19th-century Walpole building of many uses has a new one: as a town-run arts center
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WALPOLE — Helen Keller once spoke here — to the Wednesday Morning Club in the early 1900s — and it’s been a church, library, and community center. Now the white clapboard building on the corner of Union and Wolcott streets in East Walpole is starting a new life as a town-run arts center: Studio East.
“There’s a lot of talent in Walpole, and they need a place to come together,” said painter Joe Knaus, a Walpole native who has been involved since the beginning with opening the center. The space will be used for classes, art shows, open studio time, and special arts events; “the possibilities are endless,” he said.
The Walpole Recreation Department is holding an open house at the site Sunday to introduce the 10 teachers who will offer classes ranging from beginning painting to fiction writing to improvisational theater. Classes start the week of Sept. 24.
The schedule was devised by Aicha Kelley, the community and event coordinator for the Recreation Department. She met with local artists this summer to see who wanted to teach what and when, and said “it fell into place so easily. There were no conflicts.”
“It felt like karma — that this was meant to happen,” she said. “And hopefully it will grow, grow, and grow, and other artists will reach out to us.”
A writer herself, Kelley has been working to showcase the arts in Walpole for years. She and Knaus helped start the annual Walpole Arts Festival nine years ago, for example, and she’s added numerous art programs to the Recreation Department’s substantial offerings.
More recently, she organized a public art contest for a painting of Walpole’s history. Knauss’s winning painting hangs in the Recreation Department office in town-owned Blackburn Hall.
Kelley started thinking about creating a formal home for the arts in Walpole about three years ago when the Recreation Department took control of the town-owned building on Wolcott Street. The East Walpole Civic Association had stopped using the building for its meetings, and Kelley saw an opportunity.
“We had this big beautiful building that is just craving to be loved,” Kelley said. “I think it will be a happy place once we fill it with artwork and writers and actors and artists.”
The Victorian-style building went up in 1883 as the home of the East Walpole Congregational Church, which had been meeting until then in a tavern down the street, according to church historian Charles Calusdian. The architect, Thomas William Silloway, was noted for designing more than 400 churches, as well as the Vermont State House and the Soldiers Monument in Cambridge Common.
The Wednesday Morning Club met in the airy building for years, under the direction of the Bird family; deaf-blind political activist Helen Keller was a speaker after she graduated from Radcliffe College, Calusdian said. (He noted that, by quirky coincidence, Kelley’s great-great-great grandmother was Keller’s nurse.)
The East Walpole congregation moved to a new church around the corner in 1914, changing its name to Union Congregational Church, Calusdian said.
In 1934, the building became the East Walpole Branch Library, which closed in 1982, according to town records. Books still circulated, though, according to library director Salvatore Genovese, as the building became a kind of community center for the East Walpole neighborhood.
The East Walpole Civic Association met at the center and ran programs there until it grew less active.
“People got older and moved away, and there just weren’t any issues to deal with that brought people out,” said association head Sue Maguire. “No one made us leave; we just stopped meeting.
“You don’t like to see things change, but the fact that the building is still part of the community is what’s important. I’m delighted to see it being used.”
On a sunny day earlier this summer, dozens of teenagers attacked the space with mops, rags, and soap. The “volunteens” from the Recreation Department bundled hundreds of old magazines scattered around the second floor of the building, which also contains old wooden stacks from its days as a library. The upper rooms will be used for storage because they are not accessible to the disabled, Kelley said.
She said the large main room downstairs — with its white walls, blue trim, high ceiling, and tall windows — will see most of the action at Studio East. A smaller adjacent room, which has six computers already set up on tables, will be used for photo shop classes and quieter activities, she said.
She’s already eyeing the lawn out front as a potential place for some public art, preferably sculpture.Continued...