Amherst's Unlikely Fraternity
Town and gown unite to paint the Strong House
By Mark Roessler
Several years ago, the front of the Amherst Historical Museum was painted, but the other three sides of the building were left undone.
To keep up appearances for foot traffic, the facade was coated in a bold mustard orange with royal red trim, but the sides and back remained a dirty, grey white, much of it chipping off of it in potato chip-sized chunks.
"It looked like an outhouse. I don't like to say it, but it's true: an outhouse," said Henry L. Pope III, executive director of the Historical Society and Museum's board.
When the Amherst Historical Society was established in 1899, its founders set up a $3,000 endowment to run and maintain it. Along with the money, the Strong House on 67 Amity Street, a block from downtown Amherst, was donated to house the museum. The founders were certain the cash and structure would be sufficient to sustain their vision of an archive for Amherst's history in perpetuity.
A hundred plus years later, the cash is gone, and only the house and vision remain.
When Pope got quotes on how much it would cost to finish painting the three remaining sides of the house, the estimates of $45,000 to $50,000 were far beyond the society's meager means. They had a hard enough time replacing the vandalized lanterns, the stolen benches and stone signage. It could take them 10 years or more to raise that kind of money.
Just to keep the vibrant, artifact-rich museum alive, the Historical Society's board has had to scrape together a budget from a variety of sources.
"Sometimes people just assume we exist on grants," Patricia Lutz, the director of the museum, explained. But funds are limited, and in Amherst especially there is swift competition for both historical and museum funding. Emily Dickinson would never have imagined her house being preserved as her shrine, but in terms of current draw, it's the Graceland of poets. Caught at the crossroads of culture-throw a rock in downtown Amherst and you'll hit an antique encased in glass-the Historical Society has found it difficult to attract attention. "Money begets money," Lutz points out, "and grants often go to the universities or other museums in the area."
"Someone donated a thousand dollars recently," Lutz said, "and she was so apologetic about it not being more, I had to laugh and explain to her it was much larger than we usually got." Much of the funding goes to updating the museum and renewing the exhibitions, and the upkeep of the building rests mostly on the shoulders of volunteers.
The crumbling back end of the house faced a neighborhood street full of historic houses that had been meticulously maintained, and the Amherst Historic Society was embarrassed by its house. The board and those who volunteer for the society devote a wealth of time and resources, but climbing ladders and scraping windows wasn't in their resume. Was there anyone they could turn to who would be willing to volunteer services and donate equipment and supplies?
Henry Pope had an idea.
When I mentioned in the Advocate editorial office that I was heading out to photograph the UMass fraternity members of AEPi who had volunteered to paint the Amherst Historic Museum, the notion was scoffed at by a couple of my colleagues who are university alumni. I was told I either had the wrong frat or there was some part of the story I hadn't quite understood. The guys at AEPi weren't the kinds to volunteer for anything more ambitious than a beer run, I was assured.
Pope got a similar response during the past year as he, the fraternity and a host of other neighbors and local businesses contributed toward restoring dignity to the building's exterior. Despite their roots as the oldest American Jewish college fraternity, with a distinguished alumni roster (it includes Wolf Blitzer, Jerry Lewis, Gene Wilder and Art Garfunkel), the UMass chapter has sometimes struggled to find its place in the community. A September 6, 2007 report in the Amherst Bulletin, for instance, announced that local police had stationed a cruiser outside the house after there had been noise complaints and arrests during some late-night parties. Many neighbors, upon hearing of this proposed unholy alliance between a place they considered the local Animal House and the local historical society, declared the effort futile.
"'You'll never finish,' one person said to me. Right to my face. Without missing a beat," Pope related. "To be honest, I thought it was kind of rude."
The rest of the society's executive board was at first also hesitant to hire the fraternity, but quickly changed their tune after work began.
Three years ago, the day the fraternity began moving into their new home on Sunset Avenue, Pope knocked on their door and welcomed them to his neighborhood. The students invited him in, and ever since Pope and his family and the frat have been friendly acquaintances. In getting to know them, Pope learned many of them had carpentry skills, either from previous work experience or from their parents. Taking full advantage of this local resource, he'd hired them to help on various tasks at his own home. He wondered if they could help him get the Strong House paint job done. He asked them to consider the job, and if they were interested, to decide what their terms were.
The deal Pope and AEPi worked out was that the frat brothers would work for $10 an hour and the Historical Society would feed them, hopefully from donated food. Since the members of AEPi were all students, they'd work on the house in shifts, coming and going between classes or other school-related activities. When they got started in October, 2007 a small team was at the house every day at 9 a.m. They didn't work last winter, but when the spring season started, many of the frat brothers skipped spring break to keep working on the house.
