Sunday, May 10, 2009

Amherst Literary Landmarks Project: Writer's Walk

Article 18 L: Historic Signs for Literary Landmarks Project: Amherst Writer's Walk: $ 30,000

The Amherst Writer's Walk emerged directly from the action items of the Amherst Preservation Plan (2005; funded with CPA monies; pp. 37-38):
  • "Develop, install, and maintain a system of signs and street furnishings to mark historic districts and village centers, and to encourage tourism"
  • "Continue to expand and maintain the existing sign program, providing better way-finding cues for visitors and creating more visible signs"
  • "Create walking tours of Amherst's historic districts
It is also one of the fruits of partnering with other state and local organizations (one of the mandated activities of local historical commissions): in this case, the Massachusetts Center for the Book, Hampshire College, and the Jones Library. The Center for the Book, a state affiliate of the national organization housed in the Library of Congress, works to promote literacy, reading, and "understanding of and appreciation for the past, present, and future of the book and of the book arts in Massachusetts."

One of its major initiatives is a literary map of the Commonwealth (currently in paper, eventually online, as well) intended to call attention to our literary heritage and contemporary literary life, and in the process, to assist in the preservation and promotion of the physical sites. Amherst is privileged to have 16 sites (behind only Boston and Cambridge) listed in the first edition of the map, and is one of only five locales to earn its own inset. The Center for the Book thus encouraged us to develop markers for these emblems of our distinguished place in the cultural history of the Commonwealth, and our anniversary year seemed the perfect occasion to do this. This past fall, students in my seminar at Hampshire College studied historic preservation and local social and cultural history, and researched individual writers and literary sites. Their papers will furnish the basis for marker texts, as well as for parallel entries on the exciting new Digital Amherst website that the Jones Library and its Special Collections have launched in our anniversary year. (Here is the entry that one of the students did for the Amherst Academy).

The number of Amherst writers is large, so we tried to select an initial list that gives a good sense of the range of our contributions to the literary world, above and beyond the inimitable Emily Dickinson, who does not lack for a public and publicity.

• Ray Stannard Baker (1870-1946), journalist, muckraker, press secretary to President Wilson at Versailles Peace Conference, Pulitzer Prize winner; writings on the rural life under the pseudonym, David Grayson. Home at 118 Sunset Avenue (home of the Stockbridge fraternity ATG)

Robert Frost (1874-1963), poet, US Poet Laureate, winner of four Pulitzer prizes; residence at 43 Sunset Ave., 1931-38

Robert Francis (1901-87), poet in the circle of Robert Frost, who called him the best unknown poet in the country; home, "Fort Juniper" at 170 Market Hill Road--today a writer's retreat

Helen Hunt Jackson (1830-85), childhood friend of Emily Dickinson, activist on behalf of Native American rights in the west; childhood home at 249 South Pleasant St.

Mabel Loomis Todd (1856-1932): author, artist, popular lecturer; founder of Amherst Historical Society; early editor of Emily Dickinson's poetry; home: "The Dell," 90 Spring St.

Mary Heaton Vorse (1874-1966): muckraking journalist, populist and activist on behalf of socialism, feminism, pacifism; summer residence at 219 Amity Street, the boyhood home of:

Eugene Field (1850-95); humorist and author of children's literature ("Wynken, Blynken, and Nod")

Lilian and Howard Garis (1873-1954; 1873-1962) journalists and authors of children's literature the Bobbsey Twins, Uncle Wiggily), home at the other "Dell," 97 Spring St. (today, office of Five Colleges, Inc.)

Charles Eastman (Ohiyesa; 1858-1939), physician in the Indian Health Service, Native American rights activist; author of works on Native American Life; residence on Snell St.

Noah Webster (1758-1843); lexicographer, political reformer, educator involved with Amherst Academy and Amherst College; residence was on Main St. in the center of town


Is it permitted to spend money on signs?

Yes. In the first place, signs are among the most common sources of expenditure under existing CPA practice. Some three dozen communities have appropriated funds for signs marking historic sites and open space, without a single legal challenge.

When asked for an opinion, Town Counsel ruled that the signs were clearly appropriate if located on-site and involving the standard protective language of historic preservation.

What do we get for the money?

A smart investment in materials at the outset means a product that will last and not need replacement in the foreseeable future. Porcelain enamel signs will resist fading and deterioration.

Based on consultation with designers, staff of other historical preservation groups (e.g. Historic Northampton), and the specialized manufacturing firms, and assuming that we can have installation done in-house by Department of Public Work, we calculate that, at about $ 420 per square foot, a porcelain enamel marker of about 5.7 square feet would cost about $ 2400, and a high-quality but simple steel post, about $ 1000, for a total of $ 3,400.

The requested appropriation should thus pay for 9 to 10 signs, depending on final cost.

Why are signs a priority?

As indicated in the Preservation Plan, historic markers are one of the most important and common forms of historic preservation practice. They are arguably the best means of highlighting and protecting Amherst's rich literary heritage, moreover potentially paving the way for other, legal-institutional preservation measures. In addition, they can play a major role in cultural tourism, a clean economic growth industry, and one of the most important for Amherst.

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