The ASLA (the Association of Landscape Architects) was in Boston late last week for their national conference. I was asked to host a group heading south of the city to North Easton, a community I have been studying and working for its preservation for over 15 years. It’s also the historic, industrial community upon which my doctoral dissertation is based. The overall theme of the tour was the various tools and methodologies required to successfully preserve communities. Easton is blessed with a unique collection of historic resources including five buildings designed by famed Boston architect H.H. Richardson, landscapes by equally renowned landscape architect F.L. Olmsted, fine art by stained glass luminary John LeFarge …. and the list goes on and on. Easton has been described by some as a museum of 19th century architecture and of a 19th century industrial community. The remarkable roots of this material culture are found in the Ames family which came to Easton in 1803. Oliver Ames and his children turned a small, bankrupt nail-making shop into the world’s largest maker of shovels. (Yes, shovels!). By the 1850s Ames was selling shovels as far as away as Australia (for the Australian Gold Rush), but here in the U.S. Ames shovels literally built American (think basics like farm fields, foundations and wells; consider nation-changers like the Erie Canal and many other canals carrying cargo and waterpower and late railroad; remember the central role of shovels in building cities and in mining including the California Gold Rush and the coal mines of Pennsylvania; don’t forget in the days before mechanization what had to be transported by shovels) By the late 19th century the shop in Easton and associated factories in nearby towns and what grew to a company with plants in several states made 2/3 of the world’s shovels.
While the industrial history is quite fascinating (waterpower, early steam engines, transformation from artisan to industrialist, early labor and worker issues such as the need to build worker housing, balancing production within a fledgling economy still trying how to even out the boom-bust cycles, the challenges of growing markets from local to regional to national…..) the point of the tour I want to focus on here is the challenges of preserving treasured concentrations of historical resources in places like Easton, or for that matter Boston. Easton has had remarkable success in preserving not only individual structures and landscapes but the context of these resources. Individual resources speak far more powerfully when they speak to each other – worker housing clearly adjacent to mill complex, mill adjacent to historic waterpower source, the progression of owner/manager housing from nearby the factory to further away over generations, the community church and associate cemetery right there.
Easton has a long history and culture of preservation. About 20% of the town is preserved open space and Easton was one of the first communities to adopt the Community Preservation Act. The CPA has been a remarkably successful tool, allowing the town to fund projects that stabilize deteriorating resources (like Olmsted’s “Rockery,” a memorial cairn to Civil War veterans), restore a 19th century garden once overgrown and now available once again for the public including as a performance space (this garden and its outdoor stage once hosted the likes of Broadway’s greatest of the 1920s thanks to its builder, playwrite/producer Winthrop Ames). The most successful project, now in its final stages of construction, has been the preservation of the Ames Shovel Works itself, a multi-building complex of stone buildings that was on the precipice of demolition several years ago. After local, regional, and national efforts (the site was listed on the National Trust’s Most Endangered resource list in 2009). Now 117 units of housing are nearly complete in a project that utilizes historic preservation tax credits, affordable housing tax credits, and a significant loan from the town’s CPA fund.
Meanwhile other sites are preserved with a variety of mechanisms. Ames family property is preserved in some cases still under private, family control. Historic farming property, long left for simple hay production is now an active community-supported farm with about 250 CSA subscribers. The Trustees of Reservations recently purchased the Governor Ames Estate (yes, Governor of MA Oliver Ames!). Stonehill College is located in another former Ames Estate and the National Resources Trust, formed in the late 1960s, runs educational programs while preserving the vast open spaces of the former “Sheep Pasture” Estate. The Easton Town offices occupy the Guy Lowell- designed Wayside estate. Historic New England now holds a preservation restriction of Richardson’s Ames Gate Lodge, and Trustees of the Reservation recently obtained restrictions on the view-shed for the lodge. The list goes on and on.
The point is though – multiple and varied tools are required for preservation success. This is not a one-tool-fits all business. We need to be open-minded, flexible, and creative when thinking of preservation. We also need to be mindful of the need to fill our toolbox with as many options as possible. Many tools make light and successful work. And Easton is a great example. Easton and Boston are of course very different, but Boston should take a lesson in both the value of CPA and the importance of having many preservation strategies and mechanisms at our disposal. Take a drive down to Easton and look around sometime. You’ll be surprised by what you find!