I am very disturbed by misleading statements contained in the recent JMR consultant’s report to the Select Board, which recommended that the Town Museum be in the Passenger Depot and that the Historical Society be moved completely out of Old Town Hall.
Consideration of this Option 3 was not even included in the consultant’s Scope of Work, so the recommendation is particularly troubling to me. I am the Historic Preservation Commission’s member that was most heavily involved with the Depot’s rehabilitation, I served on the Depot Park Advisory Committee, and I am currently a member of the Historical Society’s Board of Directors. I have knowledge and insights regarding the Depot as the proposed Town Museum that I would like to share.
1. The Depot Museum option was previously discarded by Rick Reed in 2007. After the town acquired the Depot and Depot Park was being established, there was great interest in adaptive reuse of the Depot. Rick Reed hired a consultant team to prepare a comprehensive Preservation Plan. The goals of the study were to restore the building exterior to its historic appearance (as was done with the Freight House) and to consider many reuse options including a museum. After evaluation of the options, several were selected for preparation of Outline Specifications and detailed Coat Estimates.
The JMR consultant report totally mischaracterizes or ignores the results of that study. The rehabilitation cost estimate for several uses including a museum was $968,994, about $1.3 million in today’s dollars. Retention of the 2nd floor was not feasible for such Business and Assembly uses, due as I recall to building code requirements. After extensive discussions with the Depot Park Advisory Committee, Rick Reed determined that the loss of income from the 2nd floor and the rehabilitation cost for only the 1st floor was excessive. Therefore, the building exterior was restored, but interior work was limited to making needed repairs and bringing the building up to code for its existing use. The current type of use of the Passenger Depot is probably the highest and best use of that building.
The JMR report recommendation includes continued use of the 2nd floor, and the total rehabilitation cost estimate for both floors is less than that for a single floor in the original comprehensive study. Any further consideration of this option should be suspended unless the major disparities are reconciled.
2. Environmental conditions on the middle floor of Old Town Hall and in the Stearns Memorial Building, where the town’s historical resources have been kept since 1893 (when the Society was established by the Library Trustees) have been satisfactory. Both were built solidly to prevailing standards for municipal buildings. However, the Depot is a basic wood frame structure built by the railroad to provide temporary shelter for people with their baggage going to and from the trains. Except for Bedford and Lexington, all depots on this branch have been demolished.
Jan van Steenwijk and I have visited the Harvard University Museum and spoken to the Conservators working to preserve its collections. Based on those conversations, environmental conditions in the Depot could never be raised to the level needed. Environmental enclosures like that for the Bedford Flag in the Library would be required to preserve documents and fabrics, many more ancient and more fragile than the Bedford Flag. Such requirements would almost certainly be prohibitively expensive. There was no consideration of this in the JMR consultant’s report.
3. The Depot is about 18’ by 75’, with a total area of only 1,367 sq. ft. Current usable space on the 1st floor is under 1,000 sq. ft., and usable space on the 2nd floor is just over 1,100 sq. ft. The JMR report option proposes to use the 1st floor for the museum, where the usable space after setting aside space for an entrance control area and electrical, telecom, mechanical or custodial services, as needed, would be less than the minimum size recommended by others. The 2nd floor would be used for all office, research, artifact storage. archives, merchandise, and other support activities. However, when the Society moves from the Police Station to the ground floor of Old Town Hall this year, the 1,300 sq. ft. of usable space will be fully utilized by those support functions. The usable space on the 2nd floor of the Depot is entirely inadequate for all those functions, but that was disregarded in the JMR report.
4. There is no meeting room at the Depot. The Society’s Assembly Room and displays were always located in immediate proximity. This relationship is critical to the success of any museum, so members and the public coming to its meetings and other programs can also visit the museum to view changing and permanent exhibits. The Town understood that when the downstairs meeting room in the Stearns Building was provided to the Society in 1975 to accommodate its growth. Meetings of the Society, the COA and other organizations were held there surrounded by the town’s cultural resources. Other events for special guests, including the Mayor of Bedford, England, were also held there. The JMR report fails to consider that important connection.
The Society’s collections have grown, and its programs held just prior to the pandemic hosted 75 to 80 participants. Most [of the] recent Historical Society meetings have been held in Old Town Hall. Society members also give talks at Carleton-Willard Village, Brightview Concord, and elsewhere, but the Society hopes to bring such groups to its Heritage Center, where they can see and even handle and use some of the artifacts. Programs for school children would also require a large activity area. I believe that, whether intended or not, JMR’s recommendation to isolate the museum at the Depot, remote from the Society’s Assembly Room and other proposed activities, would severely impact the museum’s viability due to lack of attendance.
5. The consultant seriously mischaracterized Depot Park. After the railroad’s departure, the area became a degraded industrial area. Establishment of the Minuteman Bikeway allowed Joe Piantedosi, Jim Shea, and others to create Depot Park and entirely revitalize the area for cyclists and railroad enthusiasts. However, people passing through the area are mostly cyclists, and virtually none would be prospective museum visitors as they pass. In addition, from about mid-November until about mid-April, weather dependent, the Freight House and Budd Car are shut down, and Depot Park is quite deserted for 4 to 5 months. There are truly almost no casual visitors. The Depot’s location at the far end of the large parking lot would also be a major deterrent for drawing any visitors.
The consultant suggested that the area could become a space for gatherings of other groups. I would remind you that Bedford Farmers Market, with far more public participation, was located right on the corner near the Freight House. It failed within a few years. If the museum were forced to move to the Depot, there would be no visitors on many days during the months that Depot Park is closed, and its survival would be threatened.
Out of Sight – Out of Mind – Out of Business!
Please ask your friends on the Select Board to drop consideration of a Depot Museum option. It is no more feasible now than it was 15 years ago when Rick Reed discarded it or when the Select Board eliminated it in 2018. Let’s consider more constructive solutions.