Russ Allen: A New Gem In The Town’s Crown?

The formation of the new Monomoy Regional School District has created great opportunities and offered new challenges for Harwich and Chatham. Most noticeably was the erection of a new high school on Oak Street in Harwich, while perhaps less apparent was the realignment of the two towns’ middle and elementary schools. Overall, the merging of administrative, faculty, and support staff, oversight by a new school committee and redistribution of the student populations has progressed with only minor problems. This is still very much a work in progress as these elements, as well as their separate town governments and populations, adjust to a new reality. No doubt some things have been lost in the process, but much has been gained.

One issue raised by the creation of a new system of education for the two towns of Harwich and Chatham was the fate of the former Harwich Middle School on Sisson Road. Under the new Regional structure, both communities would continue to have separate elementary facilities, while middle school students would be educated in Chatham and high school students would attend the newly built Monomoy Regional High School in Harwich. In light of this plan, what would become of the existing Harwich Middle School, built in 1937 and expanded and renovated in 1990, now no longer needed for its original purpose?

No small debate arose over that question within the town and its government. Some wanted it to be converted to low-income or affordable housing as a way of moving closer to the town and commonwealth goals of 10 percent affordable/acceptable housing. Others saw the economic benefit to the town of Harwich of developing it for commercial, office, retail, or residential space. A third proposal was to establish a new Harwich Cultural Center, complementing other public and private facilities in the Harwich Center area such as the Harwich Community Center (officially known as the Exchange Building), Brooks Free Public Library, Harwich Town Hall, and the Harwich Historical Society buildings. The final decision of the Harwich Board of Selectmen was to “repurpose the Harwich Cultural Center as rental space for groups and individuals to engage in recreational, social, educational, cultural, community service, civic and governmental activities.”

Recently I visited the new Harwich Cultural Center at the invitation of Erica Strzepek, its program aide, to discuss the possibility of developing and holding a program based on my “Hidden History of Harwich” series of columns on the town’s monuments. As a result of our conversation tentative plans were made for either an audio-visual presentation or a display of the pictures with accompanying explanations I have developed for that series; either of which will occur in the fall.

During my visit, Erica gave me a tour of the facility and I began to see its potential as a “new gem in the town’s crown.”

The transformation of the old middle school into the new cultural center is still ongoing. Administratively part of the Harwich Community Center and overseen by that facility's director, it is developing its own staff. Deferred maintenance on the building since the decision to close it as a school has meant significant repairs and improvements were necessary for it to serve its repurpose. At present, there is an activity wing consisting of a large auditorium, multipurpose room and gymnasium, as well as several smaller former classrooms now used by artists and artisans. Some 300 people attended the center’s Christmas Open House in the main wing, and members of the Guild of Harwich Artists participated in a similar event last July. Strzepek, whose position is part-time, is looking to bring “more presentations and opportunities for entertainment to the center.”

During my tour, I had the pleasure of meeting Jesse Marsolais and visiting his workshop area in one of the former classrooms. He is a “custom letterpress printer” – using handset type – and he creates “lettering in stone,” most recently for a building on the campus of Yale University. While there we discussed his art and he shared several examples of both types of his works. He is only one of several artists who are located in the former classrooms.

If the Harwich Cultural Center is a gem, at present it is a rough and not yet polished one. Some of its former classrooms are empty and much of the display space on its walls has yet to be utilized. Nevertheless, its potential is great, not only for additional artists’ workshops for painters, sculptures, musicians, or media artists, but as venues for concerts, programs, lectures, and for other cultural activities. The Harwich Cultural Center will benefit from its events receiving broader publicity, including a website that is focused on more than its rental requirements.

Harwich Center is becoming a cultural, educational, artistic, and academic focal point for the town, and with the addition of the Harwich Cultural Center will increase what it has to offer for its residents and visitors.