Life and Death of the Skinner Coffee House
If you drive down Main Street in Holyoke, Massachusetts, you’ll see the old block-long storefronts, broken and gapped now as tenement after tenement is condemned and demolished. Sometimes you can still see the rubble strewn around these empty lots, but mostly they’ve been cleared away, leaving fresh, undisturbed lawns of grass. Preservationists hate grass — each tiny meadow a monument to a battle lost or an opportunity missed. Like the devastation of Alzheimer’s, each fallen structure shreds our common history.
In Holyoke, preservationists remember one loss more painfully than the others. At the corner of Main and Hamilton, the Skinner Coffee House once stood. It was a building that could have — by all rights, should have — been saved. Not a single person wanted to see it destroyed. But ultimately, not enough people really wanted to see it saved, either. In cases like this, the grass always wins.
On a cold night in early December 2005, a small group of well-dressed academics hurried from their cars up the gray steps of Holyoke’s cathedral-like city hall. Leading the group, and carrying a portable projection screen under his arm, was Joseph Krupczynski, an architect and professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Of Polish and Puerto Rican ancestry, Krupczynski represented the cultural blend that was so much at the heart of this city. His entourage comprised five graduate students who had enrolled in a workshop with him.
Their class had only one assignment: to save the Skinner Coffee House. That evening they were meeting with the mayor of Holyoke, Michael J. Sullivan, for their final exam.
The mayor rose from his seat at a long, stark conference table to greet his guests. He did not intend to be persuaded that evening, and the preservationists knew it. Funds for the building’s demolition had been procured, and the first round of bids had come in that very morning. Nothing short of two million dollars would save the Coffee House, and there was nothing in Krupczynski’s PowerPoint presentation that suggested he could get it. Still, the building deserved a hearing, and the mayor was willing to listen. The students clicked the slide projector on and made their case.
Holyoke has always been a scrappy working-class community, with a history of taking in the unwanted. An industrial city built along the wall of the Pioneer Valley, it has been compared to an escalator. As successive waves of immigrants flocked to fill the city’s industrial jobs, they began in the poorest neighborhoods along the river, then slowly climbed their way to the affluent hills. French Canadians, Scots, Poles, Germans, and Irish all eventually reached the summit. But they all started in South Holyoke and the Flats.
The South Holyoke and Flats neighborhoods are on the city’s east side, squeezed between the canals and the Connecticut River, separated from downtown by a row of mills and smokestacks. These neighborhoods have always struggled. In 1910 the average residence in the area housed 11.9 people, the third most crowded rate in the country. It was in South Holyoke that the Skinner Coffee House had stood like a beacon for so long, serving both communities.
The Coffee House was a modest four-floor walk-up that had begun as a flophouse for traveling lumber salesmen and prostitutes in the late 19th century. The building received new life in 1916 when it was purchased by Isabella and Katharine Skinner, two members of Holyoke’s thin upper crust who were seeking to honor the philanthropic legacy of their late father, a Holyoke textile baron.
Originally intended as just a place where factory girls could get an affordable meal, the Coffee House quickly ballooned into an engine for social change, a true community center. It served as a base of operations for any project that addressed the area’s problems. Volunteers pre-pared hot meals for seniors, offered English language classes to immigrants, and made rooms available to battered women in need of refuge. They held dances to keep children off the streets. The building became a second home to many, and it opened its doors to everyone, regardless of class, ethnicity, or color. Residents regularly whiled away days or evenings at the Coffee House attending sewing classes or card games. There was even a smoking lounge in the basement for elderly gentlemen.