The following article appeared in the North Adams Transcript on May 25, 2001. Used by permission.
In a row of Victorian houses on River Street, a new standard of industrial comfort is coming to life.
Early in the past century, mill workers rested in these structures after the labor of their shifts. Providing temporary refuge from supervisors and machines, the housing buildings sheltered people from the demands of the industrial age. Located just blocks from downtown, however, the houses also placed them close to the conveniences of the area.
Now, in a time defined by electronic commerce and new economies, some people believe the old ways of industry may offer escape. As renovations to the houses near completion and a new identity descends on the neighborhood, the buildings again may host a balance of past and future.
At the Porches Inn, a colorful reincarnation of 19th century River Street, staff members hope these rethought buildings will provide a perfect blend of retro-style and contemporary pleasure. Scheduled to open July 1, the inn is part of a growing initiative to boost the reputation of North Adams as a Berkshire cultural destination.
As representatives from nearby businesses learned on construction tours yesterday, the inn consists of four color-coded main buildings that accommodate 50 rooms and suites. Conference rooms will be supplemented by meeting space in smaller structures on the site. One small building will serve as a recreation hall, equipped with showers and change rooms for the outdoor hot tub and heated pool. A garden path will meander from parking to back doors and up the wooded hillside.
True to its name, Porches resembles a community connected by paneled decks, where life revolves around open spaces. Guest rooms open onto interior walkways that end in iron-railed balconies, where an upward glance reveals skylight ceilings. Inside many rooms and suites, frosted windows allow light to pass between painted bedchambers and immaculate white washrooms.
For $150 to $430 per night, guests may be entitled to such amenities as Jacuzzi tubs, wall safes, DVD players, minibars, high-speed data connections, computer and cellular phone rentals, breakfast service and museum passes. Upholding the theme of the inn, room service will arrive in shiny metal lunchboxes.
Chapter One: Flood of ‘27
“The fire department came over and put a ladder across River Street, which was like a rushing torrent. People were screaming. I can still hear it.”
Less than half a mile from Main Street, the north and south branches of the Hoosic River converge, providing the central point around which the industrial development of North Adams began some 200 years ago. Shortly after the Civil War, that development culminated with the construction of Arnold Print Works, a cloth-printing company that would become internationally successful. By the beginning of the 20th century, Arnold had put up several dozen brick mill buildings that stretched for 1,000 feet along the river.
Across the river, in the shadow of Arnold’s iconic clock tower, River Street emerged as one of the city’s most well-defined working-class neighborhoods. From the Eagle Street bridge west to the Brown Street bridge, mill workers and laborers made their homes in rows of tenements and multi-family Victorian-style houses. Shaped by long hours of repetitive and often dangerous work, hard New England winters, and the ever-present threat of floods, their lives reflected a common struggle for comfort and dignity.
On Nov 2, 1927, a strange darkness settled into the afternoon as River Street residents received the daily North Adams Transcript. An ad for the Boston Store on page three said, “It’s Time To Think of Christmas Gifts.” The popular Main Street department store had raccoon coats for $295, misses’ coats for $25, and ashtray sets for only a dollar. Another ad, this one for the Richmond Theatre, announced the last showing that night of The Devil’s Saddle, starring Ken Maynard, and the following Monday’s grand opening of BEN-HUR, starring Ramon Navarro. The weather forecast called for rain.
Thirty-six hours later, over six inches had fallen, carrying tenement houses on the west end of River Street into the raging water. The Marshall Street bridge broke free and slammed into the Brown Street bridge, which somehow survived. The late Anthony Talarico was 13 years old when he witnessed the devastation:
“At the foot of Harris Street, there was a store. The water was so strong, that it took that store and turned it around and floated it down the river. There were about three tenement blocks right after Harris Street. The water began to eat away at the first tenement block. All the people in the houses put planks from one tenement block to the other and crossed over to the center of the middle tenement. The fire department came over and put a ladder across River Street, which was like a rushing torrent. People were screaming. I can still hear it.”
“In the morning, my mother would have my shoes heating up in the stove.”
