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.
1737 – 1753, Settlement And Incorporation Of New Salem
The town of New Salem was settled in 1737 by English colonists and later 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, so did its needs.
1794 – 1795, Original Meeting House Built
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.
1837, Dramatic Renovations And Additions
Alterations and renovations to the meeting house occurred over time, but the most dramatic change took place in 1837, when the north-facing building was lifted and rotated one-quarter to the east. There were also 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.
1953, Meeting House Becomes Event Venue
As other churches were built in New Salem, regular Sunday services in the meeting house ceased even before the Civil War. For 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.
1978, Historic Recognition
The New Salem Historic District is accepted for inclusion in the National Registry of Historic Places.
1984, Meeting House Falls Into Disrepair
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.
1985, Preservation Committee Forms
The poor condition of the building became a matter of great concern to the Society’s members, and at its 1985 annual meeting the 1794 Meetinghouse Preservation Committee was formed. Its goal was to find a good use for the old church. Erin Williams, a new community member who ran a cultural center as well as a theater while living in Philadelphia, had ideas about establishing something similar in her adopted rural home. Conversations Erin 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.
1986, A New Mission
The newly-formed 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.
1987, Large Grant Breathes New Life Into Meetinghouse
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.
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.
Recognized officially as founders of the non-profit 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.
1990, Erin Williams named Executive Director
Stopping further structural decline was the first order of business. The civic center grant was a good start, but fundraising became a constant concern as the building was in precarious condition. The initial 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. In addition to the founders, this effort involved various townspeople including Henry Cramer, Mary-Ann DeVita Palmieri and Linda Overing.
The Meetinghouse was a recipient of numerous grants over many years from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, which made the Meetinghouse the number one ranking community-based arts organization in the state. 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, and performing arts center.
1993, Generous Donations Secure The Coming Bicentennial
Individuals and businesses in the community also responded to the Meetinghouse’s fundraising activities. An anonymous $10,000 gift in 1993 made the repairs required to open possible. Community Development Block Grants covered the cost of creating handicapped access, while several Massachusetts Historic Preservation Project Grants were used to stabilize the steeple and restore the interior.
Program development did not wait for the work on the building to be completed to host a slew of events in New Salem and neighboring communities, Orange and Athol. The preservation committee’s earliest events included a Ragtime Revival in the New Salem Town Hall featuring new music by Nat Needle.
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.
1994, Bicentennial Dedication and Ribbon Cutting Ceremony
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, a trio of vaudeville clowns known as the Wright Brothers.
1995 – 2004, Meetinghouse Expands Capacity for Hosting Performances
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. 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. 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.
Quabbin Valley Pro Musica, a community-based chorus, was formed by Wright and Williams, and continues to this day as a 1794 Meetinghouse project. 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.
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.
The Meetinghouse was able to accomplish all of this despite dwindling grant funding in the 1990’s. The 1794 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.
2004, Erin Williams departs as Executive Director
When Williams departed to pursue her career goals in the cultural field elsewhere, others served as executive director: Jim Willis, Adrian Grace, Barbara Brown, Nicholas Thaw, Diane Lincoln (stepping in as a volunteer for a year), and Michael Ruocco.
2014 Brad Foster becomes Executive Director
Brad Foster remains the executive director to this day.
*This brief history contains many names, but some are surely missing due to the nature of this kind of long-term community project. There have been hundreds of people who contributed time, inspiration and creativity, let alone their dollars, for which we are eternally grateful.