WESTFIELD — The Westfield Historic Preservation Commission (WHPC) took a stroll down Memory Lane (and East Broad Street, Elm Street and Prospect Street) as part of its annual meet-and-greet presentation, held via Zoom on Monday.
“Downtown Westfield is a well-preserved collection of late-19th to mid-20th-century commercial buildings dominated by pedestrian-scale storefronts and masonry façades with architectural and historic character,” said Margaret Hickey, of Connolly & Hickey Historical Architects. “It retains a sizeable portion of its historic commercial buildings, which form a cohesive unit that continues to serve the various needs and interests of the town.”
Ms. Hickey took commission members and local residents alike on a virtual tour of historic Westfield on Monday by highlighting some of the major landmarks, notable moments and cultural changes that helped to transform the town from a sleepy agricultural community to the bustling municipality that it is today.
“Settlement of present-day Westfield began in 1699, with original settlers moving from Elizabethtown and settling along two Native American trails,” Ms. Hickey said. One of those original trails would later be incorporated into the burgeoning town as East Broad Street.
When the Presbyterian Church was erected in 1709, the small number of farmers who had already moved into the area suddenly had access to a much-needed meeting place and rallying ground. This addition would prove “pivotal” in the community’s development, Ms. Hickey said, as the church provided residents with the opportunity to come together and make decisions about the future they would like to see for Westfield.
“Westfield’s economy revolved around agriculture and would remain decidedly rural until the 19th century,” Ms. Hickey said, noting that the general look and feel of Westfield barely deviated from its humble roots until the Central Railroad decided to bring service to the town in 1864, when, as was so often the case for growing communities at the time, the future rode in on the rails.
“[The train line] started a change, albeit slowly in the beginning, from a farming community to a railroad suburb,” Ms. Hickey continued.
Once it was better connected to the outside world, the community began to build itself up in earnest.
“At this time, commercial development occurred near the train line while residential development fanned out to surround the central core,” Ms. Hickey said. The greatest period of growth for the town occurred between the 1880s and the 1950s, with a few slowdowns along the way during financial recessions, the Great Depression and World Wars I and II.
Many of the buildings constructed during that time are still standing, Ms. Hickey said, although some may be in better shape than others.
Ms. Hickey’s presentation represented the culmination of a preliminary architectural survey of the downtown area as defined by the organization’s Historic Preservation Element.
“This research provided a greater understanding of the downtown’s architectural evolution as well as providing guidance on determining the boundaries for the historic district,” Ms. Hickey explained. The study also looked into the structural and architectural integrity of the town’s remaining historic structures to identify buildings that, while modified over the years, still retain key components of their original construction.
In addition to Ms. Hickey’s presentation, commission members utilized some of Monday night’s meeting to introduce themselves to the public and share some of their ideas for the future.
“This is going to be the last time that we’re on Zoom,” said Commission Chair Maria Boyes, adding an enthusiastic “Hallelujah” to her statement before noting that the group’s February meeting has traditionally served as a more casual gathering designed to foster public interest. Going forward, she said, the group plans to return to its regular pre-Covid schedule of in-person meetings and presentations.
The WHPC also took time to recognize three recent additions to the town’s roster of locally-designated historic structures: a town-owned coffee kiosk located at the train station; a home constructed in 1905 at 23 Stoneleigh Park; and a surviving home from the 1750s at 112 Ferris Place.
Ms. Boyes said that while the commission was in full support of redeveloper James Ward’s plan to restore the Ferris Place home, she also wanted to clarify a few things for the public record.
“This commission’s sole purview, and what was voted upon, is the designation of that historic home, which includes the lot it sits on. This does not include the development that is proposed on the adjacent lot. As a neighborhood resident, I can say we look forward to the restoration of this historic home which has been languishing for many years,” Ms. Boyes said during Monday night’s meeting.
Former WHPC Vice-Chair Jacqueline Brevard made a similar statement during a recent meeting of the Westfield mayor and council.
“There is the mistaken belief that the designation of this home somehow justifies the development of 64 units on that adjacent lot,” Ms. Boyes continued via written communication to The Westfield Leader. “We are continually told as a commission, by residents, that the saving of this house is not worth the extreme development on that corner. We want to make clear, hence my statement, and Jacquie’s at the [town council] meeting (where several residents spoke), that the new construction is not our purview.”