A mile to the east, in the Willow Dell section near the Barber Leather mill, a tenement occupied by Arthur and Rosanna Robert and their three children slid into the river, carrying everything they owned with it. For a short time, the family was scattered around in various apartments, until Mrs. Robert’s boss, H.W. Clark of Clark Biscuit Company, found them an apartment at 223 River Street.
Their daughter, Annette, was born nine years later. After growing up in the house, she married Vincent Duprat in 1956. He was a printer at Excelsior. Later they started their own business in North Adams called Beck’s Printing, which they sold six years ago. Mrs. Duprat has fond memories of living on River Street.
“Our apartment was downstairs. It had three bedrooms, a large kitchen, a dining room, a parlor – that’s what we used to call it – and a pantry. There was a coal stove in the kitchen and one in the dining room. My grandmother lived with us. I slept on the couch until I was 12 years old. She died, and that’s when I got a bedroom.”
“I went to Notre Dame School. It took about 20 minutes to walk it. In the winter it was bad, believe me. In the morning, my mother would have my shoes heating up in the stove. We’d go up River Street and Holden Street and Lincoln Street, and that would take you on Center Street and Eagle Street, and then up East Main. At lunchtime, it was 20 minutes back home, 20 minutes to eat, and 20 minutes back to school. Sometimes I’d take a banana sandwich to school – just two pieces of bread and butter, with sliced bananas on it.”
“We played in the backyard – hide and go seek, tag, alleys, nipsy, all the games the kids don’t know today. We used to go up on the sand bank, get on the top, and roll down in the grass. We used to sit on the porch and talk at night and watch the cars go by. There was a lot of people walking by, too. You could hear the river running in the spring. You really couldn’t see too much across the street, just Sprague’s (Sprague Electric Company) and the Studebaker garage.”
“When I was growing up, people would say to me, ‘Where do you live?’ And I’d say, ‘River Street, in between Houghton and Veazie.’ I didn’t want anyone to think I lived down at River Street extension. That area had a bad reputation. But I had friends from school that lived down there, and I thought they were about the same as us. Not everyone was poor.”
“I remember there were three brothers who used to sleep behind the billboards on River Street. When I was going to school, and even when I was working and coming home at night, I used to run down the street to my house, because I was afraid someone was behind the billboards. I guess they had no place to live. The police used to take ‘em to the jail when it was cold, sober ‘em up, and they’d come back out.”
“There were a lot of little grocery stores around. Everybody knew their neighbors; not like today where you don’t even know who’s living next door. My father died there about 20 years ago when he was 87 years old. My mother wound up living there 55 years.”
“We had the basic things. I was happy. We had a plain, simple life.”
John R. Flaherty was six years old and living on the first floor at 231 River Street when his mother hurried him up the hill to his cousin’s house on Veazie Street to escape the ’27 flood. When the water got up to the porch, his father was working the night shift at Noel’s Restaurant on Main Street. John F. and Mabel (Estes) Flaherty had moved from Charles Street in the west end of the city to River Street in 1924, because they didn’t have a car and it was close to downtown.
After a stint as a short-order cook at Noel’s, his father joined the North Adams Police Department as a patrolman and eventually became one of its most popular police chiefs. He retired in 1965 to serve as the relocation officer for the city’s redevelopment authority during the south side urban renewal project. He died on his wife’s birthday in 1987.
His son John graduated from St Michael’s College in Vermont, and served in the Navy from 1943 to 1946. A retired optometrist, he is 80 years old and lives with his wife Helen in one of the city’s newer neighborhoods on the east side. They built a house there in 1964. Like Annette Duprat, he enjoyed his younger days on River Street.
“When we moved in, the house wasn’t wired. We had no electricity, but we got it soon after. I can remember all the trips down to the cellar replacing fuses. There was only one circuit for the whole apartment. They had an oil-burning range in the kitchen and one in the parlor. I remember that jug of kerosene. My mother didn’t like it. They finally hired a contractor to put a furnace in for central heat. Their apartment was the only one that had that. It cost them a fortune for oil, because there wasn’t any insulation. The bedrooms were still cold.”
