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.
Although the Skinners abandoned the building in the 1940s, the city government continued to operate it as a community center into the 1990s. By that time, most of the textile and paper mills had long since ground to a halt, and the immigrants spilling into the area were coming from Puerto Rico instead of Europe. The Skinner Coffee House welcomed them as it had every other wave of newcomers, and Spanish became just the latest in a long line of languages that echoed down its hallways.
In 1994, although the building’s mission still drew support and volunteers, the Coffee House was closed. A bad roof and structural insecurities had rendered it unsafe. It was simply used up. It had led a noble life, but unless it received a significant overhaul, its journey was over.
It was this legacy of community spirit and social activism that first drew Joseph Krupczynski’s attention to the Skinner Coffee House. “Architecturally, it was not an outstanding building,” he admits. “There were certainly more beautiful buildings in Holyoke.” It was what the building stood for that mattered. The Skinner Coffee House was the Ellis Island of Holyoke. In a community marked by its diversity, it was the one building that could tell everyone’s story.
Krupczynski had a history of social work in South Holyoke and the Flats. He was in charge of a federal grant that funded community projects that doubled as real-world classrooms for his students. Mostly he worked on urban renewal. He believed that the area could utilize its historical resources and its Puerto Rican identity to spark a renaissance of cultural tourism that would preserve these neighborhoods’ identities and raise the standard of living of their residents. He could cite any number of examples where similar plans had worked. But each building lost took him further away from his goal.
Krupczynski walked into the Coffee House’s hearing before the Holyoke Historical Commission in July 2005 without any idea of what he would say or do. He walked out with a temporary reprieve. He had four months to save a building that had stood 120 years. He was hopeful, but not optimistic. “There was a small chance that we could frame this in a certain way,” he remembers, “and then some angels could come in and drop us two million dollars.” At the beginning of September, Krupczynski found himself in a UMass classroom with five grad students. After a brief round of introductions, they set out to find their miracle.
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