American Standards from the Classic Songbook in a Classic 1794 Meetinghouse
Unforeseen Memorable Moments - A Journey into Hidden America
It was Saturday night in North Central Massachusetts. We were in the pretty Pioneer Valley of the Connecticut River north of Springfield, and were looking for something to do which did not involve too much travel or too much money.
We found a concert - reasonably priced - of American Standards from the Great American Songbook with a jazz flavor (Sarah Clay and the Magic Band). Only later did I come to see that the venue was a short drive (but longer than I had originally planned) off the beaten path in a real cool place - the 1794 Meetinghouse.
The location was New Salem, some 30 minutes east of Amherst along U.S. 202.
Named by the original settlers after their home town 90 miles to the east, New Salem, though part of the Springfield Metropolitan Statistical Area, remains a rural community. It's population is 990.
The main street, a couple of blocks beyond 202, is small but impressionable . No businesses - it has some houses, but is made up mostly of town-related buildings: old town hall, and a library. and our venue for the evening, the 1794 Meetinghouse. All are set as part of the town commons - making for imagery right out of a dream
The place now called a Meetinghouse was originally old church - the congregational church built in the 1830's. By the time of the civil war its days as a church were already over.
In a history of the building (written by Alan Young and updated by Brad Foster in 2014) to be found at its website:
The First Church of New Salem, incorporated as the Congregational Society, determined that it needed a larger structure to house its growing congregation and meet the civic needs of New Salem. Thus, the new meeting house was started in 1794 and completed the next year, with traditional and praiseworthy architectural design. Locally cut pine, chestnut and oak, hewn by water-powered sawmills, were utilized, along with fieldstones and granite for the foundation
Alterations and renovations to the meeting house occurred over time. The most dramatic alteration took place in 1837, when the building, which faced north, was lifted up and rotated one-quarter to the east, while there were architectural changes associated with the Greek Revival style and changing theological concepts. The new east entrances, flanked by pilasters, included a portico supported by pillars. A belfry, bell and steeps were added, an the interior was remodeled, too.
That web site history continued to explain that that For many decades, the building primarily served civic functions. As the largest hall in the town, it was the venue for high school graduations, summertime performances, national holiday observances, the celebration of the town’s bicentennial in 1953, and various reunions.
(Though the deed retained the name “Congregational Society,” the group’s few members, in reality the owners of the building, were Unitarians, and their annual reunions continued on and off through 1984).
By the mid-1980's, however, the condition of the building had become of such concern that a quest was started to save it by putting it to other uses.
From that effort came a 1794 Meetinghouse Preservation Committee. It took 10 years of hard work until the place re-opened in 1994 and took on a new life serving as North Quabbin’s Center for the Performing Arts.
In the early years, the Meetinghouse hosted fewer than 10 productions a season, but gradually the number of performers coming to New Salem increased to as many as 40 per season. It has heard the sounds of classical music as well as rock, jazz, folk, bluegrass, opera, blues, Caribbean, fusion, Celtic and more.
Being just up from the road from the Emily Dickinson Home in Amherst, the Old Meeting house has also hosted a unique event entitled “Emily Fest: A Different Look at Emily Dickinson,” featured the innovative Sleeveless Theatre based in the Pioneer Valley along with authors Polly Longsworth and Doris Abramson.
Audiences sometimes can be small (we understand that it at times remains a challenge to pull in folks from Amherst and Northampton).
On this night there were maybe 100 folks who came to hear Sarah and her accompanying instrumentalists (Bob Ferrier (guitar), Steve Bulmer (bass) and Ed Brainerd (flugelhorn), and Sarah vocal as well as flute). Good stuff. But the highlight of this evening was one of her students, a high schooler, with a beautiful voice who won us with her version of a standard (You'd Be So Nice, I think).
In 1986, the 1794 Meetinghouse Preservation Committee published a 10-page booklet to explain the group’s ambitious plans. Printed on the booklet cover were these three brief sentences:
“The past has taught its lessons. The present has its duty. The future has its hope.”
Coming from an area where the past is all too readily overlooked and cast aside, it was reassuring to see how this community so small was able to make such a statement about what it is about and what is important to it - connecting its past and its future in such a seamless way.
So, there on this Saturday night we sat inside a building that connected the 19th century to today being entertained by a young woman of the 21st century who was re-connecting us to music from the mid-20th century.
For a brief moment, the world seemed to make sense again. One felt good and one held hope.