As many of you know, one major focus of the last two years here has been to address a wide variety of physical needs on site. In 2018, we began to survey the property in order to identify pressing preservation and capital issues and to use that information to create a Master Plan for Wistariahurst. A Master Plan will lay out repair and maintenance priorities for the next ten years and will enable us to properly raise and allocate funding where it is needed the most. Our end goal is to ensure that Wistariahurst remains a well-preserved, safe and usable space for the Holyoke community for decades to come.
Our work on the Master Plan in 2018 revealed several areas of immediate concern, but none so pressing as the aging electrical system. Long a source of frustration for staff and guests trying to present quality events in the Music Room without blowing an old fuse, it was not known the extent to which the system also posed safety risks to guests and the house itself. Putting the broader vision aside, we went into action to raise the funds and develop a plan to stabilize the system and adapt it to modern use.
As we close out 2020, and even as we lament the continued impacts of Covid-19 on our institution and cultural sites across the country, we can happily look back at a year where we have made significant progress on this project.
This project is being overseen by the City Engineer and Wistariahurst Director. We approached this project with the future in mind, making sure to lay the groundwork for that Master Plan and future repairs. Rather than implementing spot fixes, we committed to a more comprehensive systems-focused approach, which would create a strong basis for subsequent upgrades and improvements.
Each step of the way we assess this project’s compliance with the preservation restriction on the site held by the Massachusetts Historical Commission (MHC) since 1997. A preservation restriction outlines the best practices for making repairs and upgrades to a significant historic site like Wistariahurst. It provides the roadmap by which we can work in such a way as to maintain the historic integrity of the building and its incredible interior and exterior features. Any work at Wistariahurst requires collaboration with and approval by the MHC.
Like other projects of this scale, we followed the procurement processes and procedures laid out for municipal governments. After a competitive bid process during the spring and summer of 2020, we hired the electrical engineering firm Mott MacDonald to take on the work.
Understanding the Site
Phase One of this project consisted of a deep dive into the inner working of Wistairhurst, all of the previously undocumented and unrecorded systems hidden in the walls and basements of the large house.
With over 17,000 square feet of space, the first challenge of inventorying and documenting every outlet, connection, feeder, and panelboard in the house was considerable. Over its 146 years of existence, Wistariahurst has undergone many layers of repairs and updates. Mott MacDonald took on the task of wading through those layers in order to figure out what had been done, why, and how we could bring it all into a better, more efficient system.
With Mott MacDonald we also looked at our current electrical usage, our ideal vision for upgrades and new features that would help Wistariahurst be a better, more accessible community resource. From there, we developed a set of priorities, plans, and a design for the work to come.
Now armed with detailed knowledge of what exists on site, confidence that our work will fall within the bounds of our role as preservation stewards of Wistariahurst, and a strategy for tackling the greatest needs with the funding we have, we will move into Phase Two, initial construction, in January 2021, slightly ahead of the initial schedule we estimated in 2019.
As was previously known, the focus of this stage of the project remains firmly on removing and replacing feeders and panelboxes, some of which were installed in the 1930s. These boxes not only pose a hazard to anyone who opens them, but their antique glass tube fuses can’t be easily replaced once they have blown, limiting the activities that can be hosted on site. The engineers tell us that, like many artifacts at Wistariahurst, the oldest electrical box has technological features that are unusual and ahead of their time. Elements like these will be carefully removed and preserved as part of our collection.
Thanks to designated funds from the former Friends of Wistariahurst and the Massachusetts Cultural Council Facilities Funds, we will be able to bring the Music Room to a higher standard of electrical capacity, lighting, and auditory accessibility during this phase as well.
The work to date has been funded by Community Development Block Grants, the Holyoke Community Preservation Act, the Massachusetts Cultural Facilities Fund, and the many members of our community who stepped up and donated earlier this year. The investigative work done in 2020 has shown that, once stabilized, there is still more work to be done on the electrical systems at Wistariahurst. Every gift will continue to help us move forward in 2021 to complete this project fully.