Historic house tours are often an opportunity to look back to the charms and customs of an earlier time. But this year’s Amherst Historical Society House Tour, Nov. 12 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., takes a wider view, offering a selection of private and public buildings that reflect many facets of the town’s past, present and future, and the town’s ability to adapt to the changing needs and tastes of the community.
The tour benefits the historical society, a volunteer organization founded in 1899 and housed for 100 years in the 17th-century Simeon Strong House, which also serves as the Amherst History Museum. The event provides a rare opportunity to get an inside look at some of Amherst finest structures, old and new.
Following are some highlights:
Henry F. Hills house
The most extravagant building on the tour, the Henry F. Hills house, has served private and public roles in its lifetime. Built in 1862 and 1863 for Henry F. Hills, one of the wealthiest men in Amherst, the house represents an era when the town was a prosperous manufacturing center.
Hills’ father, Leonard M. Hills, made a fortune by industrializing the process of manufacturing palm-leaf hats. By 1869, his company, which had a factory in Amherst employing more than 200 people, was the largest hat manufacturer in the country.
Henry F. Hills joined his father’s business and became a prominent town figure who was instrumental in establishing railroad, gas and water companies in Amherst.
He hired William Fenno Pratt, a well-known Northampton architect, to design an opulent Italianate, neo-Baroque style house at 360 Main St., just down the road from the Emily Dickinson Homestead. Pratt designed a number of other notable houses in Amherst, including the Evergreens, for Emily Dickinson’s brother Austin. He also designed the Leonard M. Hills house, next door to the Henry F. Hills House, that is now home to the Amherst Woman’s Club.
Hills’ house was built on a massive scale, with 13-foot ceilings on the ground floor and 12-foot ceilings on the second floor. No expense was spared. The house still contains many original features, including eight marble fireplaces, intricate parquet floors and mahogany pocket doors inlaid with patterned, frosted glass inserts. Many of the ground floor’s floor-to-ceiling windows open onto a spacious wraparound porch.
After Hills’ death, his daughter, Susan Hills Skillings, lived in the house until her death in 1968. From 1976 to 2007, the Amherst Boys and Girls Club owned the house and used it as their headquarters.
Amherst developer Jerry Guidera and his business partner, Russ Wilson, bought the property in 2007 and began restoring it. The restoration has taken eight years and cost approximately $1 million.
Among other things, Guidera and Wilson have replaced all the windows, restored the exquisite plaster moldings, renovated the kitchen and added modern bathrooms. Guidera said he still plans to rebuild the house’s widow’s walk, which was destroyed by the catastrophic hurricane of 1938. He and his family now live in the house, which he plans to sell next year, when renovations are complete.
The earliest building on the tour was built at a time when Amherst was barely a town at all. The Dickinson-Baggs Tavern at 6 South East St. was built around 1770 as the residence of Timothy Hubbard. In 1786 it was a meeting place for plotters of the Daniel Shays Rebellion, a farmers’ uprising demanding economic crisis laws to protect them from onerous debt conditions.
Since then, the house has gone through many incarnations in response to the commercial needs of the growing town, serving as a tavern, hotel, courthouse and antique store. It now houses the offices of several lawyers and financial professionals.
Back in the late 1700s, South Amherst evolved as a separate village, eventually having its own post office, general store, school and tavern. While these public buildings are now private homes, the area around the South Amherst Common still retains its village-like atmosphere. This year’s tour will feature one of South Amherst’s early residences, sometimes called the Stedman-Allis house, at 989 South East St., built around 1825. The village’s first postmaster, Hiram Allen, lived there in the mid-1800s. The post office itself was the brick building facing the Common.
The handsome white clapboard colonial house that now belongs to Mary and David Dunn was built on a road connecting Shays and South East streets that no longer exists. This explains the house’s long driveway and south-facing orientation. An addition was built in 1972, but some original features, including wide board floors, woodwork and a steep staircase, have been retained.
33 Dana Place
Another notable residence on the tour is the intriguing mid-century modern house at 33 Dana Place that belongs to art historians Jessica Maier and Nick Camerlenghi.
The house was built 50 years ago for Amherst geology professor George Bain, who wanted a cutting-edge, International Style residence that would feature airy, open spaces and natural materials, such as wood and unusual stone.
The style was influenced by Walter Gropius, one of the architects associated with the German Bauhaus school of architecture. The house sits on an acre of land featuring mature specimen trees and a patio edged by a circular fishpond.
The tour also features another significant building that has adapted to the changing commercial configuration of the town. The First National Bank building, designed by the New York architecture firm Hoggson Brothers in the 1920s, opened just 10 days after the dedication of the neighboring Jones Library, in 1928. The handsome colonial revival brick building features soaring two-story arched windows, end chimneys and a slate roof with a balustrade.
The building housed several banks over the years, but the nature of banking has evolved so that retail banks require less space. Amherst developer Barry Roberts, who has owned the building since 1996, teamed up with Jerry Guidera and other local developers to transform the space to serve the needs of a new generation of entrepreneurs and technology professionals.
Scheduled to open Nov. 1, the co-working space, called AmherstWorks, will rent private and shared office space to people seeking a communal work environment. “Co-working space is really about a lifestyle,” Guidera told Gazette reporter Scott Merzbach in June.
The light-filled ground floor and mezzanine, accessible by two staircases on either end of the building, contain a mixture of private, glass-walled cubicles and open spaces with desks. AmherstWorks will provide fast internet access, copy and print services, private booths for phone calls, and unlimited free coffee.
The bank’s impressive vault has been transformed into a conference room, one of three in the building.
The newest site on the tour is the recently completed Hitchcock Center, a state-of-the-art building that testifies to Amherst’s commitment to environmentally responsible design. The center was designed to conform with the extremely rigorous “Living Building” standards, including net zero energy and water usage. (Of the 11 buildings in the world that meet “Living Building” criteria, two are in Amherst. The other is the new R.W. Kern Center at Hampshire College).
The 9,000-square-foot structure is located on a grassy hillside on the Hampshire College campus at 845 West St. in South Amherst. The building features non-toxic materials, most of them acquired from within a 300-mile radius; a highly efficient solar energy system; composting toilets; and a rainwater collection system that stores 7,500 gallons of water, a three-month supply.
Not only is the Hitchcock Center environmentally friendly, it’s public and family friendly. The doors open into a spacious visitors center, with a library that houses — in addition to books on a wide variety of nature subjects — a couple of friendly “teaching animals,” “Speedy,” an Eastern box turtle, and “Cornelius,” a non-venomous, orange-striped corn snake. There is a community meeting room that’s available to outside groups and several classroom spaces, all of which open directly to the outdoors. Outside are decks, courtyards, picnic areas and gardens with native plants.
Every aspect of the structure is a teaching opportunity. The ceilings are open, exposing the heating, electrical and structural systems. The workings of the water storage system are also visible, clearly labeled to show how the water is collected, cleaned, stored and distributed.
Mickey Rathbun can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tickets purchased in advance for the Amherst Historical Society House Tour cost $25, and are available at A.J. Hastings, 45 South Pleasant St. in Amherst and at Hadley Garden Center, 285 Russell St. (Route 9) in Hadley.
Tickets purchased on the day of the tour are $30, and will be available at the Amherst History Museum, 67 Amity St.