught its lessons. The present has its duty. The future has its hope.”
A quarter-century has passed, and those three sentences continue to express a relevant message about this unique historic building and its contemporary function as a cultural outpost in one of Massachusetts’ most beautiful and serene rural areas.