Pittsfield began as a business deal. In 1738 Colonel Jacob Wendell, bought 24,000 acres of lands known originally as Pontoosuck, a Mohican Indian word meaning “a field or haven for winter deer.” Wendell acquired the land as a speculative venture; there is no evidence he ever visited Western Massachusetts from his home in Boston. Some say he bought the land as a tax dodge to resell without being subject to Boston levies, others say he was looking to develop for settlers. Either way the French and Indian War delayed development on the frontier for many years after some rudimentary settlement in 1743.
By 1761 the village was ready to incorporate. Royal Governor, Sir Francis Bernard named it Pittsfield after British nobleman and politician William Pitt, a vocal supporter of the Americans. Pittsfield was an agricultural community, newly cleared cropfields were nourished by the many streams feeding into the Housatonic River. Merino sheep from Spain were introduced into the area in 1807 and woolen mills dominated the economic climate for most of the rest of the century.
Situated in the center of the Berkshire Hills, the growing town became the county seat in 1868, replacing Lenox. The character of Pittsfield was to change dramatically in 1891, the year it incorporated as a city. William Stanley had recently come to town, up from Great Barrington, to establish his Stanley Manufacturing Company to produce the country’s first alternating current electric transformers. In 1903 the General Electric Corporation purchased controlling interest in Stanley’s company and the nascent corporate giant began establishing a presence in Pittsfield that would reach a peak workforce of over 13,000 and push the population to a high of 50,000.
Widespread layoffs at General Electric in the 1980s began a company withdrawal that would claim all but a few hundred jobs. General Electric left behind an industrial wasteland that became a federally designated Brownfields site. The company left a legacy on the Pittsfield streetscape as well - what was once a town of great estates was now dominated by developments for middle-class workers. Our walking tour of downtown Pittsfield will be dominated mostly by pre-GE structures, many of which have changed usage with as the town has changed through the years. We’ll begin on the original village green which no longer calls to mind the bucolic sheep-raising days of early Pittsfield...
The Massachusetts Color-Bearer
Park Square, East Street at North Street
Efforts to memorialize their fallen sons in the Civil War began almost immediately after hostilities ceased in 1865. By 1871 some $10,000 was raised for the purpose and famed Irish-born sculptor Launt Thompson won the design competition. His “Massachusetts Color-Bearer” was widely regarded and reproduced on the battlefield at Gettysburg. The statue stands at the head of Park Square, the traditional village green in Pittsfield. It is said that America’s first agricultural fair was held on the green in 1810. It was the idea of Elkanah Watson, a visionary traveller and writer, agriculturist, canal promoter and friend of George Washington. A native of Plymouth, Massachusetts, he moved to Pittsfield in 1807 at the age of 49 to raise Merino sheep at his farm.
FACING THE STATUE WALK TO YOUR RIGHT DOWN THE SOUTH SIDE OF PARK SQUARE.
southeast corner of South Street and East Street
The Berkshire Athenaeum began as a private subscription library in 1850. With the help of Thomas F. Plunkett, who began his business career as a peddler and became president of the Berkshire Life Insurance Company, and the prominent Allen family whose patriarch Thomas Allen was the first pastor ofthe First Church of Christ and leader of Pittsfield’s first detachment of Minutemen during the American Revolution, it became a public library. A bequest from the estate of Phinehas Allen, nephew of Thomas Allen and founder of the Pittsfield Sun, who had died in 1868, led to the construction of this outstanding High Victorian Gothic building in 1874. The land was provided by railway magnate Thomas Allen. Its designer was William Appleton Potter, then Supervising Architect of the United States Treasury, and a leading proponent of the style in America. Potter used alternating bands of dark blue limestone from Great Barrington, red freestone from Longmeadow and red granite from Missouri in its construction. After serving the Berkshire Athenaeum for 100 years the library, noted for its private collections of Herman Melville and others moved down to the opposite corner at Wendell Street and the building became the Berkshire County Registry of Deeds.
