PASSING BY: Supervisor Housing


Jane Griswold Radocchia

This house is not what I expected to see on Route 346. North Pownal is a village with farmsteads, mill houses and folk Victorians. And here, right in the middle between the two churches, are five houses that belong not on a rural road through a small town but in a 1920s suburban neighborhood. The square, two-story, comfortable houses look out to the road across broad front yards sheltered by tall trees.

But where are their suburban picket fences and sidewalks? Why are they here?

Some history: The Plunkett & Baker Co. Cotton Mill and dam were constructed in 1866, on the Hoosick River in North Pownal. Mill housing for the workers was built in walking distance to the mill.

By 1911, the factory was owned by the Greylock Mill of North Adams, Mass. Then it was sold to the Berkshire Fine Spinning Mill. In the 1920s, Berkshire built these five houses here on Route 346 for its supervisors, the foremen and superintendent.

By the 1920s, middle class Americans expected their homes to have electricity, hot and cold running water, and central heat. Good public transportation was available and many families owned an automobile. These houses reflect that prosperity. They have a sense of well-being.

In 1935 the mill closed.

In 1938, the factory became a tannery, owned by Michael Flynn of Salem, Mass. Here hides were prepared for his shoe factory. Tanning is a toxic process. When the mill was closed in 1988 the land and river were contaminated. The mill itself was taken down, the holding lagoon cleaned and filled in, and the river restored. What remained was the mill village at the dam and these five houses.

I choose to focus on this house in particular because of the original details which are still here.

First, the shutters with cutouts on the upper panels are vintage 1920s. The usual cutout shapes were pine trees, crescent moons, sail boats. Here with a nod to the rural setting they are cheerful chickens!

Second, those brackets along the front porch roof line -- hefty gingerbread -- are surely someone's unique creation. The ones I know from the ‘20's are Colonial Revival, simple round curves. Here they are updated Victorian corbels, one arc morphing into another, with lacy cutouts.

Finally the roof line: The favorite house style between the Wars was a Colonial Revival box, often with a fake eave line added on the end wall -- just about like this -- so that the house looked like a cape with a shed dormer.

Here the eave was set at a steeper angle than a cape eave would have been. That steep roof, called ‘Period,' was inspired by medieval English Cotswold cottages, or maybe French farmhouses. It is supposed to feel quaint, as if it comes from a storybook. What do you think?

The porch is original, but the railings have been changed. The houses next door on both sides are the same basic design with different roofs and a few other changes for the sake of variety.

The Berkshire Fine Spinning Mill chain did not fail completely after it closed the North Pownal mill. It eventually morphed, after World War II, into Warren Buffet's Berkshire-Hathaway.

Jane Griswold Radocchia is a Banner columnist.


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