No decision at Historical Commission on fate of 19th-century farmhouse

  • A 19th-century farmhouse in North Amherst that has been used as a college-student rental in recent years, shown Wednesday, could be demolished, along with the adjacent barn, to make way for another phase of the Mill District development. Gazette Staff/Sarah Crosby

Staff Writer
Thursday, July 13, 2017

AMHERST — A 19th-century farmhouse and its barn in North Amherst may be in such bad shape that the Historical Commission will authorize immediate demolition of the structures.

But members at a meeting July 6 expressed concern that Amherst has few proactive measures to ensure property owners keep valuable resources intact.

“It’s frustrating that people can just let properties deteriorate to get our OK,” said commission member Jan Marquardt.

Goat Meadow LLC, a subsidiary of W.D. Cowls Inc., is requesting the removal of the home and barn after purchasing the property from Chester Watroba in the spring. While there are no immediate plans for redevelopment of the commercially zoned property, it could become part of the Mill District, the mixed-use development that includes the Atkins Farms Country Market North, the Trolley Barn and the proposed Beacon Communities mixed-use apartment project.

Documents and photos submitted to the commission show the extensive disrepair of the home and barn, including extensive mold and rot that developed while it was a long-term rental, with plastic sheets covering some windows in the home, holes in the siding and roof, and a tree growing into the barn.

Marquardt said the home and barn are a visual marker of North Amherst’s agrarian past, and there should be an affirmative way to prevent other similar properties from meeting a similar fate.

Senior Planner Jonathan Tucker said some already criticize Amherst for having too much control over property rights, which makes it difficult to implement new controls.

“It’s always going to be a struggle,” Tucker said.

Though the commission scheduled a demolition-delay hearing for July 20 at 7 p.m. at Town Hall, which could determine that the property has significant structures and mandate demolition be put off for a year, it’s possible that this hearing will be canceled based on a site visit July 13 at 9 a.m.

In fact, some members questioned why a site visit was in order if there is no chance of anything being restored.

“If we did a demolition delay, to what purpose would it serve,” said Steve Bloom.

“It’s really a pity,” said member Bob Romer. “It once was a magnificent barn.”

Tucker said house was built next to a farm and was long rented to millworkers and college students in the 20th century, and most recently to a family who was evicted out of concern for the condition.

Still, Tucker said its history shouldn’t be forgotten.

“The house has had a long and somewhat interesting career,” Tucker said.

Based on research by the Planning Department, the home was built between 1833 and 1854 for Lucius M. Dickinson, a mail carrier and stagedriver. His main claim to fame came in 1875 when his father, Moses, was murdered in his home on Northampton Road. The history book on Amherst by Carpenter and Morehouse states that this was the first homicide in Amherst, which became its own town in 1759 and first settled in 1728.

A decade later Moses Dickinson’s murderer was caught in Tennessee and brought back to Hampshire County, where a jury fund him guilty. Following his conviction, the man was hanged at Northampton jail.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com