Tom Senecal says PeoplesBank first looked at the historic Yankee Pedlar property as the potential site a future branch roughly three years ago.
‘Looking’ didn’t advance to anything further, though, said Senecal, the bank’s president, because at the time, the efforts to ‘save the Pedlar,’ as the campaign concerning the beloved restaurant and gathering spot came to be called, was ongoing, and hopes to keep that landmark in its long-time role were still somewhat high.
Fast-forward a year or so, after many restauranteurs had looked at the Pedlar and essentially passed on it, deeming it too large and too expensive to maintain as a restaurant — and hopes for keeping the property a restaurant had all but dissolved — the bank was back for another look.
“We thought we could do something special for the city.”
And what it saw was opportunity — and in a number of forms, said Senecal.
First, there was an opportunity to save the most historically significant piece of the property, the home to John Hildreth, “overseer of the making up department of the Farr Alpaca Company,” according to Mass. Historical Commission documents concerning the property and, later, a lawyer, judge, president of Crystal Spring Aqueduct, and “president-clerk” of the institution that would become PeoplesBank.” (Note: Officials at PeoplesBank cannot confirm that Hildreth was president, but they also can’t confirm that he wasn’t).
But there was also an opportunity for the bank to consolidate and modernize two of its branches in Holyoke — one on South Street in the Elmwood neighborhood, and the other at the corner of Hampden and Pleasant Streets in the Highland neighborhood, and create a new state-of-the-art facility.
“As we’ve been remodeling all our other branches, we thought there was no better way to do this in Holyoke than put all this together in one centralized location between those two branches in an historic building that we certainly have the ability and the desire to retain and keep as an historic building,” he explained. “We thought we could do something special for the city.”
Specifically, that something special is preserving the Hildreth House itself — the hip-roof Queen Ann dwelling built in 1885 that was later added on to several times — for use as a community center, while also building a new state-of-the-art, 4,700-square-foot banking center.
Also to be preserved are many pieces of memorabilia from the Pedlar, including a stained glass window originally from the Kenilworth Castle, a historic Holyoke mansion torn down in 1959, wainscoting, and even ‘Chauncy the Butler,’ the wooden figure that greeted visitors to the Pedlar.
The next chapter in the history of the property will begin the Tuesday after Labor Day weekend, said Senecal, with the opening of a property that will blend the old with the new, the nostalgic with the environmentally friendly.
“We’re doing this in the long-term best interests of the community; quite frankly, no one would spend the kind of money we’re spending on refurbishing this and doing this — no one.”
It’s a project Senecal said is in keeping with the bank’s large and visible presence in the community, and also in keeping with its desire to be on the cutting edge of both of emerging banking technology and ‘green’ architecture and building practices.
He chose to categorize the undertaking, which comes with a pricetag he opted not to disclose, as an investment, one he described this way:
“We’re doing this in the long-term best interests of the community; quite frankly, no one would spend the kind of money we’re spending on refurbishing this and doing this — no one,” he said. “We’re going to be here for a long time. Holyoke is our mainstay, it’s our headquarters. It’s our community.
“We’re a mutual bank, and we want to do the right thing for the community,” he went on. “This bank is going to be here for a long time.”
Senecal told BusinessWest that that the bank has long had a pressing need to modernize those branches in the Elmwood and Highland neighborhoods, both nearly a half-century old in his estimation.
And it was with the goal of finding a replacement for the latter that he said he personally drove the length of Northampton Street to scout potential options.
“I went all the way from Hampden Street to Beech Street looking for various properties that might work,” he explained, adding that the Pedlar property was among those considered. He said he was aware that other businesses were looking at the property, located at the well-traveled corner of Northampton St. (Route 5) and Beech Street, but this was at a time when hopes to keep the Pedlar a restaurant were fading but still alive.
As those hopes eventually dissipated, the bank eventually came forward to acquire the property and announce plans for the consolidation of both branches in that area into the new location that, as noted, would blend new construction with renovation of the Hildreth House — it’s ground floor, anyway, into a community center.
“At the time, I was looking at something to replace the Highland location,” said Senecal. “But as I got closer to the South Street location, it made all the sense in the world to consolidate both branches, because the Pedlar was far more centralized than I thought when I set out.”
Beyond geography, the Pedlar site offered a chance, as he said earlier, to modernize banking at the institution’s Holyoke branches, and do so seamlessly.
“If you look at our branches in West Springfield, Westfield, East Longmeadow, and Sixteen Acres, those branches were built 10-15 years ago — they’re pretty modern and up-to-date,” he explained. “Our brand in Holyoke is extremely dated compared to those. So in order to get existing branches up to our current brand, you’d have to gut the branch, and if you gut the branch, you can’t operate the branch. This provides us an opportunity to close on a Saturday and open on a Tuesday, with no customer traffic impact.”
The bank’s plans were initially greeted with some resistance by those behind the ‘save the Pedlar’ initiative, but it waned as it became clear that the bank would not demolish the Hildreth House, the historically significant portion of the property.
“This project provides a statement of who we are in the Holyoke community.”
As Senecal explained, the property is not on the National Register of Historic Places (it is on the state’s list) essentially because of those aforementioned additions, including the so-called Opera House, a banquet room, and the enclosure of a wrap-around porch to expand the restaurant, undertaken in the ’80s.
While the interior of the Hildreth House was gutted to make way for the community room — to be used by area nonprofits free of charge — and other portions of the property were razed or moved, visitors to the new branch will certainly get a taste of, and feel for, the Pedlar when they head inside, said Senecal.
“The final product will incorporate a lot of the significant historic memorabilia from the Pedlar,” he explained, adding quickly that, originally, there were hopes and expectations that more of these items could be on display. However, due to size constraints and functionality issues, the collection won’t be as large as anticipated.
“Chauncy the Butler will be in the lobby, and in the Hildreth House will contain other historic memorabilia,” he went on. “The ‘hunter’ stained glass painting, which used to be in the main restaurant portion of the Yankee Pedlar, has been refurbished, and that will hang in the main branch, and the wainscoting from the entrance to the original Pedlar will be in a similar area in the community room, and some of the pictures will hang in the corridor between the branch and the community room.”
Also, a few historic gas lanterns, more than a century old, that were mounted on and around the Yankee Pedlar have been refurbished, he said. They’ve been converted to electric and will be positioned on a patio constructed outside the Hildreth House.
Beyond the historic and nostalgic, however, the new facility will also feature state-of-the-art banking technology, including video-banking machines and cash dispensers, as well as cutting-edge ‘green’ building practices. Indeed, the bank will look to have the project, being undertaken by O’Connell Construction (the general contractor and construction manager) and Western Builders, become LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified.
“This project provides a statement of who we are in the Holyoke community,” said Senecal, summing up the initiative and its many characteristics.
The Bottom Line
Returning to the scouting trip be took down Northampton Street a few years ago, Senecal said there were very few properties that both suitable for what he wanted to do and for sale at the time.
One that fit both categories was an old BayBank Valley branch that he looked at and thought about. But another party beat him to the punch.
“I’m kind of glad they did,” he said, noting, in retrospect, that the site probably was not big enough for what he had planned. And if he had pursued that property, he probably could not have gone ahead with the Pedlar project.
One that, as he said, provided a chance to do something special — for the bank and especially the city.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]