A pizzeria around the corner from the house offered the paint crew free pizzas, and owner Costas Alimonos insisted on regularly sending multiple family-sized pies, providing more than enough to bring some home to the frat house for dinner. When Pope realized that several of the students weren't partaking because the cheese didn't agree with their athletic diets, he asked them what they wanted for an alternative, and they suggested sandwiches. Vito Ronca of Subway supplied them with huge party platters of subs.
While Pope speaks glowingly of the generous contributions, he also says, "I knocked on a lot of doors and got a lot of rejections." As above and beyond as Alimonos and Ronca went, most others he asked didn't step up at all.
Securing and feeding the workforce was only a part of the challenge Amherst Historical faced. While the fraternity members brought some of their own tools, none of them were professional painters, and there was a lot of specialized gear they needed if they were going to finish sometime this decade. And, of course, they needed gallons and gallons of paint.
Along with a corporate donation of primer, paints and supplies, managers of the locally owned Sherwin-Williams and the regional office donated services, training and consultation. Manager Barbara Valentine matched samples in her Northampton store and delivered paint when needed, and she also trained them on the use of a commercial paint sprayer that had been loaned to the project. Manager Brian Dworsky borrowed a relative's power-washer and spent an afternoon cleansing the clapboards personally. Matt Murray, the regional manager, approved the donated materials, after coming on site to assess the building's structural condition and which products would meet their needs best.
After trying and failing to borrow a paint sprayer from either the town or one of the many colleges in the area, and then balking at the cost of renting a unit, Pope and AEPi were resigning themselves to pushing ahead with multiple ladders and rollers. While out with his kids during Halloween in 2007, he mentioned what he was planning to a neighbor, Eric Murphy, whom he hadn't seen in a while, and Murphy replied that one of his wife's relatives, Bill Rathbun, a professional house painter, had only just retired and might have such a sprayer. A few days later he showed up with Rathbun's sprayer. Another neighbor loaned them a ladder that could reach the uppermost peaks of the building.
As AEPi began scraping the rear of the Strong House with their own tools, chipping away at the years of decaying paint strata, a homeless man who had been playing his flute around Amherst for donations took notice. "In the afternoon, he used to come by the garden adjacent to the museum, sit on the stone bench and play his flute," Pope explained. "He watched the guys removing paint, and he approached and advised when he knew of an easier way to do it."
The homeless flutist, Randall Bruusema, turned out also to be a career woodworker who had worked in Holland repairing boats. Despite his assurances that he was a craftsman and out of work now only because of a recent job-related accident in which he'd broken his ribs, Pope was hesitant at first. Bruusema was camped out in a tent in someone's back yard, and when he convinced Pope to follow him there one morning, the unemployed woodworker disappeared inside the tent and then came out with evidence of his former trade.
"Being true to his word, he brought out what had to be $4k in various woodworking tools," Pope said. "Electric saws, planers, pneumatic nail guns-two five-gallon buckets with miscellaneous hand tools, hammers, screwdrivers, and most everything one would need to work with wood." Most prized of all was a Japanese paint scraper he loaned the fraternity, promising it would reach nooks and crannies their chemical stripper couldn't. It worked as advertised.
Though many in the fraternity had woodworking experience, when Bruusema brought over his equipment, they all sat in on his training session, absorbing his passion for the craft. During the early months of the job, he stopped by often. As he and the painters became more familiar, he became freer with his advice and criticism. The fraternity enjoyed the enthusiasm and humor he brought to the work site, and worried about him when, later on, he stopped showing up.
When I arrived to take a picture to accompany this story, Henry Pope had assembled as many of the crew as he could. As they crowded around to shake my hand, without Pope's introductions I wouldn't have been able to tell who sat on a museum's board, who came from the frat, who was a paint specialist, or who was a neighbor lending a hand. They joked easily and happily as the painting crew they'd become. Similarly, had I known that the front of the building hadn't been part of the work they'd done, I wouldn't have posed the shot there, but their work was seamless and the house now looked far more dignified from all sides than the outhouse Pope described.
After I'd snapped only a few shots, his co-portrait sitters asked Pope if he needed them any longer, and he thanked them and said no. The Sherwin-Williams managers were on their lunch break, and the frat brothers were late for class.
Though they raced away from my camera quickly, AEPi, Pope and the Historic Society aren't interested in ending their new friendship. In a letter AEPi wrote to Pope on December 3, they expressed their thanks for the warm words written about them in a story in the Daily Collegian.
"Without a doubt, we have you to thank for relieving much of the tension and pressure on our house from the community. ... You have given us hope in the face of prejudice and adversity from the community at large, and for that we are indebted to you! If there is anything that you or your family ever needs, please never hesitate to ask, we are all more than happy to lend a hand, and try and give back for all you have given us. Sincerely and thankfully yours, The Phi Chapter of the Alpha Epsilon Pi Fraternity, University of Massachusetts, Amherst."
Copyright © 2008 by The Valley Advocate.