By 1919, artists from all over the United States and Europe were living and creating art in Woodstock, NY. As a thriving and expanding group of diverse individuals, the need for a welcoming and open-minded gallery space was quickly recognized. To facilitate this, a group of five painters established two complimentary organizations: The Woodstock Art Association (later changed to Woodstock Artists Association in 1933) who would maintain the exhibition space and set its artistic principles, and the Artists Realty Company who would finance the construction and maintenance of the physical space. The five painters being: Carl Eric Lindin (1869-1942), John F. Carlson (1874-1945), Frank Swift Chase (1886-1942), Henry Lee McFee (1886-1953) and Andrew Dasburg (1887-1979). New York City architect William A. Boring was commissioned to design the new museum and art space for the group. Boring (whos career was anything but boring) briefly worked for McKim, Mead and White for a year before starting his own practice with Edward Tilton in 1891. His most noted work is his 1897 Immigration Station on Ellis Island for which he and Tilton won the design competition as relative unknowns. The refined Colonial Revival building for the Woodstock Artists Association sits right in the middle of the village and its symmetrical façade is defined by a central double door entrance with transom and pedimented enframement. Of particular interest is the row of four elliptical windows above the double-hung windows.
John Noble Alsop Griswold (1822-1909) was born into wealth, with his family business involved in land speculation in New York as well as the N. L. & G. Griswold Company, which imported sugar and rum from the Caribbean on clipper ships. In his 20s, John traveled to China for a trade and within a year of that trip, was appointed United States consul at Shanghai, serving in that role until 1854. Upon his return to America, he helped develop several prominent railroads, serving as president of the Illinois Central Railroad and chairman of the board of directors of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad. He eventually settled in Newport and helped shape the sleepy town into a summer resort town for high-society. His statement-piece in town was his own mansion on Bellevue Avenue, built in 1863 from designs by Richard Morris Hunt, and completed that next year. It was the first of Hunt’s many notable works in Newport, and is considered a prototype work of the Stick style of architecture in America. Hunt would go on to design Ochre Court, The Breakers, and other Gilded Age mansions in Newport and all over the northeast. Griswold died in the house in 1909; it remained vacant until 1915, when it was acquired by the Art Association of Newport, which now uses it as a museum gallery. I really want to see the inside of this beauty!
Lexington Farm was built by Elisha Wright Watkins (1805-1886) in around 1835, and was operated as a dairy farm until the 1980’s. Today, the property consists of a snecked ashlar stone farmhouse, cow barn, horse barn and tractor barn, grouped together at the southern extremity of the village of Felchville (also known as Reading). The farmhouse and barns are situated next to a waterfall on a tributary of the Black River, and are surrounded by pastures, hayfields and extensive woodland. A couple decades after Watkins’ death, the property was purchased by Alonzo Goddard. It stayed in that family and was eventually willed to Errol Locke in 1923. Errol, by trade, wasn’t a farmer. He was a Harvard-educated man who graduated there in 1913. Eventually, he went to work for a company called General Radio, which was founded in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1915. He started as a clerk, and 37 years later, he retired as president. The company, by that time, had moved to Concord, Massachusetts, which we know, thanks to the important events of April 19, 1775, is not too far from Lexington, where Locke lived. He renamed the Watkins Farm, Lexington Farm, seemingly as a tribute to his home town in the Bay State. In 2009, the Hall Art Foundation began the process of converting Lexington Farm to museum-quality galleries. The former dairy farm’s location and existing structures were ideally suited for this purpose. After approximately three years of restoration, renovation and refitting, Lexington Farm was transformed to approximately 6,000 sq. feet of exhibition space.
On a last-minute trip to the Berkshires, I couldn’t help but stop at the recently re-opened Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA) in North Adams. Being a huge nerd for industrial history and repurposed mills and factories, it was an absolute treat to walk through the large brick and steel buildings and wings lined with steel casement windows providing the perfect scenery for some amazing artworks. What is now known as Mass MoCA, – one of the premier art museums in New England – was once Arnold Print Works, a one time world leader in textile manufacturing with offices in New York City and Paris.
The Arnold Print Works were built on the Hoosac River near the center of North Adams. The company was the town’s largest industry during the city’s economic heyday from the Civil War until the early 20th century. The company was founded in 1861 by the John, Oliver, and Harvey Arnold, who began production of printed cloth at an existing cotton mill. At the dawn of the American Civil War, the newly formed company became flush with money due to government contracts for manufacturing Union Army uniforms. The company expanded after the war until a fire destroyed nearly all of the wooden buildings on the site. After the fire, a majority share of the company was purchased by Albert Charles Houghton, who became the first mayor of North Adams, and he oversaw the expansion and prosperity of the company, starting with new buildings of fire-proof construction.
By the early 20th century, many textile and cotton manufacturing shifted to the American South severely crippling the mill’s profits. In 1929, Sprague Electric Company moved to North Adams from Quincy, Massachusetts, and began buying the Arnold Print Works buildings. The print works moved much of its operation to nearby Adams and concentrated on a few particular products in its North Adams plant. The print works was finally sold in 1942 for just $1.9 million dollars, a far departure from its once prosperous past. The plant was shortly thereafter acquired by Sprague Electric Company.
While largely leaving the building exteriors as they were, Sprague made extensive modifications to the interiors to convert the former textile mill into an electronics plant. Sprague physicists, chemists, electrical engineers, and skilled technicians were called upon by the U.S. government during World War II to design and manufacture crucial components of some of its most advanced high-tech weapons systems, including the atomic bomb.
[Outfitted with state-of-the-art equipment, Sprague was a major research and development center, conducting studies on the nature of electricity and semi-conducting materials. After the war, Sprague’s products were used in the launch systems for Gemini moon missions, and by 1966 Sprague employed 4,137 workers in a community of 18,000, existing almost as a city within a city. From the post-war years to the mid-1980s Sprague produced electrical components for the booming consumer electronics market, but competition from lower-priced components produced abroad led to declining sales and, in 1985, the company closed its operations on Marshall Street.] (Mass MoCA History)
The complex sat vacant briefly before the Williams College Museum of Art, led by its director, Thomas Krens—who would later become Director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum—advocated for a museum space for contemporary art that would not fit in traditional art galleries. The nearby Arnold Mills seemed like a perfect, yet daunting task to repurpose. Bruner/Cott Architects of Cambridge were hired to repurpose the mills and oversee the massive adaptive reuse project which today totals nearly 300,000 square feet of galleries and art venues.