Pittsfield parish seeks approval to demolish former convent

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PITTSFIELD >> St. Joseph's Parish is reluctantly giving up efforts to preserve or restore its historic brick convent at 350 North St. and seeks to demolish it, parish representatives told the Historical Commission on Monday.

"It is a sad state that we have to come to this," said attorney Mark Brennan, representing the parish. "It is not a decision we come to lightly."

Brennan said the three-story brick structure, facing North Street across an expansive lawn that has been the site in recent years of downtown events, has been used only for storage in recent years. It was last used as a Sisters of St. Joseph convent during the late 1970s, although a few nuns were allowed to live there afterward for several years.

Today, Brennan said, the third floor is "basically unusable," and there is a problem with squirrels nesting there and with maintaining the roof.

Asked why the building wasn't maintained, Brennan responded: "Cost — it's an astronomical cost to the church," which he said has no funding available to heat or otherwise maintain the structure.

There have been several attempts to find a new use for the convent, which was built in 1896-97, about 27 years after St. Joseph's Church. An effort to create assisted-living apartments there was advanced in the early 2000s, but the effort faltered.

A non-profit group had plans to create 19 assisted-living units in a facility to be known as Convent Gardens at St. Joseph's. According to floor plans, 10 units would be created on the second floor and nine on the third floor.

An elevator was to be installed, along with handicapped-accessible bathrooms. And a sacristy, chapel, dining room, sitting room, kitchen, pantry and offices on the first floor were to remain as they were then, according to Eagle files.

Brennan said the parish also considered using the convent for a parish center or attaching it to the new center that was constructed just east of the convent and opened in 2010. But he said the high cost of using the historic structure, which became more prohibitive with changes in building code requirements, doomed plans for its reuse.

Under the city's demolition delay process for historically significant structures, the commission will review the request and make a recommendation to the Community Development Board, which could then impose a demolition delay of up to six months.

That is the process that was followed with the former Plunkett School on First Street, but after no new developer or reuse plan was put forth after the six-month period, Cafua Management Co., which proposes a Dunkin' Donuts restaurant on the former school parcel, bought the property and went ahead with the demolition.

That project failed, however, to win a special permit from the City Council for a drive-thru operation, and Cafua is appealing that rejection in Massachusetts Land Court.

Historical Commission member Kathleen Reilly said Tuesday that the convent is not specifically on the National Register of Historic Places, but it is within the city's Upper North Street Historic District.

She had asked Brennan to update a form developed by the state Historical Commission to survey buildings proposed for demolition. The form is intended to help determine its exact history and other aspects for review prior to action on a demolition order.

Brennan said the parish would fulfill that task, which requires hiring a professional firm. The parish had done an early version of the survey during the 1980s, but Reilly said the form and survey process have changed significantly since that time.

The commission also intends to schedule a site visit in December to familiarize members with the convent's interior and current condition.

When first opened, the convent also contained an academy for girls that later moved to Chicopee and became Elms College.

Contact Jim Therrien at 413-496-6247.


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