If you travel through North Easton Village, and pass on your left, and a segment of the Shovel Shop buildings on your right, and go up maybe a 100 more yards, you arrive at the corner of Oliver Street and Main Street, where you will find an unkempt parcel of land.
The parcel is bordered with granite pillars and chain links; within, a path of stone, made obscure by time and nature, leads to a granite monument, which has a bench, and at the middle of which is a metal plaque, and above that the metal bust of a man.
The man depicted in the bust is Oliver Ames, the founder of the Ames Shovel Company, and the patriarch of a family dynasty and industry that gave incalculable amounts and benefits to our community.
The monument was bequeath in 1918 by Sarah Emily Witherell, granddaughter of Oliver Ames.
Centered on the plaque are these words:
BORN APRIL 11, 1779 – DIED SEPT, 11 1863
NORTH EASTON 1803.
“WOULD YOU BEHOLD HIS MONUMENT
LOOK ABOUT YOU”
These words celebrate, honor, commend and direct your view to the architectural and industrial wonder all around you. And it is considerable.
In this column, over and over, I push, exalt, and publicize the architectural, design, and art gems in our town.
In that these gems and North Easton Village are a strong interest of mine, I was greatly encouraged to learn yesterday– – that earlier this week, it was announced that our town will receive a $1 million state grant that will be committed to improvements in downtown North Easton.
With the renovation and rehabilitation of the Shovel Shops about to begin, and with this area of town undergoing a beautiful and extraordinary renaissance, this stretch of Main Street has to be fixed and improved. I mean, what are we talking about – 400 yards?
It is not befitting, and supportive, of the beauty and cultural treasure of the area – – to have a downtown that has a roadway in disrepair, unattractive frontage and signage, and rust and peeling paint.
Finally, we can get this bad boy taken care of – and it has been a long time in coming.
The revitalization project continues the momentum of the "North Easton Renaissance," which, I dare say, commenced about 25 years ago, and which has really been picking up steam in the last 15 or so years. So many people and so many civic groups have worked, and are working, so hard to create and revive beauty and majesty.
In her October 1976 Smithsonian magazine story, “How a post office can also be the heart of a village,” Jane Holtz Kay bemoaned the loss of the downtowns in country communities , and how their centers were being “defocused.” Ms. Holtz Kay cited Litchfield, CT and North Easton, MA as exemplars of the negative trend.
Ms. Holtz Kay, a distinguished architecture/planning author, journalist, and critic, has received many awards. Included in her long list of writing credits are the books, Asphalt Nation: How the Automobile Took Over America and How We Can Get It Back (University of California, 1997), Preserving New England (Pantheon, 1986), and Lost Boston (Houghton Mifflin, 1980, updated 1999).
Of 1976 downtown North Easton, Ms. Holtz Kay wrote that it is evidence of, “Cars, more cars again – and our failure to control them – that is no new notion, but still the sad insignia.”
In the story, Ms. Holtz Kay writes of the impressive and laudatory, of the unimpressive and lamentable, of our downtown at the time; here is an excerpt:
Here stands the impressive Oakes Ames Memorial Hall, one of the many splendid structures that H. H. Richardson built for the elite of this town. North Easton became a museum to his architecture. Here too is the Rockery, a “mound” of landscaped rock and trees superbly shaped by another 19th-century master, Frederick Law Olmsted of Central Park fame. “A unique mix of monuments,” says historian architect Lee Tabor of the Massachusetts Historical Commission.
No post office greets you as “gateway” to this historic town .... Instead, your first view of the center is a wall where a Sunbeam bread billboard beams, “Not By Bread Alone” and a shoddy metal awning lowers its sleazy brows over the views of Main Street …. “It isn’t a precious town center,” as Tabor says. “It isn’t ‘Colonial.’” The commercial structures don’t hold a candle to many. “But the buildings are of human scale,” he says, and the Richardson collection is incomparable.
The potential is there. But, for now, Main Street, North Easton, strikes you as lean, to say the least – the shops lackluster; the sidewalk broken up by garages, parking lots and helter-skelter cars. The future looks bleak behind dusty windows.
A big problem downtown was that in the early 1970s, O’Connor’s News Store – which was in the center of downtown – burned. (I recall, as a grade schooler, standing in front of our family home on Andrews Street and watching in amazement as the nighttime fire engulfed the building, and the firefighters battled it.)
When Ms. Holtz Kay wrote her story the building was still boarded up and charred and ugly as all get out.
For her article, Ms. Holtz Kay interviewed Louis Freitas, a successful realtor and civic leader, whom she described as a “well-groomed, gray-suited businessman.” In the story, Mr. Freitas – whose office was downtown – says that O’Connor’s “used to be the 100 percent location” and that “business activity deteriorated over the years. Then the building burned.”
Ms. Holtz Kay quotes Robert Brown, a town architectural historian, as saying of our downtown, “There are no conversions going on that would sustain its life.”
That isn’t the case today.
Soon the Shovel Shops rehab begins. Then soon after that Main Street gets a facelift.
This is all good. Today when one stands at the Oliver Ames monument and looks around, and takes a short walk to view more of the downtown area, that person sees a lot of beauty.
In a few years, the view is going to be a lot better.