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Our Cities, Our Towns

In tiny Northfield, the fate of a storied campus is all the talk

Email|Print| Text size + By Eric Goldscheider
Globe Correspondent / April 30, 2006

Cut in two by the Connecticut River and the only Massachusetts town to border New Hampshire and Vermont, Northfield is seeking to connect its past with a still uncertain future.

Across from Town Hall, stop in at Rooster's Bistro, a down-home cafe despite the name, and you soon find that the talk in this town of about 3,000 residents is the closing last year and expected sale of the Northfield campus of Northfield Mount Hermon School.

''People are really sad about it," said Corinne Paulsen, who operates the griddle at Rooster's and regales counter patrons with her lively chatter. She also owns the place.

Others sound a more alarmist note about the fate of the school buildings and grounds. ''Everything about the wonderful history of this town is just vanishing into thin air," said Miriam Henderson, owner of Mockingbird Antiques on Main Street, which is also Route 63.

Dwight Lyman Moody, a Northfield native and evangelist who achieved international fame for his preaching, founded Northfield Seminary for Young Ladies in 1879 and Mount Hermon School for Boys in neighboring Gill two years later. He built them with money raised on his revival crusades and from the sales of a popular hymnal he wrote with collaborator Ira David Sankey.

''Moody liked to say that they sang the school into existence," said Lorrie Stearns Proal, a history buff and Northfield native who works in the prep school's development office. She likes giving tours of the Moody birthplace perched on the hill in the center of the Northfield campus.

There is still a steady stream of visitors who feel a spiritual kinship with Moody. Sometimes a tour bus arrives from the Bible Belt with acolytes who want to see his cradle and the nearby cemetery where he and his wife, EmmaRevell Moody, are buried.

The Civil War and his work as a lay minister to Union troops was pivotal to Moody's career, much of which played out in Chicago, where a Bible institute bearing his name is active today. Moody traveled throughout his life, but returned to make Northfield his base in 1875. He founded the schools with the help of benefactors animated by an ideal of giving poor children an elite education.

Moody also held the Northfield Conferences that attracted gatherings of the faithful each summer for religious camp meetings. An entire neighborhood of densely clustered wooden houses, most not winterized, is splayed across ''Rustic Ridge" on the wooded hill east of campus. Families were accorded 99-year leases to come year after year to join in the gatherings.

What remains today of this storied past is an eerily quiet campus. The trustees' decision to consolidate, as of last fall, on the Gill campus what had been since 1972 a single coed school with two campuses came as a shock.

It is costing more than $1 million to maintain the structures that dot the Northfield campus. The property has been on the market for a year and people are growing uneasy that no buyer has emerged.

The buildings include an 1894 Italian Renaissance Revival auditorium that seats 2,500 people, more than any other venue in Franklin County. With its brick exterior, prominent rectangular twin towers, and rustic interior, it possesses a beauty that transcends its considerable significance to American religious history.

Other buildings on the campus could be called Ruskinian, or Victorian Gothic, according to Karen Forslund Falb, a landscape historian. She grew up as a faculty child on the Gill campus and serves on two committees giving input on the disposition of the Northfield campus.

This style of architecture is characterized by gables, towers, turrets, and unusual windows. ''This point in architecture was extremely confusing," Falb said. ''The game was to refer to historic styles, but the other part of the game was to be creative in pushing the boundaries of historic forms."

Some residents fear the campus buildings will meet the same fate as the turreted chateau that school trustees had demolished in the early 1960s. Architect Bruce Price, who built the 1893 grand hotel Château Frontenac in Quebec City, designed and built the Northfield chateau, called Birnam House, around 1900 for Robert Schell, a wealthy New Yorker. His widow, who never liked it, handed it over to the school.

Schell also built the bridge over the Connecticut River that bears his name and today sits abandonded at the end of a road upon which vines, trees, and shrubs are encroaching. Schell built the span to get from his estate to a train station where there were daily connections to Albany, New York, Boston, and Montreal. Closed since 1985, the bridge needs costly repairs, and its fate is hotly debated.

Ed Finch is a Northfield native who attended Mount Hermon, as it was then, in the 1940s. He left for college and military duty and returned to manage the chateau, which at that time was being used as a novelty hotel. He also managed a large inn that the school also had demolished. Finch doesn't see the town refurbishing and maintaining the bridge, and he doesn't think it should. He said he hopes the campus will continue to be used as an educational facility.

Mary Field, who has lived in Northfield since 1968, said she has been impressed by the ''receptiveness to the arts" among locals. When the elementary school had to eliminate an art teacher because of budget cuts, Field helped put together grants to provide the students with enriching activities.

Now she works across from the school in an exquisitely renovated former Ford dealership and repair shop that once sold Model Ts. The owners, Michael Humphries and Janice Starmer, named it Green Trees Gallery and use it to showcase his woodwork, her pottery, and a variety of work by other artists. The space is also used for yoga classes, film series, and other artsy endeavors. Field, who greets visitors, shows some of her watercolors and oils of farm scenes in the gallery. But where the paintings really move, she said, is Rooster's Bistro, thanks in no small measure to Paulsen's gift of gab.

''She is so good at talking to people, it's a riot," said Field. ''I sell paintings there, and I mean I SELL paintings there."

Downstairs in the Green Trees building is where you find Miriam Henderson behind the counter at Mockingbird Antiques. A Springfield native, she has lived in and renovated a dozen houses, including three in Northfield. ''I'm working on number 13 and I'm going to keep this one," she said.

What Henderson appreciates most about life here are the relatively mundane delights of a small town. It was big news a few years ago when the Coca-Cola sign above what is now Rooster's came down and was replaced with a Pepsi sign, said Henderson.

Next door to Rooster's, a vintage 1940s IGA sign still hangs over the grocery store. ''It's not an IGA at all," said Henderson, and people occasionally offer the owner money for it. Henderson says she has pledged to match any offer just to keep the sign where it is.

''Everything is known by the IGA landmark," she said. You are either before it, past it, in front of it, or behind it. ''That's how you know where you are in this town," she said.

Contact Eric Goldscheider, an Amherst-based freelance writer, at ericgoldscheider@hotmail.com.

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