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Don't tear it down; build it up

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

The other day my wife and I entered I-91 at the Union Street entrance and that gave us a great view of the former St. Joseph's church in the South End of Springfield.

Now we know it's coming down and in its place will be some sort of bland retail/office development, but when we looked over to it, one sight drove home to us the lack of vision this event reflects.

The contractors had carefully taken out the church's stained glass windows. There was something about that sight that was particularly sad.

Now, I'm sure no one especially the Diocese is pleased when a decision such as closing a church has to be made. Congregations fight to preserve the church that is the center of their neighborhood or community.

The problem I have is what happens to those churches once a developer buys them.

Two years ago my wife and I visited Scotland, the country of her birth. We were in Glasgow, one of the most impressive cities I've had the pleasure of seeing, and found ourselves in a pub that was once a church.

The place was large enough to accommodate musical performances and the obvious new use was presented in a tasteful way.

Seeing the battered shell of St. Joseph's made me wonder if the right developer had been found if the building could have been saved for another use. What if the church could have been used as an arts center and perhaps part of the school building could have been made into condos?

Would a gallery, performance space and perhaps a coffee shop have helped the South End? I think in the long run such a place would have aided in the redevelopment of that neighborhood far more than whatever chain store that will ultimately go into the spot.

I'm a little sensitive to the matter of re-use as I'm winding up the research on the book on Springfield history I'm preparing for Arcadia Publishing. Reading how the impressive Barney mansion that stood in Forest Park was torn down to make room for the highway exchange makes me understand just how much history, culture and color we've lost in this city.

The city could not afford to move the mansion and state and federal planners didn't want to move the highway. The mansion, which had been used as an industrial museum, was torn down systemically by a contractor who submitted a low bid of $10 to the city, provided he could keep all of the salvage. That material included imported tile, rare hardwoods and stained glass windows that made this deal quite profitable for the contractor.

If we want to make our future brighter, we have to keep and re-use the buildings of our past. I was heartened to hear of the recent interest in the former Court Square Hotel building. The building needs re-development rather than demolition.

Part of that reuse of the Court Square Hotel includes a plan on the Old First Church's future. Those people who have criticized Charlie Ryan for making a deal on the Old First Church hopefully will now understand the wisdom of his action. The last thing we need in the center of Springfield is an inappropriate re-use of the most enduring building in the city.

I would love to see the church be used as a museum and as a venue for music and spoken word performances.

Of course it's interesting to compare the demolition of St. Joseph's which shouldn't have come down with the former jail building that should have been removed years ago.

Remember the sign on the side of the building advertising that the jail was for sale? For years, the Albano Administration tried to sell both the public and developers on the idea the jail building as a great candidate for rehabilitation no pun intended.

It, of course, never was. The construction of the building prohibited its economic renovation. Take away the cells and the walls and the roof didn't have adequate support.

The big question is just what kind of business development will go into that location. What is happening around the Basketball Hall of Fame is the creation of a high-end restaurant district. There will soon be five restaurants there with varying price points. Whatever is allowed to go into the jail location should be a business that fits in with the rest.


A quick word on downtown Springfield: I find it interesting that three restaurants leave downtown for varying reasons and elements of the local press start in with the panic-inducing stories.

Did any one of these outlets that have been acting like Chicken Little do stories on any of the restaurants that have either enlarged or moved into downtown in the past few years?

What strikes me as grimly interesting is the attitude of news outlets who sniff at new business stories as being something consumers don't want, but business failure stories are perfectly acceptable.

Are news consumers a bunch of masochists who crave punishment or do some folks in the fourth estate just have it wrong?

This column represents the opinions of its author. Send your comments online to or to 280 N. Main St., East Longmeadow, Mass. 01028.