Of Preachers and Poets: Amherst Neighborhood that Was Home to Early Black and Irish Families, Famous Authors May be Preserved Under Historic District Proposal

The poet Robert Frost (1874-1963) lived in Amherst from 1916 to 1938 and taught for many years at Amherst College. This was his home, at 43 Sunset Avenue.

Streets in Amherst which hosted one of the region’s earliest integrated neighborhoods may be preserved as historic, if  a measure to create a district including 194 homes on Lincoln and Sunset Avenues and several smaller streets passes at Town Meeting later this month.

“This is unusual in New England, this is a critical part of Amherst’s history,” said Maurianne Adams, the vice chairwoman of the North Prospect-Lincoln-Sunset Historic District Study Committee.

Adams spoke at a meeting of the Amherst Select Board last night, where the board voted unanimously to recommend the historic district’s creation to Town Meeting, although reservations were expressed about the district’s size and potential impact on “intrusive,” homes built after World War II.

The plan, which would require a two-thirds majority vote by Town Meeting, has been given an enthusiastic green light by Massachusetts Historical Commission and the Amherst Historical Commission. The North Prospect-Lincoln-Sunset Historic District Summary Report, including maps, can be found here: https://www.amherstma.gov/DocumentCenter/View/38852

goodwin-memorial-church
The Goodwin Memorial AME Zion Church on Woodside Avenue, erected in 1910, is already listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The African Methodist Episcopal church and other historically significant buildings could be marked with placards and become part of a  regular walking tour in Amherst.

Paige, McClellan and Beston Streets were among the first racially mixed streets in New England, according to a report by the study committee.  Those streets were home to Irish tradesmen, including stonemasons and carpenters, and also several African-American families, such as the Davidges, Pettijohns, Goodwins, and Hasbrooks. The Davidges were barbers and dressmakers, the report states, while Moses Goodwin was a locksmith and bicycle shop owner. (This link has more information on the Goodwins: https://amherstblackhistory.jimdo.com/mcclellan-st/)

goodwinhouse
No. 43 McClellan St., where bicycle shop owner and church founder Moses Goodwin (1854-1923) lived.

Moses Goodwin was instrumental in founding what is now the Goodwin Memorial AME Zion Church.  He, founding member Mittie Hall Anderson and “Pastor DaCosta” lived on McClellan Street, alongside Irish immigrant neighbors. Other church members lived very nearby on Beston and Paige Streets.

26bestonstamherst
No. 26 Beston St. Irish and Black families were neighbors on this and other Amherst streets more than century ago.

“This isn’t just about grand houses,” Steve Bloom, the study committee chairman said last night.

Select Board members Andrew Steinberg and Constance Kruger questioned the size of the district, and how homes which are not historic would be affected by its creation. Bloom and Adams argued that the district’s size is appropriate, and there are many much larger historic districts in Massachusetts. A historic district in Provincetown contains almost 1,000 properties, and the entire island of Nantucket is a historic district.

The new Amherst historic district would include Tan Brook, Fearing Street, North Prospect Street, Pease Place, McClellan Street, Beston Street, Paige Street, Cosby Avenue, Lincoln Avenue, Elm Street and Sunset Avenue, and portions of Amity, Allen and Hallock streets. The properties include many well-preserved houses dating from the 1860s to the 1930s. North Pleasant Street has been dropped from the district plan, after objections arose about including it, Adams said.

The district’s architecture includes styles identified as Greek Revival, Italianate, Queen Anne, Vernacular Farmhouse, American Foursquare, Neoclassical and Tudor.

burnetthouseflowers
No. 8 Sunset Avenue, built in the Colonial Revival style in 1898 by William A. Burnett, owner of the H.D. Fearing Haberdashery. It is now owned by the Institute for Training and Development, which strives to preserve it.

While Lincoln and Sunset Avenues had grand homes owned by prosperous Protestant families, the neighboring streets included houses occupied by Black and Irish families who worked for them, in roles ranging from carpenters to domestics and chauffeurs.

Steinberg said that a Lincoln Avenue homeowner with a more recent house expressed concerns about the historic district’s implications. “The property that she owned is not in any way historic,” he said. Bloom said the district’s parameters would only include homes dating from the Civil War era to World War II, and that Lincoln includes a number of houses built in the 1960s.

“You’re not forcing people to make their houses historical,” Bloom said. “We’re just trying to prevent things that are jarring and disruptive.” Kruger said she was bothered by those terms, which individuals might interpret differently, although she  said there is value in the historic district concept.