“There used to be a culvert that came out in the river near Veazie Street. I can remember going down there and catching minnows. That was before the flood chutes. We had a little baseball diamond on that empty lot on Houghton Street. We went right up from our back door to the sand bank. I remember doing stunts up there like jumping off the bank into the sand. No mischief though. When your father’s a policeman, you got to behave.”
“We used to play a lot of card games on the porch together, like cribbage. There was a rail on the porch between the two tenements, and people would sit on both sides. There was a meat market called Van Steemberg’s that faced the Brown Street bridge. I remember my mother giving me a quarter to go and get a pound of hamburg. There was an A&P on the corner of River and Houghton, and there was a First National Store on the corner of Veazie. I worked there in high school.”
“We could walk for everything: shopping, work, church. My father bought his first car in the ‘30s. It was a Model A Ford. That was a big treat, because we went on a lot of fishing trips. We did a lot of things together as a family, like blueberry picking. We were kind of poor when we were kids. We didn’t have much. We had the basic things. I was happy. We had a plain, simple life.”
In the 1970s, the quality of life in the city and especially on River Street was in a steady decline. At Sprague Electric across the river, layoffs became a common subject of headlines in the Transcript, and businesses on Main Street were disappearing slowly but surely under the rubble of urban renewal. One by one, the row of Victorian mill houses on River Street were sold by aging owners to landlords who appeared to have no interest in maintaining them. John Flaherty saw his parents’ neighborhood crumble around them.
“It was awful. I was a little bit ashamed of it. I went up in the attic once and found a hole in one of the corners. Pigeons had gotten in. Pigeon droppings were all over the place. If the Board of Health had ever saw it, they would’ve shut the place right down. My mother knew that, but she wouldn’t move.”
“They had a lot of tenants that would come and go, probably the ones that didn’t pay their rent. After my father died, she still kept her apartment up, and it was the only decent place there. People would always be asking me, ‘Does your mother still live down there?’ And I’d say, ‘She likes it there, she’s happy.’ ”
“Finally in 1994, she couldn’t live alone anymore, so she moved in with us. She had been there 70 years. They were the longest tenants there to the best of my knowledge. She hated to leave. She always had a favorite chair in the parlor by the big front window. At our house, she’d complain, ‘I can’t look out the window and see all the people going by.’ She died in a nursing home in 1997.”
“Some people would just take the trash out to the back porch and toss it off.”
After Mabel Flaherty moved out, the neighborhood continued to get worse. According to Michael Sarkis, Director of Health, and agent for the Board of Health:
“Neighbors would constantly call with complaints about broken glass and garbage. There was trash and debris, stained walls, rodent infestation for lack of closing doors, dog and cat feces on the floors and carpets, and kitty litter boxes that hadn’t been dumped in weeks. You never knew what you were walking into there.”
“Everything was repaired under the minimum standards. If we told the landlord to put a screen in the window, he’d go get a roll of screen, cut a piece, and just staple it to the window. The people that the landlords hired were not professional carpenters. They were willing to work for under $10 an hour.”
“Many of the tenants would stay for only a few months, make a mess, and then leave without paying the rent. Cabinets would be ripped off the walls. There was lice, fleas, and cockroaches. Some people would just take the trash out to the back porch and toss it off.”
“One time a tenant called to complain about the landlord. She was upset because she couldn’t put her silverware in her drawer because of mice droppings. When I opened the door, the aroma was terrible. I had a pair of loafers on. As I went to go into the kitchen, I walked right out of my shoes, because they were stuck to the floor. The place was unfit for human habitation. They had a baby, and his diaper was oozing. I had to report it to the Department of Social Services.”
“Somebody once had a goat on the second floor in one of those houses.”
Vincent Lively, the city’s building inspector, tells a similar story:
“We got a call from a lady about an odor of sewer gas near her house, the one in back that’s now the pool house for the Porches. Beneath the front porch, there was a pile of raw sewage about two-foot deep. We looked in the basement, and the sewer line that ran from the back house to the front house had gotten clogged.”
“When we went into the house, the lady had about 20 cats. There was cat feces all over. We had to condemn the house. A lot of people had animals over there. Somebody once had a goat on the second floor in one of those houses. We got a complaint that the urine was leaking down to the first floor.”