In the late 19th century, Herbert Marshall Farr and his brother-in-law, Joseph Metcalf, built together a highly successful business in the city of Holyoke: the Farr Alpaca Company, which manufactured woven fabric.
Along with the business, the two men also built themselves identical brick Queen Anne-style homes next door to each other on Appleton Street. While Metcalf’s house was eventually demolished in the 1960s, Farr’s, which was converted to an office building in the 1940s, remains.
But now the Farr mansion could face the same fate as its former neighbor. In December of 2011, the Holyoke YMCA bought the building from R. Kirk Mackey, who now sits on that organization’s board, for $55,000 (about one-third of its $167,100 valuation, as determined by the city’s assessors). The Y wants to knock down the building to create parking spaces for members—a plan that neighborhood residents and historic preservationists are fighting to stop.
In June, Holyoke’s Historical Commission voted unanimously to impose a six-month delay on the demolition of the Farr Mansion, calling the Y’s plan “not appropriate because it will erase forever the significant home of Herbert Farr, the industrialist who built the City of Holyoke and forever altered the residential area.”
In 2012, the non-profit group Preservation Massachusetts named the Farr Mansion to its list of “most endangered historic resources.” Jim Igoe, the group’s president, said at the time, “This once stunning historic residence is in serious danger of being lost. … Too many historic properties are being lost in this very historic city and this property needs to be restored.”
Supporters of saving the mansion have collected about 700 signatures on an online petition and recently began hanging banners around the neighborhood, imploring the Y: “Don’t park on our history!” They’ve also put together a website—www.savethefarrmansion.org—and a Facebook page of the same name.
Daphne Board, a member of the Suffolk Street Neighborhood Association who lives across the street from the Farr Mansion, told the Advocate that residents are eager to see the building, which has been vacant for about two years, occupied again. Perhaps, she suggested, the Y could open a café or move some of its programs or offices into the building; perhaps it could sell it to a new owner who would use it as office space. “I’m happy with any option, really, that keeps the building,” Board said.
Kathy Viens, the Y’s executive director, sent the Advocate a prepared statement that noted that as the organization “continues to grow and thrive,” it has to find ways to be accessible. “With this growth, our members are constantly expressing their frustration at the need for more, safe off-street parking,” the statement said. “Our current number of parking spaces is not enough to serve our 4,500 members during peak hours.
“Over 25 [percent]—one in four people—in the Greater Holyoke community struggles with unhealthy weight and the accompanying health issues such as obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease,” it continued. “Our mission-based organization supports and welcomes all. We’ve evaluated many options to address the need for parking so people can improve their overall health. This solution is ideal as it is adjacent to our facility across a not too busy street and within eyesight of our main entrance. This is especially important for aging adults and families with young children.”
The statement concluded: “The Y looks forward to continuing our conversations with the Historic Commission.”
In a letter sent to members before the June Historical Commission meeting, the Y said that it had considered reusing the mansion but determined that “the building’s layout and condition are not well suited for use by the Y.”
Daphne Board questioned the need for more parking; even at the Y’s busiest times—like during the occasional swim meet—she never has trouble finding on-street parking near her house, she said. And, she noted, neighbors are willing to help find more close parking spots, identifying spaces in nearby lots that Y members could use, for instance, or asking City Hall to consider ways to free up more parking in the area.
“I generally like the Y. I like having it in the neighborhood,” Board said. But it’s been frustrating to feel locked out of the organization’s planning process, especially when those plans could have such a profound effect on the character of the community. “It would be great if they were in communication with the neighbors about [their plans] instead of us hearing these rumors,” she said. She and other neighbors would like to help support the Y’s mission, Board added— “without destroying our neighborhood.”•