An out-of-towner and even a relatively aloof local can easily get lost in the windy roads of the Berkshires. And while thousands of people flock to the area for big name arts and cultural destinations, if you make a wrong turn on your way, you might just find a hidden gem.
For those who consider the Sandisfield Arts Center a hidden gem, it’s certainly one that has needed a polish now and then. A New England church on the outside, abstract paintings, church pews and golden Stars of David fill the inside. Confused yet? Don’t worry — town historian Ronald Bernard will help us out.
Settlers first came to the area in 1751 and Sandisfield was officially incorporated in 1762. The town was mostly Congregationalists, but a group of Baptists was thriving by the late 1700s. Around that time, Revolutionary War veteran Daniel Shays led a rebellion, which would bear his name, against state government mostly around Springfield. As Bernard explains, towns had to choose if they were with Shays or the Massachusetts government, and apparently the church minister picked the wrong side of the coin.
“The Congregational minister here, Reverend Eliezer Storrs, took side of the government and he preached about it in the church and he turned off about half of his congregation,” Bernard said. “They really couldn’t stand it. So they converted to the Baptists who were in town. That led to the consolidation of two or three of the congregations spread out around this town. Later on they decided that ‘Well we need a proper church.’ So they got the land donated for this building and in 1839 they let the contract out and over the next couple of years this was built with labor of love. So they were in business starting in the early 1840s here.”
For the next 50 years the Baptists ran the church until families left, numbers slipped and the building fell into disrepair. Following the immigration waves of the early 1900s, Bernard says there was an effort to give Jewish families who had left Russia and Poland for New York City a fresh start in rural communities.
“So Sandisfield, which had plenty of old abandoned farms and was on hard times, seemed to be a logical place,” he explained. “So they came here; tried farming, it didn’t work, they tended to move down to this little section of town here and it became a kind of village rather than just part of a farming community. And they needed a church or temple.”
So the Jewish community purchased the building and remained active in the refurbished now-synagogue for the next half century until once again people left town and never came back. From the 1970s on, ideas about turning the building into a community space began to churn before it finally opened as a performing arts center in 1995. Bernard’s wife Jean Atwater-Williams has served on the center’s board since 2005, including a stint as president.
“The organization is all volunteer,” Atwater-Williams said. “Everybody puts in labor, labor of love. There are many, many wonderful donors who help support the building. Our programming sometimes makes money sometimes it doesn’t.”
Programming has grown as the 30 seasonal events range from theater, music and dance to tree pruning workshops and political lectures. In 2006, the center was awarded the Massachusetts Historical Commission’s Preservation Award for adaptive reuse. Months later, the building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places as the Montville Baptist Church.
Sandisfield is a place that celebrates its reclusiveness – it sits on the Connecticut border about an hour south of Pittsfield. Cars driving throughout the town’s 53 square miles can be seen with bumper stickers that say “Where the hell is Sandisfield?” Bernard says the building is a metaphor for the town and the 900 people who call it home.
“This building…it just wants to live,” Bernard said. “And so it does.”