Berkshire County Courthouse
76 East Street
Pittsfield replaced Lenox as the Berkshire County seat in 1868 and the city responded by building this marble courthouse on the southeast side of Park Square. The prominent site, noted for its fine elm trees, had been the home of John Chandler Williams and the town paid $35,000 for the property. Another $160,000 was allotted for the building. Designs were penned by Louis Weisbein of Boston in a Renaissance-inspired style with white marble quarried from Sheffield built upon a basement of light blue marble from the same town used in construction. It was first occupied in 1871.
CROSS OVER TO THE NORTH SIDE OF PARK SQUARE.
First Church of Christ
27 East Street
Thomas Allen, the “Fighting Parson” who carried a musket into his pulpit during the American Revolution and fired the first shot against the British at the Battle of Bennington, was the first minister of the church in 1764. In 1789 America’s first name architect, Charles Bulfinch of Boston, drew up plans for the new parish meetinghouse. Its design would come to be copied in other New England towns. The Bulfinch Church was partially destroyed by fire in 1851 and was hauled away to do service as a gymnasium and then became part of a hotel until it was razed in 1939. This third parish church, designed by New York architect Leopold Eidlitz in a Gothic style rendered in gray stone, was dedicated in 1853.
Old Town Hall/Berkshire Bank
43 East Street
When the founders of Pittsfield’s Episcopalian church wanted to build their new meetinghouse the land they wanted already had a town-owned structure that was used as a school and town business standing on part of it. In a compromise to build St. Stephen’s Lemuel Pomeroy offered to build a new town hall next door. The plain brick building with a stuccoed front was ready in 1832. It would pick up some styling through the years as it served as Town Hall until 1891 and City Hall afterwards into the middle 1900s when the government shuffled around the corner to the old post office. The building was fitted out for use as a bank.
St. Stephen’s Church
67 East Street
Nova Scotia-born Edward A. Newton had been converted to Christianity by missionaries while working in the Far East and when he settled in Pittsfield in 1830 he set about forming a local Episcopalian church. His efforts resulted in St. Stephen’s named for a young priest and close friend, Stephen Higginson Tyng. The first church building was completed in 1832 of gray stone in the Gothic style. It was replaced in 1889 with the current English Gothic church constructed of Longmeadow brownstone that is dominated by its imposing square tower.
WALK DOWN ALLEN STREET BETWEEN OLD TOWN HALL AND ST. STEPHEN’S CHURCH.
70 Allen Street
The current Pittsfield City Hall was actually constructed as a post office in the 1930s. The two-story Neoclassical building fronted by an Ionic colonnade was converted into a municipal building in the 1950s.
Old Central Fire Station
66 Allen Street
Up until 1891 fires in Pittsfield were handled by as many as four volunteer fire departments. After that fires became the responsibility of the City. This Romanesque-style Central Fire Station, executed in red brick with rough-faced granite trim, was constructed by 1895. Added to the National Historic Register in 1977, the building has been adapted for commercial re-use.
AT THE END OF THE STREET TURN RIGHT ON FENN STREET. TURN LEFT ON 1ST STREET AND CROSS THE RAILROAD TRACKS. TURN LEFT ON MELVILLE STREET.
Notre Dame Roman Catholic Church
40 Melville Street
In 1867, with about 100 French-speaking Catholics in Pittsfield, a congregation of their own was broken off from St. Joseph’s and began meeting in an old building on Melville Street. In 1895 the cornerstone for this Romanesque-styled church was laid. After more than a century of service the building has been converted into an urban living laboratory for local food, the arts, and community center.
Boys & Girls Clubs
16 Melville Street
Zenas Crane of the paper-making family had a vision of a club where activities would help harness the energy of young boys and start them on a path towards useful citizenship. With $800 rooms were rented and the Boys Club was so organized in 1900. One of the main features of the club was cobbling equipment so boys could learn to repair their own shoes. In 1906 the Club moved into permanent headquarters inside this red brick Colonial Revival building whose $40,000 price tag was picked up by Zenas Crane. Membership jumped to 1,200 and additions and upgrades quickly followed. In 1991 the name was officially changed to incorporate girls and membership today hovers around 5,000.
