Kirin Makker, assistant professor of art at HWS, is currently a Ph.D candidate in Regional Planning at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and is Stockbridge (Mass.) Library’s first ever scholar-in-residence. She is working to complete her dissertation exploring the cultural and physical roots of the American small town and the impact of the Laurel Hill Association on the dominant ideas about the American small town. An article about her work with the library appeared in the Berkshire Eagle recently.
“(The Laurel Hill Association was) effectively engaged in comprehensive planning and municipal development decades before cities were. It’s difficult now to appreciate what (the group) did, because in later decades towns themselves undertook projects like putting in street lights, hiring lamplighters, eradicating weeds along roadsides, putting in sidewalks, planting street trees, spearheading the construction of a local library, grading roads, mowing the common and plowing snow,” said Makker. “The LHA undertook all of these projects in their first three decades, so that by the 1880s, Stockbridge’s townscape and landscape beauty were established and well known.”
Makker earned her B.A. in English language and literature from the University of Texas Austin; an M.A. in English language and literature, from the University of Massachusetts Amherst; and an M.Arch. from the University of Maryland College Park.
The full article from the Berkshire Eagle follows.
Keeping the Town
Stockbridge’s first scholar-in-residence studies the country’s first Village Improvement Association
Amy Carr • Special to The Eagle • January 8, 2008
For more than 150 years, a small town in Berkshire County has dedicated itself to feeling like home – to residents, to visitors and even to famous men and women of the stage.
Beginning in 1853, the Laurel Hill Association planted grass in Stockbridge with a hint of welcome, painted lamp posts with the shine of pride and kept sidewalks clean with the care of a community. The volunteer organization, touted as the nation’s oldest Village Improvement Association, dedicated itself to maintaining a charm that made Stockbridge an ideal home and home away from home.
Now, more than a century and a half after its founding, the Laurel Hill Association has attracted something unique to its nest.
Kirin Makker is the Stockbridge Library’s first ever scholar-in-residence, drawn to Stockbridge because of its gloss, culture and sense of history.
Makker, assistant professor of arcitecture and the Consortium for Faculty Diversity Fellow at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y. and the beneficiary of a grant from the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities, has made a home in the Stockbridge Library as she works to complete her dissertation in Regional Planning for UMass-Amherst, which explores the cultural and physical roots of the American small town and the impact of the Laurel Hill Association on the dominant ideas about the American small town.
“(The Laurel Hill Association was) effectively engaged in comprehensive planning and municipal development decades before cities were,” said Makker. “It’s difficult now to appreciate what (the group) did, because in later decades towns themselves undertook projects like putting in street lights, hiring lamplighters, eradicating weeds along roadsides, putting in sidewalks, planting street trees, spearheading the construction of a local library, grading roads, mowing the common and plowing snow. The LHA undertook all of these projects in their first three decades, so that by the 1880s, Stockbridge’s townscape and landscape beauty were established and well known.”
Makker is quick to note that while the Association was the first society to call itself a “Village Improvement Association,” it was not the first organization to work on bettering the condition of a townscape. There were many groups called ornamental tree societies in New England, especially in Massachusetts. In fact, in the 1840s, an ornamental tree society sprung up in Sheffield.
Still, she said, the LHA played a pioneering role in saving the beauty of small towns from the crunch of modernization. When 20th-century Model Ts ran at odds with 19th-century landscape, active community members banded together around a common concern for the character of the town – a character that would later be nationally recognized through the work of Norman Rockwell as a symbol of the promise and beauty of the American small town.
Rockwell’s paintings, like “Main Street at Christmas” with elm trees planted by the Laurel Hill Association, attracted Makker to Stockbridge and to the community group. After reading about the LHA in a book about city planning history, Makker wondered how the organization might have added to the depictions in the famed artist’s work.
What she found, and continues to find as the scholar-in-residence, is a powerful legacy of preservation and community activism.
Barbara Allen, curator of the Stockbridge Library Historical Collection, has been witness to Makker’s exploration of the 155-year-old community improvement group. The work, Allen says, has been exciting for Makker and the Library.
“As far as I know, Kirin is (the Library’s) first scholar-in-residence,” Allen said. “As the archivist of the library’s historical collection, my job is to answer (Kirin’s) questions as to where she might find information and to make the original documents that we have available for her research. It is wonderful to see records from 150 years ago being used for studying issues that are of current interest.”
Allen has also been intrigued by details of the historic Association, which continues even today.
“It has adapted over the years to suit the needs of the town and continues to be useful,” she said. “It is a relatively low-key organization. I’m not sure how many people in the area are aware that it is still functioning, but they would definitely notice if it wasn’t here to do its work.”
Makker gave a few key physical tributes to the LHA: Streets lined with trees, tidy sidewalks and the preserved rail station. Still, she said, the most visible evidence of the work of the LHA is in the confidence and character of the town.
While she works on her dissertation, she is hunting for thoughts from residents about the essential character of Stockbridge and the town’s association with Rockwell.
“I don’t feel that I’ve completed this journey – it’s still very much in process,” she said, noting that it is the people of Berkshire County who can provide important bricks to complete her path.
If you go …
What: Kirin Makker, Stockbridge Library scholar-in-residence, presents her research on the Laurel Hill Association and the ways it has shaped Stockbridge’s appearance and character.
Where: Stockbridge Library, Main St. Stockbridge.
When: Tuesday, Jan. 20, 7 p.m.
Library hours: The library is open Tuesday and Friday from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., Wednesday and Thursday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
The library’s Historical Museum and Archives are open Tuesday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Information: www.stockbridgelibrary.org, (413) 298-5501.