Letter to the editor: on the demolition of the Bubriski house and the town/gown dynamic

To the editor,

Williams College’s proposed – and likely – demolition of the Bubriski house at 42 Hoxsey St. as part of a reconfiguration of the Falk Science Quad is a small but ironic story emblematic of a much larger town/gown dynamic.

It is ironic in that Dagmar Bubriski, who died in 2011, was an ardent preservationist, championing Williamstown’s history and architectural diversity, morphing into a gadfly whenever the College went into expansion mode. That the house she occupied for decades may be leveled for the kind of construction she sought to contain is a painful irony.

The loss of the Bubriski house is only a ripple, however, in the tsunami of campus and townscape changes the College has wrought upon Williamstown recently – with more to come. In my 40 years as a resident, the scale of ongoing construction is unprecedented.

This is not a screed against change. Communities are organic entities that must evolve to survive. The ones that manage to do so while honoring their architectural and historic heritage are most likely to mature with a rich, layered character.

The renovation/preservation of Weston, Spencer and Goodrich Halls on Main St. rightly acknowledges that heritage. Elsewhere, however, the townscape is being overrun with brutish mega-structures, generic postmodernism and the creeping conversion of neighborhoods of family homes into College offices.

Part of that transformation might be attributed to the College’s laudable goal of minimizing energy consumption in an era of global warming. Sadly, the yield is a generation of buildings driven more by engineering imperatives than civic, social or aesthetic concerns. We see it in Paresky, Schapiro and Hollander Halls and in the new College bookstore on Spring St.  With their ubiquitous, deep roof overhangs, light wells, louvered window screens and deconstructed exteriors, they look like what they are – supersize HVAC units.

Far more banal and intrusive is the cliff-like South Building Science Center looming five stories on a hillside near the village center. A dour, grey, out-of-scale edifice, it has the aspect of a military storage bunker. Then there’s the new Sawyer Library with its panoramic views over the townscape through a five-story wall of windows. No one evidently considered that windows work both ways and would transmit unwelcome artificial illumination over blocks of nearby homes at night. Neighbors have rightly complained.

On South St., the dormitory nearing completion behind the Center for Development Economics is a lumbering backdrop to the richly textured but much renovated St. Anthony Hall designed by McKim, Meade and White in 1885. Plans I’ve seen for the replacement of half-timbered Garfield House next door on South St. and the new Williams Inn at the foot of Spring St. bear the quasi-colonial, assembly-line look that’s homogenizing the American landscape.

For an institution of higher learning, the College has let slip its own past standards for creative building design. Where today is the architectural distinction we saw in Charles Moore’s reimagining of the Williams College Museum of Art in 1981; the sympathetic addition to Hopkins Hall in 1987-89 by Architectural Resources Cambridge; Carlos Jiminez’s WLS Spencer Studio Art Building of 1997; and William Rawn Associates’ award-winning ’62 Center for Theater and Dance of 2008?

Unlike the Clark Art Institute’s campus expansion initiated in 2001 and heralded by the wide public release of site plans and numerous community meetings, the College’s process of self-reinvention is less visible, with little town participation beyond that required by law. It’s compliant, but far short of the neighborliness that sustains good town/gown relations. 

Remarkably, there has been little visible public conversation about these momentous townscape changes. With Dagmar Bubriski no longer here to speak out, it’s time someone else did.

Charles Bonenti

Williamstown resident

  

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