An opportunity may have passed

Published 7:46 pm Tuesday, January 10, 2017

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Two decades ago, Pierceville was a unique anchor of Smithfield’s Historic District. Bordered by Cary Street and the Smithfield Bypass, the remnant acreage of an 18th century plantation was a rarity.

In an age when most farm outbuildings had disappeared, the victims of obsolescence and the impracticality of saving buildings that no longer had value to the farms they once served, Pierceville survived. It still had a separate kitchen, dairy, smokehouse and barns. It was a truly unique collection of Americana right on the edge of Smithfield’s Historic District.

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Back then, Pierceville and its dependencies were declining, but a significant portion of them was still intact, and with sufficient funds, could have been preserved.

Even a decade later, it appeared possible that, given sufficient funds, somebody could save this extraordinary collection of early Smithfield relics.

Today, the outlook for Pierceville is, regrettably, much dimmer. The barns that constituted much of the farmstead’s historic value have all but collapsed, held together today largely by an encroaching jungle of vines and saplings.

The Dutch-roofed house that was the seat of the plantation was vastly altered over the years and, even two decades ago, would have been a preservation challenge. Today, the house has declined to the point that it would have to be essentially rebuilt with new materials rather than “preserved.” Little that was original could realistically be expected to remain intact in a complete reconstruction. It would be mostly new rather than a truly preserved old structure.

There is an understanding in the world of historic preservation that you can’t save everything, that you have to pick your battles and make decisions that benefit the overall context in which historic structures exist and fit into modern needs.

Mary Emma Crocker, who owns Pierceville, allowed it to decline, even in the face of a serious offer 20 years ago to restore the house and barns and give her a a lifetime right to remain there. That offer would have turned the farm into a park — quite probably the ball fields that today are being constructed on the western edge of town.

It was her decision to decline and, suffice it to say, all of that is over and done.

For its part, the town did not to use its Historic District Ordinance as aggressively as probably would have been necessary to force repair, and thus preservation, of the property.

Today, Mrs. Crocker no longer lives there and she and her family wish to sell the property. They have a right to do so.

Neighbors of Pierceville have been clear that they don’t want any new neighbors, and that has been the crux of their opposition to any residential development plan for Pierceville. They have tried, in what appears to be a genuinely heartfelt, gargantuan — and so far, unsuccessful — effort, to raise several million dollars to buy the property, preserve the house and turn the remaining fields into a demonstration farm.

The Pierceville site, together with the derelict former Little’s Supermarket that sits between it and Main Street, have huge potential value for the future of Smithfield’s Historic District. The town would do well to work with the Pierceville and supermarket owners in developing a vision for the two properties that will enhance the Historic District, including its commercial viability.

And if that planning process moves ahead, neighbors of the property should be encouraged to play an active role in ensuring that future development of the farm has a positive impact on that part of town.

With sufficient funds, it might still be possible to rebuild Pierceville, but that possibility diminishes daily. Unless someone steps forward with a few million dollars, the cows are very probably never coming back to Pierceville. And, on that assumption, the property’s future should be a serious concern to the town and all its taxpayers, and a positive plan should be at the top of everyone’s agenda.