Surveys were sent to 200 property owners in the proposed historic district last year, and there were 57 respondents. Forty-four said they supported the plan, while seven said “No,” five were “Not sure” and one left the question blank.

Lincoln
No. 290 Lincoln Avenue

The motivation for the Lincoln-Sunset Historic District arose when a “chalet-style” barn with a balcony at 290 Lincoln Avenue was demolished in 2012. The property once belonged to Warren Brown, who was a good friend of the poet Robert Frost. Frost lived at 43 Sunset Avenue.

 

There was discussion about the barn last night, and whether its demolition would have been prevented by the bylaw.  Select Board Chairwoman Alissa Brewer expressed concern about the property owner’s right to do as they saw fit. “I don’t know that I’m comfortable with the idea that the barn couldn’t have been torn down,” she said.

Bloom argued that important structures exist within the district that Amherst cannot afford to lose, including the poet Robert Frost’s house, and said not every change a homeowner  plans would be prevented by the historic district commission. “It’s case-by-case,” he said.

raystannard
Ray Stannard Baker (1870-1946), a journalist, publisher and press secretary to President Woodrow Wilson

The proposed Lincoln-Sunset Historic District is one of the town’s oldest neighborhoods, with a portion already listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  It would include the homes of two Pulitzer prize winners: Frost and journalist Ray Stannard Baker; plus the homes of political activist and suffragette Mary Heaton Vorse O’Brien, and former U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Harlan Fiske Stone. Currently, children’s author Norton Juster, and former U.S. Under Secretary of State Lucy Wilson Benson reside in the proposed district.

In the past, the neighborhood included academics associated with Massachusetts Agricultural College, along with a photographer, druggist, shoe dealer, cabinet makers, and the owner of a local hat factory, William Burnett, according to the committee’s report.

 

bakerhouse
The house where Ray Stannard Baker lived, at 11 Sunset Avenue

After a local historic district is created, major exterior changes to a home which can be seen from a public way,  including significant alterations or demolition, are subject to review by a locally-appointed commission. Some features are exempt from review, including paint color, air conditioning units, and storm doors.  The historic designation does not prevent use of a home as a rental property.

The Massachusetts Historical Commission sets out guidelines encouraging adoption of solar panels and creative use of new building materials and modern architecture. “The limits are on size, scale and proportion to other buildings in the local historic district,” Adams said today.

Mary Heaton Vorse O’Brien (1874–1966) was a journalist, labor movement activist, and novelist. She lived at 219 Amity St. in Amherst

Amherst adopted a historic district bylaw in 2012, and created the Dickinson Local Historic District, including about 60 homes in streets around the homestead where poet Emily Dickinson and her extended family lived.

“Now it is time to preserve a protect a second neighborhood,” Adams said.

A commission appointed by the Select Board has been acting to protect the Dickinson district. About 100 cases have been heard and resolved successfully, Adams said. The town’s building inspector can investigate whether an architectural change visible from a public way should be reviewed by the commission.

Robert Crowner of the Amherst Planning Board said it supports the new historic district, although its vote was not unanimous. The town master plan, he said, “recognizes that there are competing interests,” between economic development and historic preservation. But Crowner said that the study committee convinced the Planning Board of the area’s historic importance. “They were very persuasive,” he said.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
No. 219 Amity St., once the home of labor activist Mary Heaton Vorse O’Brien

Brewer initially said she would abstain from the Select Board vote, but then chose to vote in favor and make the recommendation unanimous.

Select Board member Jim Wald urged the board not to debate the nature of historic districts or their right to exist, saying that is already established under state law. The existing Dickinson district has a “highly diverse” architectural appearance and its implementation hasn’t been controversial. “If you have a ranch house, more power to you,” he said.  He added that the historic district designation “shouldn’t prevent a modern building.”

The Amherst Historical Commission, on which Bloom currently serves, has stated that the Lincoln-Sunset area is “highly deserving of this designation,” and there is “overwhelming” neighborhood support for the historic district.  The commission has said the neighborhood is in danger of losing some of its history because of its close proximity to UMass, and local development pressures.

“Once Amherst’s one-of-a-kind heritage and character are gone, they are gone for good. And this very precious, fragile place becomes just like anyplace else,” the study committee wrote.

The study committee will next meet on Wednesday, April 19 at 3:30 p.m. at Town Hall, and has materials online at:  https://www.amherstma.gov/1906/Lincoln-Sunset-LHD-Study-Committee

(The photo atop this article shows the 43 Sunset Avenue home where poet Robert Frost (1874-1963) lived from 1916 to 1938. Frost taught for many years at Amherst College.)

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