Preserving the past an issue in Southbridge

By Thomas Grillo, Globe Correspondent, 4/19/2003

SOUTHBRIDGE - After a handful of circa 1800s buildings and Victorians were razed to make way for a Brooks Pharmacy and a CVS, some residents here realized it was time to take action to protect Main Street's past.

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Plans are underway in this town along the Quinebaug River to establish a local historic district within the downtown. If approved by Town Council, proposed changes to the six blocks from the rotary at Mechanic Street to the intersection of South and Main Streets would require approval.

``Thankfully, the urban renewal demolition of the 1960s passed us by because we're off the beaten path, but now developers are giving us a second look,'' said Steven Brady, a member of the Southbridge Historical Commission. ``We must preserve our links to the past and spare historic treasures from being turned into donut shops and gas stations.''

As the population swells in central Massachusetts, places like Southbridge and nearby Charlton are becoming dotted with chain stores that are replacing historic buildings. Southbridge has many classic Italianate style buildings with mansard roofs that preservationists say must be spared from the wrecking ball.

Among the most prominent examples include the Whitford Block [1871], the Ammidown Building [1871], Central Baptist Church [1866], and the former Universalist Church [1841] which was named as one of the 10 most endangered historic properties in Massachusetts by a preservation group last year.

Until the early 1960s, Southbridge depended upon mills and factories for jobs, and most residents did their shopping downtown. But by 1970s, few manufacturing jobs remained and downtown retailers suffered as shopping malls sprang up in nearby Worcester and Auburn.

While a handful of manufacturers of still offer jobs including such employers as an optical products company, cutlery manufacturer and tool and die making, Southbridge has become more of a suburb.

In recent years a bike trail has been created along the scenic Quinebaug River to allow more river access.

As home prices in Greater Boston and Worcester continue to rise, realtors say Southbridge is luring former renters who can't afford homes inside Route 495.

This week, the MLS Property Information Network offered 30 single-family homes for sale priced from $119,900. Only one property is priced over $399,900. Buyers seeking new construction are offered a three-bedroom Cape on one acre on Clemence Hill Road for $239,000. In the multi-family market, 18 homes are listed from $119,900 to $300,000. Three condos are priced from $79,900 to $129,900.

But newer residents say the low prices are offset by schools that don't compare with Boston's suburbs. Southbridge has a higher drop out rate than the state average and its schools have a mixed bag of MCAS test results.

While a majority of 10th graders scored in the advanced or proficient category of the English test, nearly a third failed the math test. Among 8th graders, 64 percent failed the history exam and 49 percent failed the math test. Nearly half of six graders also failed math.

Thomas Grillo can be reached at

This story ran in the Boston Globe on 4/19/2003.
© Copyright 2003 New York Times Company
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