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Historical Association works to restore Thomas Smith House

The Agawam Historical Association is working to preserve the Thomas Smith House, located on North West Street in Feeding Hills. MetroWest Reminder photo by Michelle Kealey
By Michelle Kealey

Staff Writer

AGAWAM Driving down North West Street in Agawam it seems like a normal residential street lined by a few farms, but when 251 North West Street is reached, it looks like a step back in time.

There sits an ancient red house that was built in the 1700s and has remained the same over the years, with no modernization work done to the house.

The Agawam Historical Association is working to preserve the house, known as the Thomas Smith House, just as it sits in its original condition.

David Cecchi, chairperson of the Agawam Historical Commission and a member of the Agawam Historical Association, said that the Association purchased the building in 2002.

He explained that the Association is a non-profit organization, while the Commission is a city appointed group, but the two groups are working together on the project because many members of the Commission are also members of the Association.

"This house is a time capsule," Cecchi said. "It hasn't been updated. It stands very much in the condition that it did 250 years ago."

He said that the house does not have any central heating, plumbing and there is very limited electricity.

Cecchi said that the house was believed to be built in 1757, although the exact date cannot be pinpointed. The Historical Association received word in June that the house was placed on the National Registry of Historic Places. They began the nomination and registration process for that designation two years ago.

He explained that the house managed to slip through time without being modernized because the people who owned it never chose to update it.

According to Cecchi, in the late 1800s, a farmer named Oscar Parks, who owned a large farm at that time, owned the house and used it for his help "so it never really needed to be winterized in the way many homes started to [use] central heat."

Cecchi said that Parks sold the house to a family who lived in the house from 1912 through the 1960s, who did not modernize the house. He said that two brothers were the last of that family to live in the house and they used an outhouse in the back while they lived there.

In the 1960s, the Rosenberg family purchased the house and Cecchi said that they lived in Springfield, but used the home in Agawam as a weekend house.

"They would come out and [putter] around in the garden and do some work on the house," he said, adding that no one lived in the house for 45 years.

Cecchi said that John Rosenberg, who was the owner of the house, was killed in an accident in 2001 and his heirs were not interested in the house.

The Association was able to obtain a mortgage and purchased the historic home for $100,000.

Cecchi said that the first five years of the mortgage is being paid for by pledges from a number of families in the city who have agreed to pay for a month each year for the first five years.

Cecchi said that Rosenberg had planted a lot of bushes around the house and, over the past decade or so, the house was neglected.

He explained that the shrubs were overgrown, which trapped moisture around the house, causing some rot.

Cecchi said that one of the first improvements made to the house was the clearing of the bushes. The Association has been mowing the lawn to "take control of the property as far as overgrown bushes," he added.

The Association is trying to preserve the home and hopes to eventually open it as a house museum, which may take up to 10 years, according to Cecchi.

"It is like walking back in time," he said about walking through the house.

He said that there is a wall in the old kitchen that he calls the "history of wallpaper" because there are layers of old wallpaper visible.

He added that one of the people who the Association had inspect the house pointed out that some of the wallpaper was handmade and some of it dated back to the Industrial Revolution because of the way the pattern was made.

"It is that kind of living history," he said. "We are trying to preserve the property to show what it was like and not go in and restore and replace [it]."

There is also an old barn that may have been built when the house was built and an old garage that was built in 1920.

Cecchi explained that the Association recently had a conditioned assessment completed on the house, which resulted in a 102 page report about the condition of the house and the areas of concern.

Through the Community Preservation Act, the Historic Association was able to obtain funding, which paid for an architect who specializes in historic preservation and who is currently working on preservation plans for the house.

Cecchi said that the first phase of preservation will include a stabilization project to stabilize the structure itself.

He said that some of the roof rafters have split, the interior roof has settled and pushed out the wall, floor joists need to be repaired because insects and animals have caused damage and some of the rafters in the attic need to be repaired and secured.

Phase one funding has been approved and Cecchi said that the Association is working with a contractor who specializes in historic properties to finalize the plans.

"We hope to start this summer," he said.

The interior of the house will be the last phase of the project, according to Cecchi.

He said that the decision as to what will go in the house has not been made.

"We haven't really gotten that far," he said.

Cecchi said that he would like to see the house remain empty so that people can see it without furniture because "the structure is so fascinating."

If the Association accumulated period furniture, he said that would be fine, but added that it would be years and years from now.

Cecchi said the the restoration costs of the house can easily run into the six figures.

In addition to the Community Preservation funding, the Association is selling copies of Cecchi's new book "Agawam and Feeding Hills revisited," with all of the proceeds going toward the restoration project.

He said that membership dues and donations at the Fire House Museum also benefit the project.