TURN RIGHT ON NORTH STREET.
St. Joseph Church
414 North Street
There were so few Catholics in Berkshire County that the first mass was not held until 1835 and then only by accident when a Vermont missionary was accidentally detained at the Berkshire Hotel in Pittsfield. After that the town became a regular stop on the circuit and by 1849 a parish was established. The Gothic style church dates to 1860s and was constructed of light-grey limestone quarried about two miles to the north.
TURN AND WALK BACK ON NORTH STREET, TRAVELING SOUTH TOWARDS THE CENTER OF TOWN.
330 North Street
This building was constructed around 1901 and converted into the Capitol Theatre, a big-city movie palace for Pittsfield that remained in operation until the 1980s. After a prolonged period of vacancy the deteriorated theater was replaced with a senior center. Only the prominent Art-Deco style marquee remains standing.
Agricultural National Bank
100 North Street
The first bank in Pittsfield was chartered in 1806 but failed when an embezzlement bled $200,000 from its assets. Prominent town businessmen re-organized the next bank, the Agricultural Bank, in 1818 with $100,000 in capital. It was a success from the start an was chartered as a national bank in 1865. This exuberant Beaux Arts bank headquarters was built in 1908. It features engaged fluted Ionic columns on its front and similar pilasters parading down each side.
75 North Street
Edward Dorr Griffin Jones began his business career in supplying machinery to paper mills in Lee. He sold his company in 1867 and came to Pittsfield at the age of 43 to form E.D. Jones & Sons Company. The firm had wide-ranging interests including banking and real estate and clocks. He constructed this brick commercial block in 1881; it recently received a $6 million renovation.
55-57 North Street
This building was constructed in 1918 as a joint venture between George K. Kinnell, a local veterinarian, and the S.S. Kresge chain of 5-10 cent stores. Its outstanding feature is its ornate upper facade of glazed white terra cotta tile and brick and designed by Joseph McArthur Vance with lion heads, egg-and-dart ornamental trim, floral swags. It is based on a similar facade on the S.S. Kresge Company Headquarters building in Detroit, Michigan. The building has been re-adapted as a six screen movie house and a recent restoration involved the removal of each of the 1,700 individual terra cotta tiles.
Berkshire Loan and Trust Company54 North Street
The Berkshire Loan and Trust Company opened its doors in July 1895. This Neoclassical vault features fluted pilasters of the Corinthian order topped by well-defined tooth-like dentils along the cornice.
24 North Street
Established in 1846 as Berkshire County Savings Bank, Berkshire Bank is one of Massachusetts’ oldest and largest independent banks and the largest banking institution based in Western Massachusetts. The current headquarters building is of 1890s vintage.
Berkshire Life Insurance Company Building
5-7 North Street
The Berkshire Life Insurance Company was chartered in May 1851 and George Nixon Briggs, just coming off seven one-year terms as the 19th Governor of Massachusetts, was chosen as its first president. As befitted one of the city’s most successful financial institutions, the golden-hued Berkshire Life headquarters was constructed at this prominent intersection in 1868. The five-story, Renaissance-inspired building was attributed to architect Louis Weisbein. It was added to the National Historic Register in 1986.
The Berkshire Museum
39 South Street
It was the vision of Zenas Crane, the third-generation owner of the Crane & Co. paper company, that blended the treasures of the art, science and history worlds into a single museum for the people of Western Massachusetts in 1903. Crane acquired many of the artifacts himself. He amassed important works of art from the Hudson River School, American landscapes by Albert Bierstadt and Frederic Edwin Church. He helped sponsor the first successful expedition to the North Pole by Robert E. Peary and Matthew Henson in 1908-1909 and two of their sledges wound up here. So did the writing desk of Nathaniel Hawthorne. He constructed the two-story Italian Renaissance building to hold the diverse collections.
