Life and Death of the Skinner Coffee House
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.
The mayor listened intently as Krupczynski’s team retold the story of his city on that December night. They said little that he didn’t already know. A hometown boy, he’d lived through much of the history they talked about. To him, each patch of grass in the Flats was a building he could remember, not just an abstract tragedy.
Sullivan has spent four consecutive terms dealing with Holyoke’s problems on a personal level. He keeps up with former high school sports stars and gives them advice when they’re going through rough times. He attends community theater, and when he turns to you and says, “That was good enough for Broadway,” he does it with an unblinking stare that lets you know he’s not just being cute. He believes in the city’s kids. He believes in Holyoke. “We’re near the top of a lot of bad lists,” he concedes, but he contends that it just means they’re fighting. Holyoke’s “problem,” he points out, “is that it has too much affordable housing. It’s the only place where many working-class families can live in the Pioneer Valley.”
Education, public health, and small-business programs abound in the city. Sullivan recognizes that his citizens don’t always have much, but he fights to make sure they don’t have it taken away. Suffice it to say, he identified with the history of the Skinner Coffee House. In fact, he agreed with most of what the preservationists had to say. But after the final slide had clicked off the screen and all eyes had turned to him, he cleared his voice and explained why he couldn’t help.
Ultimately, the Skinner Coffee House was targeted for demolition because of a plate of half-eaten empanadas. One day early in 2005, Sullivan saw the remains of someone’s meal in the building’s recessed doorway. Next to the plate, where conceivably someone’s head could have been, was a shattered brick that had recently fallen. The liability was his, so he had to act. He tried and failed to sell the structure. He even offered to give it away, but there were no takers. The city couldn’t afford to fix it without cutting some program that serviced the community, so he made the only decision he was left with.
Now Sullivan looked across the conference table and grimaced. “Holyoke is like a huge buffet that has everything you could possibly want on it,” he remarked. Then, making a tiny circle with his thumb and forefinger, he added, “But you only have a plate this big. It can’t get any bigger, so you have to be careful about what you choose.”