The former Berkshire Record building will house Jennifer Bianco’s contemporary design center. Photo: Terry Cowgill
GREAT BARRINGTON — One of downtown’s iconic buildings is being redeveloped after closing two years ago due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The former Berkshire Record building at 21 Elm Street was bought just after the new year by Great Barrington developer Robert Beusman – better known as Bobby Houston – for $450,000, according to city land records.
In an interview with Edge, Houston said the building, historically known as George Briggs House, is being transformed into a contemporary design center that will house the new offices of Jennifer Whitenoted interior designer in the Berkshires who once worked as creative director for the now-defunct Country Curtains and was a buyer for Martha Stewart Living.
Houston called the new space a “department store” with different rooms, each featuring elements unique to that room: namely, a library where books are sold; a dining room with items one would find in a well-designed dining room.
“I felt there was a need for a more contemporary design center,” Houston said. “Young people who come to live here are used to more modern and mid-century furniture, which we don’t have much here.”
“Jennifer has a design business that’s been around for 15 years, so this is her design business headquarters, and it’s a showroom and a retail store,” Houston continued.
The building has been stripped down to the posts. Some walls that had been added have been removed. Two levels of suspended ceilings have been removed. Houston said six rooms that had been paved over have been reopened and the ceilings are now as high as they were originally. Houston entrepreneurs also opened many doors that had been closed over time.
Bianco told The Edge that she’s previously collaborated with Houston and her partner Eric Shamie, both veteran renovators with a passion for historic preservation. Bianco was working from her home in Great Barrington and mentioned to Houston that she was looking for a bigger space for her business in a high-traffic area.
“Then he came back to me and was like, ‘Hey, I’m thinking of buying this building. Do you want to put your space there?’” Bianco recalled. “It kind of turned into, ‘Let’s take whole building and bring something interesting to Great Barrington.
Bianco focuses on textiles, window treatments and soft goods. His office at 21 Elm Street is upstairs. Bianco is confident it has the right niche to succeed in Great Barrington town centre.
“I think we’re a bit different from other designers and home décor stores because we focus quite a bit on mid century antique pieces,” she said. “We don’t focus on brand-new furniture, so I think that kind of thing sets us apart from other stores.”
Shortly after the Berkshire Record officially closes its doors on May 1, 2020, the property was put on the market for $650,000. The reportedly historic 4,600-square-foot Italian Revival-style building sits on a tenth of an acre behind Carr Hardware. It was built in 1875 or thereabouts.
The Edge reached out to Anthony and Donna Prizendorf, who owned Record’s parent company, Limestone Communications, for some ownership history. The Record began publishing in 1989 in a storefront that once housed the Castle Street Cafe (now the home of Number 10), eventually purchasing 21 Elm Street from Monterey resident Jane Carpenter, who had previously converted the building into four apartments. The Record moved its operations to this location in 1993.
Tony Prizendorf said that initially the house with its 10-foot ceilings and ornate trim was lit by gas. While electricians were recently rewiring parts of the building, they found a sealed gas line supplying power to the overhead light in the main entrance hallway.
“Judging by the huge cast iron radiators, the house was probably heated by a coal (or later gas) furnace in the basement, supplemented by cast iron parlor stoves at least on the first floor,” explained Tony Prizendorf. “The building has two chimneys but I could never find any trace of a chimney. I found what must have been sealed chimney holes in each chimney for the stoves in the living room.”
Houston said 21 Elm was originally a “big house, and then, over the years, it was everything else. They were apartments. They were offices. For good measure, Houston renamed the building. It is now called “Scout House”, after Atticus Finch’s very intelligent tomboyish young girl in “To Kill A Mockingbird”.
Bianco said it plans to open by the first week of May, in time for Mother’s Day. Retail will be open six days a week from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. It will be closed on Tuesday.
“We think it’s a great symbol of 19th-century life in a small town in New England,” Donna Prizendorf said of 21 Elm Street. “We loved this building and are very happy to have sold it to someone who will respect it in its next reincarnation.”