First Baptist Church
88 South Street
A small group of Baptists organized in Pittsfield in 1772 under the leadership of Valentine Rathbun. In 1780 Rathbun led his parishioners to join the neighboring Shakers and their new messages of simplicity and pacifism. Rathbun quickly became disenchanted with the Shaker doctrines but not all his flock followed him back and by 1800 the Pittsfield baptists were extinct. The congregation struggled back and by 1827 were able to erect their first meetinghouse and the impressive present structure was dedicated in 1850.
South Congregational Church
110 South Street
The Congregational Church had suffered rifts in Pittsfield through the years but the creation of the South Congregational Parish was a consequence of too much growth in the First Parish in 1848. The handsome wooden meetinghouse, topped by a graceful spire, burned before it could be dedicated in 1849. After it was replaced a gale toppled the spire in 1859. It cost $3,500 to make the star-crossed church whole again.
Berkshire Automobile Company
109 South Street
The Berkshire Automobile Company was one of the earliest American car manufacturers, with their first touring car ready for advertising to the trade in 1906. The Pittsfield firm eventually produced six different models which they promoted with speed trails from Pittsfield to Boston and New York City, setting record times on the primitive roads. In another ploy they arranged forover 100 pounds of New York Times newspapers to be loaded in Port Hudson, New York every Sunday and raced to Lenox in two hours. Still the company was out of a very tough business within a few years. The classic Art Deco auto garage from the 1920s was restored at the same time as the adjoining Colonial Theatre.
The Colonial Theatre
111 South Street
The Sullivan brothers of North Adams got into show business in 1901 with the construction of the Empire Theatre. They hired America’s foremost theater architects, J. B. McElfatrick and Sons, to design their performance house. Its success led to Pittsfield in 1903 and the construction of the Colonial Theatre at the cost of $70,000. McElfatrick again was retained and he delivered superb natural acoustics and exquisite plaster detailing. The classically-inspired exterior was created by Joseph McArthur Vance. The Colonial was a regular stop for nationally-know performers until the 1930s when the demise of vaudeville theater and the Great Depression conspired to shutter the venerable playhouse. It emerged in 1937 as a movie house but closed again in 1952. For the next half-century the building was used as a retail paint and art supply store - but never converted. Drop ceilings and partitions concealed the balconies and appointments of the old theater. In 2001 The Colonial Theatre Association purchased the theater and began a painstaking restoration that ended in a re-opening to the public in 2006. Of the more than 150 playhouses designed by J.B. McElfatrick, the Colonial is one of less than a dozen that can still be enjoyed today.
116 South Street
The Masonic Hall was built in 1912 and is celebrated for its 3,000 square foot ballroom that is regarded as the finest in the Berkshires. Its mirrored ball has reigned over the dance floor since 1917. The hall was designed by Pittsfield architect Joseph McArthur Vance whose resume included the superstructure of the Wahconah Park Stadium, one of the last remaining ballparks in the United States with a wooden grandstand, the Bascom Lodge atop Mount Greylock and the Colonial Theatre.
TURN LEFT ON HOUSATONIC STREET. TURN RIGHT ON WENDELL STREET, WHERE MANY A “BERKSHIRE COTTAGE” WAS BUILT IN AMERICA’S GILDED AGE OF THE LATE 1800S.
Thaddeus Clapp House
74 Wendell Avenue
Thaddeus Clapp was superintendent of the Pontoosuc Woolen Mill, son of Colonel Thaddeus Clapp who had been the superintendent of the mills Of Lemuel Pomeroy. He built this mansion with Colonial Revival detailing around the roof and grand entrance in 1871. Inside the house was outfitted with the latest innovations of the day - steam central heat and indoor plumbing. The interior anticipated the coming revolt against the excesses of the Victorian age with an emphasis on fine craftsmanship.
Thomas Colt House
42 Wendell Avenue
Thomas Colt, whose family was in the paper-making business, built this brick Italianate villa in 1865. Over the years the house did duty as a summer cottage, a private school and clubhouse for the local Women’s Club.
TURN LEFT ON EAST STREET TO RETURN TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT ON PARK SQUARE.